As listeners, we all know what the different musical instruments sound like….or at least we like to think so. Every once in a while though, a player will escape the tonal boundaries of his horn, making it sound like another one, or even like something we’ve never heard before. For example, Lester Young’s tenor saxophone, which seemed to come at the listener as a vapour through an invisible airshaft, sounding more like a French horn than a tenor. Fittingly, many of these sonic chameleons worked with Duke Ellington, who had an endless appetite for unique tone colours and knew how to use them. Like Rex Stewart, who, through an alchemy known only to him involving his valves, lip and diaphragm, could make his cornet sound like a neighing horse, a nagging woman or a severely troubled colon, among other things. Or reed master Otto “Toby” Hardwicke, whose wispy upper register on alto sounded uncannily like a violin. Ben Webster could achieve similar bowed-string effects, in quieter moments making his tenor sound like a viola or cello.
Recently I heard another Ellingtonian turn this trick in arresting fashion, made all the more stunning by the fact that I already knew it was trombonist Lawrence Brown (nicknamed “Deacon” for his dignified, sober mien), as I’d heard this particular small-group date with Johnny Hodges several times before.
What’s actually on a record can’t change – by definition it’s fixed – but how we hear the music can change, circumstances can make us more receptive and force us to listen more attentively, heightening our perceptions. It was like this during the last few days when I was home on the shelf recovering from minor surgery to remove my gall-bladder. Remembering that someone once called music “the healing force of the universe” and realizing that man can’t live by watching World Cup soccer matches alone, the other morning I loaded some favourite discs into the CD player – a Brookmeyer/Zoot, some Flip Phillips, a Bill Harris, the Hodges – and let the music of these masters wash over me. There were various domestic distractions – the phone, playing cards with my wife Anna and so on – so I was only listening with half an ear. But after I spoke with a friend on the phone and hung up, Anna had disappeared upstairs to do some work on her computer and I was suddenly alone with the Hodges record and heard something extraordinary emanating toward me, as if for the first time.
It was Brown, playing the melody to “When Your Lover Has Gone” at a slow tempo, so very soft and high on the cup-muted trombone that it seemed to materialize out of thin air and I thought, “I never noticed a trumpet player on this record before”. For all the world, it sounded like a flugelhorn – Clark Terry maybe – or a muted trumpet, say Buck Clayton. But I know that Brown and Hodges are the only horns on this date and besides, I’ve done a lot of listening and am not that easily shocked anymore, more’s the pity. But this was eerie, it gave me chills. Despite playing so quietly, Brown’s notes had an inner, vibrant glow, they were luminous and phosphorescent, a faint whisper that went straight to the heart.
This focused my ears considerably and he was at it again a few tracks later – only more so – on a very slow “Night and Day”. Playing the melody way up high against double-stopped quarter notes from the bass, Brown was even more ethereal, sounding almost weirdly electronic – like a theremin – but this was being done with lips and air and belly on an age-old, real instrument that’s often the butt of jokes. Hodges played the repeat of the first system, his sound a purring soufflé, then Brown played the bridge and left the earthly plane behind altogether. This section is even higher and he somehow played it even softer, the impact like a small explosion, the power of restraint. The daring and control of his high-wire act were quietly sensational, nobody laughs when the trombone is played this beautifully. I was beginning to feel better already.
It’s always nice to have something you’ve heard affirmed by another pair of ears, it lets you know that it’s not just you. This happened the next night when the marvelous American cornettist Warren Vaché – in town to provide some scarce and much-needed actual jazz in the Toronto jazz festival – came over for an Italian dinner. We were having a high old time hanging and talking, eating and drinking, when the Rabbit/Deacon record came on. Hearing Brown way up on “When Your Lover”, Warren stopped dead in the middle of a sentence, his eyes widening and his head turning, asking “Who the hell is that?” I told him it was Brown and he nodded; he’d thought it was Vic Dickenson, who sounds quite similar to Brown except he rarely ventures this high. Hearing Brown on “Night and Day” a few tracks later, Warren’s jaw literally dropped and he let out an incredulous puff of air – “phewww” – it was a treat to see a brass player react to this magic. Warren repaid the favour the next night when Anna and I went to hear him. His gorgeous sound (delivered sans microphone) and the inventive melodic ideas he effortlessly spun had our mouths constantly agape. I’m no Leonard Feather, but for my money there’s no one playing more artistic straight-up jazz cornet in the world today.
Lawrence Brown’s stratospheric moments are just the tip of the iceberg, the rest of this album is equally exquisite, full of goosebump moments from the two horns and pianist Jimmy Jones, a sort of honorary Ellingtonian. Jones has a mostly chordal conception on the piano and a touch so light that it rounds off the sharp corners of that most mechanical of instruments, making it seem liquid and pliable, stringing little runs and chords together like strands of pearls. The rhythm section is rounded out by two other Ellingtonians – bassist Aaron Bell – solid but supple as always – and drummer Sonny Greer, who plays so sensitively that he’s barely a rumor, his brushes and the occasional cymbal swish a gentle breeze through reeds. They massage thirteen lovely old standards on eleven tracks (there are a couple of two-tune medleys) at tempos ranging from slow ballad to walking ballad. The mood throughout is unwaveringly lyrical and gentle, with melodic playing the entire focus, the volume never approaching anything like a shout. As Warren Vaché said after listening to this, quoting one of Jake Hanna’s favourite slogans, “It’s simple, yet it says it.”
As beautiful as Rabbit and Deacon each sound on their own, the moments when they play together – one playing an obbligato behind the other, or bits of a harmonized melody – are celestial, like they’re playing a feather-light aria from a Mozart opera way up in the clouds. Hodges does a couple of tunes without Brown – “Once In A While” and “Blues Serenade”, a seldom-heard but gorgeous tune by Mitchell Parrish and Frank Signorelli that sounds as though they wrote it for Rabbit. He’s at his most velvety here, caressing and insinuating, even his trademark swooping glissandi are delivered sotto voce. The album has a very relaxed feeling of after-hours casualness, but also shows great preparation and care, with deft little arranging touches likely provided by Jones. Not enough to ruin the music mind you, merely a harmonized bit here and a rubato ending there, just enough to bring some cohesion to key moments. Their version of the heavily recorded “Night and Day” is my new favourite – daringly slow, it’s like hearing the song for the first time again. And they do something very smart with “Lover Come Back To Me” – also playing this very long tune slowly, but in single-metre rather than double – so that two bars are telescoped into one, making it move along even as a ballad. The date closes fittingly with Hoagy Carmichael’s charming “Two Sleepy People” and I’ve never heard it played better.
If this all sounds a little snoozy or innocuous, well, think again. I suppose those who prefer more aggressive, edgy music might describe this as “jazz Muzak”, and even those who like lyrical jazz might think of it as just another “mood” album if they weren’t listening closely. But listening closely is exactly what these players make you do, they draw you in, their energy and intensity lies in the stark and sensitive restraint they show, the powerful softness of the space they create. After luxuriating in this for a few moments you’re hypnotized, realizing that they’re making high art at a whisper. It’s the kind of record you could play for your granny and it would make her remember and smile, it’s also the kind of record that makes hardened, crusty jazz-lifers like Warren and me tear up unabashedly. At the end of the day, Rabbit, Deacon and Co. do what all artists are supposed to – create real beauty out of practically nothing, right in front of you.
I’d gladly mention the name of this record, but I can’t, because it doesn’t have one and never did. It was recorded in 1960 for Verve and lay unreleased in their vaults until Mosaic Records issued it as part of a second set devoted to Hodges in 2000, almost 30 years after his death. In fact, almost half of the music in this six-disc collection of Verve material from 1956-61 is previously unissued, making this set buried treasure for fans of Hodges. Their long interment certainly had nothing to do with their quality, but with timing and business – back then, there was a glut of records by Hodges on the market and Norman Granz was in the process of selling off Verve to M-G-M, so these sessions were lost in the shuffle. The date with Brown and another lengthy one from earlier in 1960 with Ben Webster are classics, among the best of Rabbit’s career and two octet sessions from 1961 are nothing short of very good.
The date with Webster is exceptional and shows the other side of Rabbit, the romping, gutbucket, bluesy side. He does some testifying here, ably abetted by what was Ella Fitzgerald’s rhythm section at the time – Lou Levy on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass and Gus Johnson playing drums. They get down to some serious swinging and it’s mostly on the shoulders of Middlebrooks and Johnson. Wilfred Middlebrooks may have a name like an English noble from a Trollope novel, but plays the bass like anything but, he gets the deep throb on every note, you’d swear he was Ray Brown. And Gus….. well, he attacks the time with that stripped-down, rocking beat as only he and a few others could. This is the kind of record that makes people who aren’t too sure about jazz sit up and listen, thinking, “I don’t know what this is, but it sure does feel good.”
As for Webster and Hodges, they were born to play with one another. The sound they make together is like a sliver of sunlight shafting through the curtains in a darkened room, it illuminates and warms you. The tunes are mostly those catchy, jumping little riff or blues numbers that Hodges seemingly could make up in his sleep, he had a million of them. There’s nothing to these or this music really, but it’s a tricky simplicity. If you hear this kind of music played by musicians who don’t have any feeling or sound or swing – not very likely, I would agree – it sounds awful, like nothing at all. But because these men have all those qualities and more in droves, this simple music sounds like life and death when they play it. That’s their art, they pick you up by the scruff of the neck and deliver you from whatever doldrums you might be mired in to a better, happier place. Hallelujah.
Returning to the Hodges-Brown record, a good title for it might be “Johnny Hodges Plays Songs of Hope & Peace”, or maybe “Music To Have Nice Dreams By”. That these men could create such charming, graceful music seemingly without breaking a sweat fills me with no small wonder.
There’s an old use of the word “zephyr” which means a gentle breeze rather than the jungle animal. P.G. Wodehouse used this older sense when introducing his greatest creation, the immortal and brainy butler Jeeves, who arrives to save the bacon of the lovable but hapless Bertie Wooster, an idle, rich-twit bachelor. Having sacked his previous man for suspected theft, Wooster has been without a valet for at least a day and his life is now a shambles, made worse by suffering from a colossal hangover on the morning of Jeeves’ arrival. The door buzzer rings and, once the woozy Bertie realizes it’s not his alarm clock or the phone, he stumbles to the door and opens it, to see Jeeves “hovering in the threshold like a healing zephyr”.
The music played here by Deacon and Rabbit is like that. Whether you’re recovering from surgery, suffering a nasty hangover or just plain everyday angst, it heals you. That this music was unearthed after 40 years and can be heard today is a great comfort, reassuring us that the barbarians haven’t completely broken through the door yet and that, appearances to the contrary, not all is lost with the world, not just yet.
© 2014 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.