The Mystery and Grace of JERU

It probably doesn’t speak well for my mental health, but often for no reason I can fathom, I wake up with a particular record deeply embedded in my mind and ears. Almost as though it had been played constantly by jazz elves while I slept, as some kind of weird music-hypnosis therapy. This happened quite early on Saturday morning, when I couldn’t get a Gerry Mulligan record called JERU out of my head even while half asleep. There was nothing for it but to cry uncle, get up, brew some coffee and put the damn thing on. It sounded wonderful as always, so much so that I replayed it several times and decided to write about it.

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On June 30, 1962, Gerry Mulligan recorded an album in New York called JERU that followed a blueprint common for other saxophonists, but was entirely atypical for him: a pick-up blowing date featuring his baritone as the only horn, backed by a conventional piano-bass-drums rhythm section. (Actually, along with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Ben Tucker on bass and Dave Bailey on drums, Alec Dorsey’s conga drums were also used, making it even more unusual for Mulligan.)

This simply was not the way Gerry Mulligan went about making records under his own name. He generally liked to record his own tightly-knit, well-rehearsed bands, playing either his compositions or his arrangements of standards, with at least two horns and no piano [1]. The exceptions were his one-off encounters with other saxophonists – Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges – which were a little more casual and used pianists such as Lou Levy, Jimmy Rowles and Claude Williamson in the rhythm sections. The two records he made with his close friend Paul Desmond were by mutual consent done with just bass and drums and so were more typical of Mulligan [2].

It’s not that Mulligan had anything against the piano – in fact, he liked to play it himself and was quite good. It’s just that, in the words of French critic Andre Hodeir, Mulligan’s “central idea was to highlight a very small number of melodic parts by suppressing all harmonic commentary.” In other words, his music, while entirely tonal, abounded with writing and improvising of a contrapuntal and melodic nature, unfettered by vertical structures such as chords.

Sticklers for accuracy will point out that Mulligan did record as the only horn with a piano-led rhythm section on the 1957 Riverside album MULLIGAN MEETS MONK. This is true, but was an entirely different situation. Again, it was a collaboration, something of a summit-meeting between these two very different musical giants. Essentially, Mulligan was guesting with Monk and his regular rhythm section of Wilbur Ware and Shadow Wilson and trying (not entirely with success) to fit into Monk’s music, which of course heavily featured his piano.

In terms of repertoire, only one of the seven tracks on JERU is a Mulligan original, a simple but effective blues line called “Blueboy”. The other selections, while mostly out-of-the-way songs, are fairly straightforward and with just one horn, didn’t require any heavy arranging beyond some thoughtful organizing touches. Two of them – “Inside Impromptu” and “Capricious” – are originals by pianist/broadcaster Billy Taylor, which is also a little odd. Taylor was a fine musician who wrote some good tunes, but jazz players were not exactly lining up to record his compositions as they were for ones by people like Benny Golson, Gigi Gryce, Horace Silver and others.

The other four selections are show tunes, but only one of these – Cole Porter’s “Get Out of Town” – is played often enough to be called a “standard”. “Lonely Town”, by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is from their celebrated show “On the Town” As such it’s fairly well-known, but very seldom played. The other two – Kurt Weill’s “Here I’ll Stay” and Cy Coleman’s “You’ve Come Home” are both lovely, but usually done only by singers, and even then very rarely. I’ve played hundreds and hundreds of tunes in a career lasting nearly forty years so far, but have yet to play either of these even with singers.

Also, as Joe Goldberg’s liner notes indicate, Mulligan largely gave over direction of this date to his friend and former sideman Dave Bailey, who not only plays drums but is also credited as “Executive Producer”. Bailey felt that Mulligan didn’t feature his baritone playing enough on records and didn’t play enough ballads or reflect the entire range of moods he was capable of. By “ballads”, Bailey meant gentle standards, as the only ballad tempo here is “Lonely Town”. Mulligan’s capitulation to this was unusual, as he was well-known both as a leader and writer for being something of a perfectionist and wanting to be completely in control of any musical project he was involved with, recorded or not.

 JERU was issued in 1963 by Columbia on its “Special Products” adjunct “Jazz Originals”, a French Sony imprint under the direction of Andre Hodeir, even though most of the music it released was American in origin. There is one other slight oddity about this record, having to do with the packaging. The CD reissue faithfully reproduces the front and back cover and liner notes of the original LP, which had a glaring blunder: on both the back cover and the inner sleeve, the track listing is completely out of sequence, almost inconceivable for a label as prominent and well-run as Columbia. This is obvious right away, as the jacket lists the first tune as being “Capricious”, but it’s actually the only really familiar song in the entire program, “Get Out of Town”. In all, five of the seven titles are mixed up and it’s taken me some time to sort out the proper order [3]. Fortunately, I love puzzles and, through reading the liner notes and some educated guesswork, I was able to match the titles with the songs correctly. The biggest challenge was distinguishing between “Here I’ll Stay” and “You’ve Come Home”, as I’d never heard either of them before getting this record. Eventually, I consulted some online sheet music, which confirmed my guesses as right for once.

As mentioned earlier, the designation of Dave Bailey as Executive Producer here is puzzling. Bailey had a well-deserved reputation as one of the very best small-group drummers in jazz and certainly had a history with Mulligan, having played in several of his quartets, sextets, and for a time in his thirteen-piece Concert Jazz Band. Bailey was not the right drummer for that larger group though and was soon replaced by Mel Lewis, but this was done amicably enough that Bailey and Mulligan remained close friends. Even so, Columbia was a big-time label which generally gave the producer’s reins over only to people with a long track record, such as George Avakian, Irving Townsend, Teo Macero or John Hammond. Dave Bailey didn’t quite have that kind of clout. So, while listening to the innumerable musical pleasures of JERU all of these little oddities had me wondering just what gave here.

Some online research revealed a short review of the record by Thomas Conrad for JazzTimes in September of 2005, which solved some of the mystery. As is often the case, there’s a convoluted back-story here with more than meets the eye. It turns out that the record wasn’t recorded for Columbia at all, but was done at the Nola Penthouse Studio in four-and-a-half hours. Mulligan, who was essentially between recording contracts [4], did the album as a favour to his friend Bailey, who owned a startup label called Jazzline. So no wonder he was pulling all the strings. The album never appeared on Jazzline because Columbia bought the master tapes and somewhere amid the confusion of all this, the track listings were jumbled and never corrected. The album has always made great sense musically, but now its incidental oddities do too.

The eloquent music on JERU belies the fact that it was recorded in so little time by a group that had never played together before, and that this was an entirely new modus operandi for Mulligan. In the liner notes, Bailey comments that, “The album could really be called Compatibility, because that’s the one word that best describes it.” He’s right, the music unfolds like a flowing conversation between old friends and that’s the way jazz at its best should be. Flanagan, Tucker and Bailey had played and recorded several times before and form a rhythm section of dancing cohesion. Alec Dorsey deserves special credit here, as his sensitive and varied playing adds an extra layer of depth and security to the rhythmic pocket, without succumbing to the monotony that congas can often bring to a group. The unhackneyed repertoire is refreshing and perfectly varied, with “Here I’ll Stay” and “You’ve Come Home” particularly outstanding and worth the price of the album alone. Above all, Mulligan and Flanagan, two of the most fluently melodic improvisers in jazz, are at the top of their game They sound made for each other, like they’d been playing together for years instead of just this once.

Even when jazz CD reissues were in full swing, this was a hard record to find and when I did finally come across it, I remember it being eye-wateringly expensive. I gladly jumped at buying it for one simple reason – Tommy Flanagan’s on it. Rich people collect Group of Seven paintings or antique cars, I collect records with Tommy Flanagan on them. It’s silly to have a favourite pianist because there are so many great ones, but if someone put a gun to my head and demanded that I name my favourite pianist or else, the answer would be “Tommy Flanagan” [5]. His jewel-like comping, the coiled snaky lines, his delicate-but-flinty touch and pristine sound, his utter command of blues feeling and the song form have provided me with countless hours of listening pleasure and will continue to do so till I die. He is truly the Zen master of jazz piano, all the more impressive because he achieves this so effortlessly. The fact that Flanagan was chosen as the pianist here (whether by Bailey, Mulligan or both) speaks volumes for his quietly sensational playing.

The record begins with “Get Out of Town” at a perfect medium four and the first noticeable thing is the rich presence and blend of Mulligan’s stentorian sound with Ben Tucker’s throbbing bass. As Thomas Conrad mentioned in his review, the engineer is unidentified (my money’s on Val Valentin), but the recorded sound throughout is superb in its up-close clarity and three-dimensional depth, making the music all the more pleasurable.

Next is “Here I’ll Stay” at a slightly faster clip. It’s a gorgeous song written by Kurt Weill in 1948 for the show Love Life, with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. It was first made famous by Jo Stafford and later, Frank Sinatra. It has an unusual forty-bar, A-B-A-C-D structure and the melody is almost entirely diatonic, but the underlying harmony is not. The chord changes go to some interesting and unexpected places, places which seem to inspire Mulligan and Flanagan to some very incisive playing. I often play this track over and over as its five-minute length passes too soon. Indeed the whole album is like that, it’s one of the quickest thirty-five minutes in jazz.

Taylor’s “Inside Impromptu” follows, a loping grinder with a funky feel and changes that suggest “How Come You Do Me Like You Do?”. Mulligan is deliciously abrasive and angular here, but Flanagan takes the honours. This is the kind of tempo and mood he ate for breakfast; his sinuous, insinuating lines are just perfect in this slinky context.

“Blueboy” is next, a medium-fast blues line with Charleston “amen” responses from the rhythm section. Mulligan’s first two choruses are accompanied by a loosely dancing, broken “two” and the inevitable move into four is anticipated by a marvelous, goosing “drop” from Tucker down low, just one of countless such little nuances throughout this record. This spurs Mulligan on to some of his best blues playing and then Tommy enters. All I can say is I could listen to him play the blues like this forever, he’s elegant and soulful all at once, but he always finishes before you want him to, he never obeys my pleas of “Tommy, don’t stop, don’t stop….” Oh well, that’s why God invented the rewind button. After Flanagan, Mulligan re-enters with some spirited riff choruses and Bailey starts chopping wood with a stick on the rim of his snare drum á la Sam Woodyard, giving the track an Ellington feel before they return to the head chorus.

Cy Coleman’s “You’ve Come Home” was a current song when JERU was recorded, from the 1960 musical Wildcat, which starred Lucille Ball. As Goldberg comments in his liner notes, it “seems to strip show tune construction to its basics” and has a beautiful built-in key change. Oddly enough, like “Here I’ll Stay”, it also has a forty-bar, A-B-A-C-D form. Mulligan and company take it at a medium-up clip and it is one of the highlights of the entire record.

The poignant “Lonely Town” is next, and begins at a hushed whisper, Mulligan’s sound just ravishing. It then moves into a sprightly and discreet double-time with beautiful brushes from Bailey, as Dorsey sits this one out. Flanagan recorded this on his 1960 album of Bernstein tunes called LONELY TOWN and takes the first solo, followed by Mulligan. Both of them have the eloquence and delicacy required by this song; it’s one of the more affecting ballad performances I’ve heard, but doesn’t bog down.

The album finishes on an energetic and cheerful note with “Capricious”, a bossa-nova with calypso-style changes which sounds like something Sonny Rollins might have recorded.

So, this gem of a record focuses attention on Mulligan as an improvising baritone saxophonist, an aspect of him that is sometimes overlooked amid all the other hats he wore. Those who aren’t big Mulligan fans might like this record because it’s so atypical of him and those who are fans will like it too, because he still sounds like Gerry Mulligan here, minus all the usual contrapuntal interplay. I’ve always been a great admirer of the complete scope of Mulligan’s musicianship – his composing and arranging, his unique take on group texture, his taste in musicians and his inclusive, sweeping command of the entire jazz tradition – but, while I like his playing, I generally find it less interesting than his writing. His improvising sometimes teeters a little toward blandness, is a little too diatonic and smooth at times. It may be the terrific recording job, the relaxation of just being able to blow on some good songs or the spur provided by this effortlessly swinging rhythm section, but Mulligan’s playing is a different story here altogether. His sound is deeper and crunchier than usual and his lines are longer and more incisive without the interruptions of other horns, he has more edge and bite here.  Mulligan always swung, but, while still lyrical and debonair as ever, he swings a little harder on this record than on most of his others. It’s tempting to wish that Mulligan had made more records like this, but if he had, then they wouldn’t be so “special”, as comedian Margaret Cho might put it.

JERU  is a gently perfect record, full of little details and nuances that repay close and repeated listening. Nobody puts a foot wrong and I wouldn’t change one note or one beat of it; my only criticism is that like most good things, it doesn’t last long enough. That these men were able to achieve such a level of togetherness in so short a time is lasting proof of their artistry and Thomas Conrad’s brief review comments that it “flawlessly swings with a relaxed, throbbing, positive life force”, which is very well put indeed. Reviews of it are generally positive, but some have dismissed it as not essential, because it offers little that’s new. I would disagree in that it certainly was something new for Mulligan, but, putting that aside, I was unaware that essential records must always create something new, whatever that means. And for that matter, one wonders just how often something new can be created. By this lofty standard, I suppose great records like Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, Jimmy Rushing’s The You and Me That Used To Be, Ellington’s The Great Paris Concert and the Vic Dickenson Septets on Vanguard are also not essential, because they don’t really offer anything new either. I always thought the idea of making a good jazz record was to create music that has some truth and beauty in it, that might stand the test of time. The musicians on JERU manage this without breaking a sweat, the record still sounds fresh as a daisy to me every time I hear it, over fifty years after it was made. Dave Bailey chose the word “compatibility” as the best one to describe this record. While I can’t disagree with him, the other word I would choose is “grace” – more than anything, Jeru is a very graceful record.

Notes. [1]. A brief history of Gerry Mulligan and the piano. The pianoless quartet Mulligan formed with Chet Baker made both of them stars, and after this disbanded, Mulligan formed similar foursomes with Bob Brookmeyer and later, Art Farmer as the other horn voice along with bass and drums. In between these quartets he formed a sextet with Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims and various trumpeters (Jon Eardley, Don Ferrara, Farmer) which also eschewed the piano, except when occasionally Mulligan or Brookmeyer would play a tune on it to add percussive variety. When JERU was made, Mulligan’s primary musical outlet was his larger Concert Jazz Band, which made similarly sporadic use of the piano as described above. After this band folded, he formed a sextet with Farmer, Brookmeyer and Jim Hall’s guitar, which was used as much in a linear, melodic capacity as in a chordal one. It was not until later in his career in the 1980s and ’90s that Mulligan regularly made records which featured pianists in the rhythm section, sometimes with other horns and other times just with his baritone.

[2]. Another reason the Mulligan-Desmond records had no pianist was the contract Paul Desmond signed with his employer, pianist-composer Dave Brubeck, which stated that on Desmond’s own records no pianist would be heard in a featured role as long as either man remained alive. This also accounts for Desmond’s use of guitarists Jim Hall and later, Ed Bickert, on his own quartet recordings. Some of Desmond’s later, more commercial records for A&M used piano, but only as a background (i.e. “non-featured”) instrument in larger groups. As far as I know, this arrangement or contract or whatever you want to call it, is unique in the annals of jazz between two musicians, as well as being the height of either egotism or insecurity – maybe both – on Brubeck’s part.

[3]. The incorrect track listing is as follows – 1. Capricious 2. Here I’ll Stay 3. Inside Impromptu 4. You’ve Come Home 5. Get Out of Town 6. Blueboy 7. Lonely Town

It should read: 1. Get Out of Town 2. Here I’ll Stay 3. Inside Impromptu 4. Blueboy 5. You’ve Come Home 6. Lonely Town 7. Capricious.

I still don’t know how why it’s never been corrected.

[4]. Mulligan recorded for a lot of different labels in the 1950s and early ’60s. Early on, he made some albums for Capitol and Prestige/Fantasy, but the bulk of his recordings in the mid-’50s were for either Pacific Jazz or Verve, often during the same period. His sextet mainly recorded for Mainstream or Mercury. It’s a little bewildering, almost as though he didn’t have an exclusive or binding contract with any of these labels. Between 1957 and 1959, he switched to Columbia for a time, with Mullenium and What Is There To Say? Norman Granz provided financial backing for the Concert Jazz Band, so naturally Mulligan switched back to Verve in 1960. By mid-1962, when Jeru was recorded, Granz had withdrawn his funding as he was in the process of selling off Verve, so Mulligan was on the loose.

[5]. I was once discussing pianists with a jazz fan and he asked who my favourite was. After some hemming and hawing, I answered “Tommy Flanagan” and the fan was shocked, wondering with a slightly dismissive sneer how Tommy could be my favourite when there have been so many other “heavier” pianists around – Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, etc. This annoyed me, because when someone asks who your favourite is in any field and you answer honestly, that should be enough. After all, I wasn’t saying I thought Tommy Flanagan was “the best” (whatever that means), simply that he was my favourite, which is entirely personal and not open to discussion. But this guy wanted to argue about it and proceeded to extol these other great pianists for their blazing technique and innovative brilliance and so on, while belittling Flanagan by comparison. This really made me see red and, as I’d also had a few, my answer was fairly short and none too polite. But, strictly in the context of this stupid and unwanted argument and at a less emotional remove, my response might have been more measured, as follows:

Well, okay, I can play this game too. Those other pianists are all great, no question, but they were all leaders and stars for most of their careers, whereas Flanagan was mainly a treasured sideman for much of his. Setting aside the fact that ultimately a pianist’s job – like that of any musician – is to create beauty rather than to dazzle, let’s look at the other side of the ledger for a moment. While Tommy may not quite have scaled the pianistic heights as often as these other giants, neither was he guilty of the excesses and lapses in taste they all occasionally showed.

Later in his career, when Flanagan did become a regular leader and (almost) a star, he never rushed or overplayed, didn’t show off or jam too many chords down soloist’s throats or disrespect other people’s compositions by ignoring their structures. He didn’t saturate the market with an excess of records featuring too many long, nasal bass solos in the cello register. He didn’t suddenly decide he wanted to become a rock star and saddle the world with the sound of the jazz clavinova or other pimpy effects. He didn’t make any records that dated as soon as they came out, featuring leprechauns or pictures of himself in matador get-up on the covers. He didn’t berate his audiences for coughing (while he made epileptic, Jerry Lewis noises himself), or treat the “standard” as something he’d just discovered or invented. In short, he wasn’t as overtly brilliant as these others, but he never did anything silly either. And, while I’m at it, I’ve often heard good pianists do very credible imitations of these other men, but I’ve yet to hear a pianist sound remotely anything like Tommy Flanagan.

Look, I don’t mean to sound negative or take pot-shots, of course I greatly admire all these pianists as the original, essential masters they are, I really do. It’s just that I think Flanagan deserves to be in the conversation about who the great pianists are, that’s all. Chess teachers tell their students to “see the whole board” and, at the end of the day, both for what he did and didn’t play, I’ll take Tommy Flanagan every time, thanks. He spent his whole life making jazz with other people and everything he played was at the service of grace in the music, as on JERU.

© 2014 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “The Mystery and Grace of JERU

  1. I met Dave Bailey (b. 1926) two years ago when we both spoke at Bob Brookmeyer’s memorial at St. Peter’s Church in NYC. He’s a remarkable man. In addition to being a great drummer, he was a pilot. He was one of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II–he enlisted at age 17, as I recall–and later worked as a private pilot for attorney F. Lee Bailey. And for many years, he was the head of Jazzmobile, an educational and concert-producing organization. He’s had a remarkable, multi-faceted life that should be better-known.

  2. Thanks for a great article, Steve. I confess I haven’t listened to Jeru for a long time. But you sent me back with open ears to hear all the subtle joys of this recording. And it is a subtle recording. Easy to listen to for sure, and for that reason perhaps it’s easy to miss the depth and detail. But you’ve brought it all to light for us to enjoy again.
    Have been enjoyed your blog for a few months now. Thanks for so many insightful articles (and your humor!)
    Also I notice you’re playing bass in the Boss Brass Reunion concert on Oct. 18. I have my ticket. Really looking forward to it.

  3. That “Lonely Town” is exquisite–a perfect interpretation of a perfect song. Do you know Sinatra’s recording? It’s on “Where Are You?” (arranged by Gordon Jenkins) and includes a lovely verse that isn’t heard in the “On the Town” score. I assume it was written specifically for the sheet-music version of the song, but don’t know for sure.

    • Thanks for your comment, Terry. Not to seem “scraping”, but I feel like I’ve “hit the big time” by having a writer I admire so much even read one of these things. I do have that Sinatra recording, but I have to admit it’s been a while since I’ve listened to it, long enough that I almost forgot about it. I do remember wondering about that verse and why I’d never heard it anywhere else before; I’ll have to dig that one out again soon.

  4. When I was 12 years old I started playing baritone sax and, shortly thereafter, discovered Gerry Mulligan through my first purchase: Gerry Mulligan’s Tentet. The writing was sophistocated, but still accessible to my young ears. Later I became enamoured with “tougher” players, notably Pepper Adams and Nick Brignola, but I was not yet ready for Adams’s vibratoless tone, and hadn’t yet discovered Brignola (who became my favourite, despite the criticism of others). I began collecting Mulligan albums feverishly (along with Phil Woods and Stan Getz). The sextet and Concert Jazz Band albums were a revelation, more so than the Baker sides, and then there was Jeru. I was particularly taken with “Here I’ll Stay” and “Capricious”. Mulligan actually sounds particularly capricious on that cut. Over the years my palate has broadened considerably but I agree with your assessment of Tommy Flanagan, for what my lowly opinion is worth. He sounds delightful with Jeru, but he also sounded perfect with Pepper Adams, who mas Mulligan’s opposite. I would say that as much as I dig the “hip” players, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones just sounded right with everyone, including each other.
    I now have every note Mulligan ever released commercially. When I was 17, I wrote to every music publisher in the NYC phone directory looking to purchase some of Mulligan’s music because none of it ever appeared in my band directors’ catalogs. About two months later, I received a package from the man himself. It was an original big band chart, not a photocopy, from his 1980 Grammy winning “Walk on the Water” album. I have heard stories of Mulligan’s temper (and overall priggishness) but on that day I felt like a hockey fan having the Stanley Cup delivered to his home. This past summer I played a number of Mulligan’s arrangements from the 50s-80s and I felt like that little kid again, discovering his music all over again. As a player, I lean more toward Brignola, Woods, Mobley, and even some Brecker, but it was a kick to put on my old Mulligan slippers and play that idiom as authentically as I could muster. It was like having a blanket of puppies on me; warm, unthreatening, and comforting. I moved to Toronto after Jeru (and Pepper) had passed. I was honoured to hang with Nick Brignola and Del Dako, both great baritonists who gave Jeru his proper due, even if they didn’t play that way.
    Thanks for an insightful reflection on a great , if not iconic, album by one of the true icons of jazz. Gerry’s generousity toward a pimply teenaged baritone player, 30 years ago, will always make him one of my favourites.

  5. You’ve charged my batteries Steve! I have the Jerry Mulligan Concert Band album but will now go looking for Jeru.
    BTW also in reading one of your other columns you mentioned my favourite big band album..The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess…arr. Bill Potts and all the best studio players in Hollywood. Must get that out again! Cheers… Jack

    • The Jazz Soul of Porgy And Bess is a New York production. BUT, there was a very rare video release of a west coast concert playing those charts, and a small Japanese company released the audio. Not quite the original NY studio version, but very good…

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