I have this odd habit of combining dental appointments with CD shopping. I know it sounds weird, but there’s actually a method to my madness. My favourite record store – Atelier Grigorian – is on Yorkville Ave. just around the corner from my dentist. So after blowing good money on having my teeth cleaned every three months, I wash away the fluoride taste by spending some dough on something I actually enjoy, jazz records. It’s kind of a pain-pleasure principle and I only wish my benefit package covered the CD sprees.
Atelier Grigorian is deceptive, it seems small when you first enter but goes back a fair way then branches out into a wider section with another room. It’s chock full of CDs and has a helpful, friendly staff who really know their music and their records, in fact several of them are musicians themselves. Grigorian is perfect for me because it makes absolutely no concessions to popular taste or current trends – if you’re looking for the latest Justin Timberlake or Beyonce, go elsewhere. Their inventory is about two-thirds classical, with the other third mostly jazz with some interesting folk/world music thrown in. The jazz section is well stocked, longer on quality than quantity and I like the way they have jazz singers in a separate area; which is sensible and makes for easier rummaging.
In the last year or two, CD shopping for me has become like the law of diminishing returns for a couple of reasons. One, as my jazz collection has grown to psychotic proportions I come across things I need less and less often. And two, the jazz sections of record stores keep shrinking as less and less music is being issued on CD. It’s an MP3 download world out there and I’m a disc-eating dinosaur. Despite this, I almost always come across interesting finds at Grigorian; my last visit there in mid-December certainly netted quite a haul.
I found a two-disc set of the Complete Jimmy Rushing on Vanguard which was a no-brainer buy. He’s one of my favourite singers and I’d never had all of his Vanguard stuff, which is among his best. The sidemen include Emmett Berry, Vic Dickenson, Lawrence Brown, Buddy Tate, with Sammy Price or Pete Johnson leading the classic Basie rhythm section of Freddie Greene, Walter Page and Jo Jones.
There was a three-disc set on Solar Records of the Complete Jazz Modes Sessions, which required a little more thought, but not much. The Modes were an obscure hard bop quintet co-led by tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and French hornist Julius Watkins from 1956-59. Their music is probably not for everybody. It helps if you like the French horn (which I do) and Watkins was one of the very best in this challenging and limited field. They indulged in some exotic touches like the occasional use of a guest harpist and the soprano voice of Eileen Gilbert, which I could do without because they veer toward the pretentious. The Modes managed to make five albums before folding, all of them included here – two on Dawn, two for Atlantic and one for Seeco. In terms of star power they were down on the hard bop hierarchy somewhat, well below Miles Davis, Clifford Brown-Max Roach, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, and the Benny Golson-Art Farmer Jazztet – it was a tough room in those days. Still, they made some interesting music, much of it nicely arranged by Watkins and another rewarding aspect of these records is that the wonderful pianist Gildo Mahones is on all of them. All of their records would have fit on two CDs, but Solar did something really smart here: they issued some related but obscure records on the third disc – an Oscar Pettiford 10″ LP called Oscar Rides Again featuring Rouse and Watkins – and both the 10″ LPs Watkins made for Blue Note in 1954-55. I didn’t know about the bonus material till I opened the package at home and it made me doubly glad I bought this set. Solar also did a terrific job of issuing all the original liner notes and cover art in the accompanying booklet.
I also came across a live Henry “Red” Allen session from the mid- ’60s on Columbia called “Feeling Good”, and indeed he was. I love Allen’s playing and fully agree with Don Ellis’s comment that around that time, Allen was “the most avant-garde trumpet player in New York”. This is mostly “feel-good” jazz, nothing too serious or profound but swinging, fun and worth having for Red Allen fans. To me he’s maybe the most under-rated trumpet player in jazz history, people didn’t take him seriously because of his rubbery clown face, his good-natured mien, comic singing and his “womp, womp, womp” count-ins. But he was an extremely original and inventive player with a tremendously powerful sound, sense of swing and a deep feeling for the blues, which the jazz world only started to catch on to in the late ’50s. I would have bought this record just for Allen alone but I also noticed George Reed was on drums. Reed was from upstate New York and played with the Saints and Sinners among a bunch of other people, and he used to turn up sporadically in Toronto for gigs. I had the privilege of getting to play with and know him; he was a sunny, gracious gentleman whose swinging, tasteful drumming rescued several otherwise moribund gigs I found myself on.
I found obscure discs from a couple of favourite tenor players – Teddy Edwards and Clifford Jordan. I’ve always enjoyed the soulful playing of Edwards; without trying to pigeonhole him, he’s kind of a cross between Harold Land and Stanley Turrentine. This Fresh Sounds disc is called “It’s About Time” and like many of their releases combines several sessions never before issued on CD. These ones are from the early ’60s and among other pianists feature Les McCann – or as he’s sometimes called “Less Mechanical” – whom I can generally take or leave. However, Leroy Vinnegar is on bass here and that’s a whole other story, him I always take, never leave. To me he’s unique, at his best he had the most perfect and identifiable quarter-note pulse of any bassist in jazz, without even trying too hard. His walking time is extremely propulsive and forward-moving, yet very relaxed and secure, straight down the middle of the beat. It’s simple, yet a mystery. It chiefly has to do with the length of his notes – long, but with a definite, punctuated beginning and end – combined with his fat, percussive sound, the lines he plays and those little string flips and pull-offs he uses. Nobody like him ever, and he more than makes up for a pretty dismal singer named Gloria Smyth who appears on some of the tracks.
I’ve long been a fan of Clifford Jordan’s intelligent and personal style of bebop saxophone; his unique, dry sound and subtle approach to rhythm. I had the pleasure of playing with him a few times over the years and will always remember the first of these gigs, at the original Underground Railroad soul food restaurant on King Street. He kicked off the afternoon rehearsal/set-up by simply playing Lester Young’s “D.B. Blues” before saying much of anything – I think it was his way of feeling out the rhythm section, seeing what we had. The pianist George McFetridge and I recognized the solo and knew it was a blues with a bridge so we fell in behind him right away while Keith Blackley was still setting up his drums. Jordan had the tempo and every nuance of Lester’s immortal solo down, yet played it as if for the first time, like he was making it up. There was a whole lot of feeling here, it gave me chills, as though the ghost of Pres was in the room. It was eerie but thrilling and I’ll never forget it. I’d never thought of Clifford Jordan as being Pres-influenced, but in his own way he was, he got at the spirit of Lester as much as anybody I’ve heard. The Jordan CD I came across is called “Royal Ballads”, on Criss Cross from the middle ’80s. I snapped it up immediately, having heard it before but not seeing it for years. It’s pretty much as advertised, a Jordan-led quartet of Chicago players including the great Vernel Fournier on drums, playing a program of standards at ballad and medium tempos. What’s not to like?
I was even happier to find two records I’ve wanted for many years, both on Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label – “Jazz At the New School” and “Stacy Still Swings”.
Chiaroscuro in the 1970s was a small, independent New York label operating very intelligently on a shoe-string budget by O’Neal, an ex-C.I.A. operative who literally ran the label single-handedly. It was largely devoted to high quality traditional and mainstream jazz, with artists such as Joe Venuti, Earl Hines, Buck Clayton, Dave McKenna and Ruby Braff among others. O’Neal used the New School for Social Research as a live recording venue several times – for Earl Hines, the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet – and in this case an Eddie Condon-led quintet of cornettist Wild Bill Davison, soprano saxophonist Kenny Davern, pianist Dick Wellstood and drummer Gene Krupa.
When I first got interested in jazz my parents bought me a subscription to Down Beat and I can still remember reading the enthusiastic five-star review “Jazz At the New School” received in 1973; I’ve wanted this record ever since and better late than never. In the distant past there was the term ‘hot music’ for a certain type of largely freewheeling New Orleans-style jazz – Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and the younger Chicago-based musicians they inspired. There were hot records, hot (as opposed to sweet) bands, hot record clubs and societies and so on. Gradually the term faded from use and became obsolete or even corny long before I learned about jazz, but the music on this record is a prime, if almost anachronistic example of what ‘hot jazz’ means, or meant. (Ironically, ‘hot’ has made a comeback amongst the verbally-challenged young, having nothing to do with music but more with sex, as in, “Wow, like, this chick is like, totally hot, dude.” Such a long way we’ve come. My, what progress we’ve made.)
It’s simple, really: there’s something very real, alive, honest and joyous about the music on this record, it’s fiery and direct, like a punch in the face. There’s a rip-roaring, tear-ass sizzle and vivid passion here that was more present in jazz of the ’20s and ’30s, maybe before the music ‘grew up’, for better or worse. People don’t really play jazz like this anymore, in fact few were playing it like this even back in 1972 when this record was made, this is almost a glorious, last gasp of the style. This was literally true for Condon (who doesn’t actually play much guitar on the record but is here mostly as a presence) and Krupa, who would both die the following year.
I suppose some would sniff and dismiss this as just another “Dixieland” record, but really it’s not. There are just the two horns in the front line instead of the usual three and there’s no clarinet, trombone, tuba or bass and no banjo, the back line is just Krupa and Wellstood, who is a rhythm section all on his own. The repertoire has some chestnuts you’d expect, like “Shim-Me Sha-Wabble”, “That Dada Strain”, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” and “China Boy” but also some surprises, like Ellington’s “The Mooche” and standards like “I Want To Be Happy” and “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me”. The stripped-down instrumentation makes for a rare kind of fierce chamber jazz, both intelligent and well… hot.
Wild Bill Davison could always be counted on for this kind of purple, rocket-flare intensity and the younger Kenny Davern matches him here, channelling Sidney Bechet in a truculent, stylish way. Wellstood delivers what you’d expect, he’s a two-fisted freight train of swing, drive and power. The real difference maker here is Gene Krupa though, what a joy to hear him play like this, so late in the game. He was more known for his big band work and flashy drum solos, but I’ve always loved hearing him in small groups. From the Benny Goodman trio and quartet in the ’30s to the excellent trio he had with Charlie Ventura and Marty Napoleon in the ’40s and the fine quartets he led in the ’50s with players like Eddie Shu, Ronnie Ball and Jimmy Gannon, Krupa’s small-group drumming always had a lot of style and class, reminding me of other master swing drummers like Walter Johnson, Alvin Burroughs, Dave Tough, Cliff Leeman, George Wettling and Gus Johnson, but with his own special stamp. He kicks the band along here with great fire and grace, while decorating the music with perfectly placed rimshots, cymbal crashes, press rolls and booting accents, it’s a master class in the dynamics of hot drumming. Mostly it’s his sound, particularly on the snare drum – crisp and popping – nobody else had a snare sound quite like it and kudos to Hank O’Neal for capturing this on record one last time before it was too late. When music is played this well, with this much feeling, categories like Dixieland or modern, swing or bop become irrelevant, they fuse together into a category called “good”, then I buy the record and enjoy it, end of story.
I mentioned Jess Stacy at some length in my last post “Lightning In A Bottle” and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some kind of drooling Jess Stacy freak (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Let’s just say that he’s a minor favourite of mine, I’ve always been a sucker for uniqueness and Stacy is a very distinctive pianist. I’ve wanted to have “Stacy Still Swings” ever since reading Whitney Balliet’s profile of Stacy, “Back From Valhalla”, which deals partly with the making of this record and is conveniently reprinted in the liner notes. It was made in 1974, when Stacy was about 70 and making something of a comeback after a long period of decline which began in the ’40s after his disastrous marriage to singer Lee Wiley ended with him practically bankrupt. He drifted west and into a series of low-profile solo gigs in piano bars and eventually quit playing in public altogether and took a series of jobs away from music, including being a salesman for Max Factor. He continued practicing though and jazz people never quite forgot him, his famous 1938 solo on “Sing, Sing, Sing” at Carnegie Hall made sure of that and by the early ’70s his stock had risen again. His piano playing was featured prominently in the score of the movie “The Great Gatsby” and he was invited to take part in a Carnegie Hall reunion concert at the 1974 Newport Jazz Festival, when he made this record.
It’s a beauty and is best digested in its entirety rather than piecemeal because the sequence of songs function almost like a suite. He plays a selection of old standards, including “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “Lover Man” intermingled with his own tunes, a couple of them blues-based. His style is very full and orchestral like other stride players, but what makes Stacy so unique is his sound, which is bright and jingling, almost shiny. A man named Squirrel Ashcroft, who was a high-ranking C.I.A. official, a good amateur pianist and a lifelong friend of Stacy and other members of the Eddie Condon jazz circle, wrote in the liner notes:
I have played the piano all my life, not well but persistently and with some wonderful people. During all that time I have been puzzled by the fact that this almost Rube Goldberg combination of levers, releases, springs, dampers and pedals could be struck in such a way on its ivory-appliqued wooden “keys” that certain of these people, such as Alfred Cortot, Fats Waller and Jess Stacy could be recognized instantly by their sound clear across the street. Not just their style, such as Bushkin, Joe Sullivan, Hines or James P. Their sound, like Bix or Louis. Several years ago I wrote something about Jess that I think is right and may provide something of a clue, at least in his case: “Jess Stacy has a unique piano vibrato because he has an unusually long middle finger, and he has worked out a flutter in the middle of the octave rather than by a vertical movement of his whole hand on the octave, from the wrist like Earl Hines, or a rocketing sort of action by practically everyone else.” Listen carefully and you can’t miss it; to me, it’s almost a cornet lead.
Stacy always keeps the melody within view while decorating it or playing variations on it, this almost gives the illusion that he isn’t really improvising, but of course he is. The improvising is often in the complex things he surrounds the melody with – walking tenths, interesting bass lines, left hand chords and the ringing tremolos he’s best known for. His playing here is both elegant and earthy, it summons up genteel parlors of the Midwest, but also the Mississippi riverboats he played on as a young man and the speakeasies and whorehouses of Prohibition Chicago. I’ve had this record on several times lately when friends are over for dinner. Inevitably in the middle of a conversation, someone will suddenly stop talking and ask, “Who the hell is this piano player? He’s terrific.” Indeed he is and I’m glad to report that Jess Stacy lived until 1995 and turned 90 before dying, his third marriage was a happy one that lasted 45 years. I just found out there’s a recent biography of him called “Jess Stacy: The Quiet Man of Jazz” which I plan on getting and reading soon.
My happiest find at Grigorian was an Illinois Jacquet set that finally ended an obsessive, Captain Ahab hunt for one specific track, my personal jazz Moby Dick. I’m sure record collectors out there can relate, but before revealing this, some background on this Unholy Grail.
I first worked with the singer Susannah McCorkle in the early 1980s, the first couple of times with the fine New York pianist Ben Aronov. The first occasion was a concert at Minkler Auditorium where she sang a program of tunes sung in the movies by blondes, including Marilyn Monroe. The next time was at a short-lived but elegant club called “Jardin des Artistes” at the corner of King and John Streets. (It’s now a giant Tim Horton’s – again, what progress we’ve made.) She was relatively new on the scene then and was very serious and talented but also diffident and a little muted as a performer. For example, she didn’t use drums in her accompanying bands and was very repertoire-driven, mostly singing obscure standards she’d unearthed from Tin Pan Alley’s past in a hyper-intimate cabaret style.
Fast forward about ten years when I worked with her again at The Senator a couple of times. She was a much different artist, more confident and ambitious, now using drums regularly, in this case my good friend John Sumner. She was more established, had a contract with Concord Records, a regular accompanist in pianist Allen Farnham and her repertoire had branched out to include Brazilian and Latin music, some Gerry Mulligan tunes and some bebop material, all still delivered with her trademark sensitivity.
On this gig she sang a vocalese written by singer King Pleasure when he put words to an Illinois Jacquet tenor saxophone solo on “All Of Me” from the early ’50s. It would have been impossible to imagine her doing this ten years earlier and it just knocked me out, I looked forward more and more to playing it each night. It was partly her rendition, which was letter perfect, but mostly it was the solo itself that got to me. This was entirely new and backwards – usually I would experience something good like this on record first, but I’d never heard this solo or King Pleasure’s vocalese version before and was discovering it by playing it live first. I liked it so much I had to find the Jacquet recording of it, little knowing what a challenge this would prove to be.
Discovering this solo by first hearing it sung, without Jacquet’s huge sound and delivery being present led me to consider both it and Illinois as a player in another light. If I didn’t know better and had been asked whose solo it was, I would have guessed Lester Young for sure. The laid-back but very swinging and elastic phrasing, the blues element, the organic way a line ends with a little phrase then another begins with a variation of the same phrase, the small dramatic pauses and bits of English on certain notes, and above all the ending all reek of Pres to me.
At the time I hadn’t listened that much to Jacquet and most of what I knew about him came from books, which often tend to pigeonhole certain players in a dismissive way. What I’d read about Illinois summarized him as a member of the ‘Texas tenors’ school, a kind of simpler, bluesier and more extroverted offshoot of the big-toned Coleman Hawkins school, seemingly light years removed from Pres. I’d also read him described as a honking, frenetic crowd-pleaser who delighted in playing to the grandstand at JATP concerts by mindlessly shrieking on high notes and so on, so I had no idea he could play as he did on “All Of Me”. It was something of a revelation, to say the least.
John Sumner has had a huge record collection for a long time, so I asked him if he knew what Jacquet record this was on and if he had it. He said it was on one of Jacquet’s Verve albums from the early ’50s and that he had it on vinyl, but it was in storage in Los Angeles, so no soap there. John did make me a cassette of the King Pleasure version so I could at least listen to that and said he didn’t think the Jacquet record had been issued on CD yet, it was still fairly early days for that technology.
It was soon after this that I began collecting jazz CDs in earnest and my timing was good because this was when the big wave of CD reissues started in full swing. I began slowly at first but soon spiraled out of control – having friends like Sumner was no help – and if you don’t believe me, just ask my wife Anna, she’ll tell you. As I found more and more used-CD stores to go along with the legit ones, I always kept an eye out for a Jacquet disc with this cut on it, with no luck.
I did manage to find two King Pleasure CDs with two different versions of this “All Of Me” though. It seemed like there wasn’t a lot of Jacquet stuff out, especially from Verve, whose CD reissuing was desultory and served some artists much better than others. I ordered the Mosaic set of Jacquet sessions from 1945-50, no cigar but some wonderful music. I thought I was in luck twice when I at last found two Verve Jacquet releases. The first was a compilation called “Flying Home – The Best of the Verve Years” with 20 tracks and I thought, surely this cut would be here, but no. Later they issued “The Kid and the Brute” (a session with Illinois and Ben Webster) that was from the right time period and also had a full album called “Jazz By Jacquet”. It was the same story – close, but still no Montecristo, and I was beginning to get discouraged. It wasn’t a total loss though, in the process I was gathering a lot of Jacquet records and becoming a big fan, discovering just how versatile a player he was.
There’s really no pigeonholing Illinois, I can’t think of many jazz artists who can change their sound as much as he did to suit different styles or settings, he’s almost a chameleon. As far back as his famous solo on “Flying Home” with Lionel Hampton, made when he was 19, he had the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” sound – buzzing, beefy and red-hot with a hard, metallic edge. He used this throughout his career when he wanted to raunch out, honk and wail with an organ trio or a big band, which he could do with the best of them. But he could also dial it back to a very warm, velvety sound, he was a marvellous ballad player. When playing standards or in a gentler mood he could affect a kind of medium-smoky sound not unlike Flip Phillips, husky and full but controlled and with a lot of velocity. The blues were never far off in his playing, he was a total master of the idiom and I love to hear him play them, with that soulful ‘wind through the trees’ sound. For someone with such a big tone, he was a surprisingly mobile and agile chord change player and above all he always swung to beat the band. He could also do some weird and surprising things, like recording “Round Midnight” on the bassoon, an instrument he took up late in his career. There’s a lot more to Jacquet than first meets the ear, so to speak, and I still say that apart from his sound, there’s a lot of Lester Young in him. The phrasing and time feel, the spacing and the kind of emotion sometimes present in his playing all remind me of Pres. He certainly loved Lester, stories abound about how kind Illinois was to Pres on the JATP tours, always looking out for the erratic elder statesman when other musicians barely suffered him.
Anyway, about 20 years and 15 Jacquet CDs later, I was beginning to have my doubts as to whether his version of “All Of Me” would ever surface or if it even truly existed. Maybe Susannah McCorkle had been mistaken, maybe it wasn’t a Jacquet solo that King Pleasure had put words to, perhaps it was Pres after all, or Wardell Gray. But no, I have practically everything those two ever recorded and no version of the song by them that matched. I’d about given up hope, putting it down to one of those unsolveable mysteries of life. Finally, I checked some on-line disographies of Jacquet, and he definitely recorded “All Of Me” in 1951, but nobody had bothered to release it on CD yet, damn.
What I came across at Grigorian in December was a two-disc Illinois Jacquet set put out by Avid Jazz, who I’ve mentioned before. The front cover said “Five Classic Albums”, pointing out this was possible on two discs because of some duplication on the original records. It also showed the original covers and I realized I already had four of the five – “Collates”, “The Kid and the Brute”, “Swing’s the Thing” and “Illinois Jacquet Flies Again”, but not “Groovin’ With Jacquet”. I hesitated, not wanting to spend $25.00 on material I mostly had, when suddenly the light went on – hey, wait a minute, maybe…. I flipped it over to look at the back, and sure enough there it was, track nine on disc two – “All Of Me” at 3:01, about the right length. My heart raced, this had to be it, but after so much disappointment and so many dead ends over the years, I was still skeptical. I wasn’t going to let a measly $25.00 stand in the way of ending my search though, so I grabbed this with the others, paid for them and raced home.
I put it on immediately, found track nine and sure enough, this was it. It may seem like a small thing and I’m a grown man for God’s sake, but I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to finally hear Illinois himself play his own solo after so many years. I know there are plenty of solos greater and more historically significant than this in the jazz canon, but I don’t care. This one’s special to me, three minutes of swinging paradise. Even the melody chorus sounds like a jazz solo and to me it’s the way to play this song, mainly because the tempo is so perfect, most people play it too fast. It was also a great treat to hear the wonderful rhythm section on the original of this – Carl Perkins on piano (a big favourite), Oscar Moore on guitar, Red Callender on bass and J.C. Heard on drums. It’s wall-to-wall, four-on-the-floor groove-a-rama throughout, as nobody solos but Illinois. There’s something to be said for this – sometimes, it’s nice when the rhythm guys concentrate on playing rhythm and the soloist solos – call me crazy, but it works.
Here’s the kicker though. I assumed this January 18, 1951 track was from “Groovin’ With Jacquet”, the only one of these records I didn’t already have. But no, it’s actually from “Collates” which was issued by Verve as part of the compilation “Flying Home” except they left “All Of Me” and one other track out. How could they do this, what’s wrong with these assholes? Don’t they know what I’ve been through, how long I’ve been looking? Don’t they know who (I think) I am? Or who I used to be? Why don’t companies like Verve (or Columbia, another major offender) release all the music in their catalogue by an artist like Jacquet – or whoever – in one convenient package? I mean after all, they already own it, so why do they leave it to small outfits like Avid, Lonehill or Fresh Sounds to release this music? It’s not like these fly-by-night European outfits are rolling in dough, but still they have the conviction that this kind of music is important and that enough people will buy it to make it worth their while to issue it in some kind of decent, logical way. Oh well, all’s well that ends well, and Avid once again saved the day, it’s the best 25 bucks I’ve ever spent.
So there you have it, another of many jazz searches put to rest at last. I’m about due for another visit to the tooth-scraper in a couple of weeks though, and naturally there are other quests to be conducted at Grigorian, after making sure my oral cavity is safe again for democracy. Like maybe looking for the Eddie Condon small-group stuff from 1944-46, or Vol. 2 of “Bobby Hackett at the Roosevelt Grill”, which has always eluded me, or………
As my fellow record collectors know, it ain’t about what you already have, it’s about what’s next and the thrill of the hunt.
© 2013 – 2018, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.