Harold Mabern - Rakin' And Scrapin'

Harold Mabern Rakin’ And Scrapin’ (Prestige 1970)

Heavyweight sideman came of age as a leader in the late 1960’s.

Harold Mabern - Rakin' And Scrapin'

Personnel

Harold Mabern (piano, electric piano), Blue Mitchell (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor saxophone), Bill Lee (bass), Hugh Walker (drums)

Recorded

on December 23, 1969 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as PR7624 in 1970

Track listing

Side A:
Rakin’ And Scrapin’
Such Is Life
Side B:
Aon
I Heard It Through The Grapevine
Valerie


Harold Mabern was born in Memphis, Tennessee, major capital of rhythm and blues and soul, where young Harold, as he reminisces in the liner notes, asked his father for some money, his father with his very modest income replying that he’d try to rake and scrape up some. Hence the title Rakin’ And Scrapin’. Mabern grew up with buddies Booker Little, George Coleman and Frank Strozier. Mabern’s debut album as a leader was From Memphis To New York in 1968. Mabern moved to New York City in 1959 and stayed true to The Big Apple, a stalwart for exactly sixty years, till his passing in 2019 at the age of 83.

New York jazz is heavily indebted to Mabern, exceptional hard-bop and post-bop pianist that played and recorded with Lionel Hampton, J.J. Johnson, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley and Freddie Hubbard, who vigorously and enthusiastically passed on his knowledge to the new breed. Mabern was closely associated with Eric Alexander, Joe Farnsworth, Steve Davis and other contemporary class acts that came up in the early 1990’s. His last recorded efforts were Mabern Plays Coltrane featuring Alexander and Vincent Herring in 2018 and a feature on the late great drummer Jimmy Cobb’s last album This I Dig Of You in 2019. Warriors until the very end.

What you get in the aftermath of Lee Morgan’s surprising hit of The Sidewinder on Blue Note in 1964 is rival companies like Prestige that rely on the skills of their artists to write a promising, catchy tune, in this instance Harold Mabern’s Rakin’ And Scrapin’, lurid boogaloo affair that features vibrant solos from trumpeter Blue Mitchell and tenor saxophonist George Coleman, good company. Rakin’ And Scrapin’ wasn’t a big seller, it was 1969 ok, all across the USA, another year for me and you, another year with nothing to do, as Iggy Pop from The Stooges sang, though, actually, plenty was happenin’, chief among those the Vietnam War crisis, while interest in mainstream jazz dwindled and rock jazz was on the rise. Plenty of people enjoyed funky stuff, provided by musicians that jazzed up James Brown and The Isley Brothers. Competition for Mabern (Lou Donaldson, Lonnie Smith, Eddie Harris, Boogaloo Joe Jones) was fierce.

Who cares, it’s 2022, oh my and a boo-hoo, continuing sagas of crises, and we’re looking back on a charmingly quirky mix of music, which besides Mabern’s boogaloo tune veers between serious post-bop and the electric piano-driven cover of I Heard It Through The Grapevine, which, admittedly, is rather stiff and superficial. Contrary to this, Mabern’s uptempo Aon hits bull’s eye, a sparkling piece that extends the refreshing work of Herbie Hancock and Andrew Hill from the mid-1960’s and features intense piano stylings by Mabern. Torrents of notes, like bountiful drops of water from a fountain. Punchy and dense “McCoy Tyner” chords and voicing. Top-notch stuff.

Mabern’s Such Is Life is no joke either, the kind of original ballad that should be picked up by contemporary jazzers besides perennial favorites as Body And Soul and Darn That Dream. Just a thought.

Listen to the full album on YouTube here.

Chet Baker - Chet Is Back!

Chet Baker Chet Is Back! (RCA 1962)

Chet was back with a vengeance.

Chet Baker - Chet Is Back!

Personnel

Chet Baker (trumpet), Bobby Jaspar (tenor saxophone, flute), Amedeo Tommasi (piano), René Thomas (guitar), Benoit Guersin (bass), Daniel Humair (drums)

Recorded

on January 5-15 at RCA Italiana Studios, Rome

Released

as RCA 10307 in 1962

Track listing

Side A:
Well, You Needn’t
These Foolish Things
Barbados
Star Eyes
Chet
Over The Rainbow
Pent-Up House
Ballata In Forma Di Blues
Blues In The Closet


The man and the myth. Misunderstandings about Chet Baker are ubiquitous. Everything about the hip junkie and hobo oozed jazz. Cool cat, good copy. No shortage of hangers-on that love to share so-called badass experiences with the iconic trumpeter. The portrayal of Baker in Bruce Weber’s documentary Let’s Get Lost features wonderful music but is shamelessly romantic. The saga continues with the Dutch movie My Foolish Heart, a silly movie that is marked by outstanding trumpet playing by Dutch trumpeter Ruud Breuls. Better read Dutch bassist and writer Jeroen de Valk’s Chet Baker; His Life And Music, a close account of Baker’s life and career that debunks many myths, among those the belief that Baker was murdered in his Amsterdam hotel room and the stories that his teeth were kicked out and admirers recorded Baker’s trumpet playing outside the walls of jail in Italy. Plenty of good jazz stories remain once the fairy tales have worn out.

The man and the music. What can I say? Baker’s discography is extensive and getting back into the work of Baker now and then is a joy, picking old favorites and discovering new ones in the process. Inevitably, there are let-downs. Baker, in particularly bad shape in the 1960’s, made his share of mediocre records. Hours of Baker on end leads to a craving for a little variety, in the case of Baker the hunger for spicy hot trumpet. But no mistaking, there’s nothing like Chet Baker’s cushion-soft lyricism, pure gold, pure sunlight, pure melody, pure angels playing doctor in the snow…

Remember what Buddy de Franco reportedly said: “We were all jealous of his talent.”

And Hank Jones: “Chet’s playing affected many people, from the standpoint of its simplicity. (…) His playing was simple – perhaps! But he had complex chords in mind. He may have been dancing all around, but he was conforming exactly to the chord progressions of the tune, or of the tune as he had arranged the chords. It only appeared to be simple. This is probably the best expression of an artist – when the artists can make something appear to be simple. And yet underneath, it was complicated harmonically.” (Gene Lees, Waiting For Dizzy)

If they say so. And him that’s got ears and them that love Chet Baker cherish the man and the music, unless you once started off with his Mariachi Brass LP’s on World Pacific and couldn’t be bothered. So much to explore but time and again I fail to snatch Hazy Hugs from the bins, his record with the Amstel Octet on Timeless in 1985. Baker didn’t bother to take off his bathrobe and change garb for the photo shoot. Night and/or day, who cares. Having lately focused on ‘straight-ahead’ Chet, I naturally gravitated to revisits of And Crew on Pacific Jazz from 1956, a solid record featuring Bobby Timmons and In New York featuring Johnny Griffin and Philly Joe Jones on Riverside from 1958. Riverside’s label boss Orrin Keepnews put Baker in different settings – climaxing with the vibrant and smooth vocal album It Could Happen To You – but also opted for a hard bop album.

In New York is excellent though I feel that something’s missing. Hot trumpet perhaps. Both And Crew and In New York – as well as the excellent bop-inflected Playboys with Art Pepper and Phil Urso – were made in between problematic encounters with the law and jail sentences on drugs charges. In 1959, Baker knew the net was closing in and fled to Europe. During his first sojourn to Europe in 1955, Baker found himself in Paris, jazz-minded capital of France, smoky Bohemian cellar of existentialism, turtleneck-sweatered paradise of croissant and cool. Small wonder they loved Chet Baker over there. The Barclay label fancied the trumpeter and gave him the opportunity to record with fellow traveler and pianist Dick Twardzik. Twardzik tragically died from a heroin overdose in Paris. Their finest cooperation was The Chet Baker Quartet (or Rondette), a record of challenging compositions by Adam Zieff. Lovely record!

Baker was warmly received in Europe but it wasn’t all fun and games. To quote The Grateful Dead: “Trouble ahead, trouble behind, Casey Jones you better watch your speed.” The establishment was keen to bust Baker and the trumpeter finally was arrested and indicted in Italy, serving his sentence in Lucca. Baker finally got out of prison at the tail end of 1961. He recorded Chet Is Back in January 1962, arguably the finest of his bop and hard bop albums, quite amazing considering his circumstances.

The Bakerman was back on track, his sound confident and bright, his solos replete with ideas and impromptu deviations that make clear the trumpeter felt like a fish in the water. Baker’s free-spirited handling of Monk’s melody of Well, You Needn’t, which also features a spontaneous stop-time chorus, and the clarion-call of the high note that ends his solo of Parker’s Barbados are intriguing cases in point. Ever the great ballad man, Baker’s renditions of These Foolish Things and Over The Rainbow abundantly affirm Hank Jones’s theory of Baker’s greatness.

It’s a consistent album, completed by Star Eyes, Rollins’s Pent-Up House, Pettiford’s Blues In The Closet and Tomassi’s Balatta In Forma Di Blues. Baker is matched by his European partners. The pan-European fest features the Belgian guitarist René Thomas, tenor saxophonist and flutist Bobby Jaspar and bassist Benoit Guersin, Italian pianist Amedeo Tommasi and Swiss drummer Daniel Humair. They’re hot, fresh, bubbling with joy and anticipation. That’s what I love about Baker’s cooperation with the crème de la crème of Europe: regardless of excellent American counterparts, this one’s got the edge.

René Was Back as well, the guitarist from Liège had spent a couple of years in the USA and received compliments by cooperators Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. Back in Europe improved his Jimmy Raney-based style. He’s one of a kind, intense, hypnotizing, employing a lilting, gypsy-like tone. The wealth of ideas and blues variations that Thomas displays on Blues In The Closet gets near Planet Parker. The spicy, mature playing of Bobby Jaspar, acclaimed tenorist and flutist that had already been featured on recordings with J.J. Johnson, Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane, is another great asset of Chet Is Back. A great day in Rome.

A couple of years later, Prestige released a series of records that were culled from one session: Smokin’, Groovin’, Comin’ On, Cool Burnin’ and Boppin’ featuring George Coleman and Kirk Lightsey. Omnipresent, lauded albums on jazz fora on the internet highway. But apart from the fact that copying the title word play of Miles Davis’s pioneering hard bop records on Prestige from 1955/56 was not a good idea, I’m not convinced of its so-called excellence. It’s a great band but Baker sounds uninspired and tired.

As straight-ahead jazz goes, Baker’s albums on Steeplechase, recorded live at Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen with guitarist Doug Raney and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen are highlights of his career. Then there’s The Improviser from 1983, Chet Baker firing off bop crackers with a very good Scandinavian band. So much to explore…

George Braith - Laughing Soul

George Braith Laughing Soul (Prestige 1966)

From Blue Note to Prestige: the short career of the enigmatic George Braith.

George Braith - Laughing Soul

Personnel

George Braith (alto & soprano saxophone), Big John Patton (organ), Grant Green (guitar), Eddie Diehl (rhythm guitar), Victor Sproles (bass), Ben Dixon (drums), Richard Landrum (congas)

Recorded

on March 1, 1966 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as PRLP 7474 in 1966

Track listing

Side A:
Hot Sauce
Chop Sticks
Chunky Cheeks
Crenshaw West
Please Let Me Do It
Side B:
Coolodge
With Malice Toward None
Little Flame
Cantelope Woman


In case you may need the accompanying soundtrack to your longing for Spring, dearie blossoms, bouncy squirrels, happy faces in the crowd instead of cold, gusty winds and dark and dreary skies, go to George Braith’s Laughing Soul. Coming season’s perfect pick. It’s juicy, uplifting and applies a variety of contagious rhythms that transforms the most wanted stuffed shirt into Jennifer Lopez’s lean and lanky nephew.

Long life, short recording career. Braith, 83 years old, born in New York City from West-Indian parents, was a sight to see and hear from the start, playing two horns at once just like Roland Kirk. Inventor of instruments like the Braithophone, which was constructed from a straight alto and soprano saxophone, Braith was featured on organist John Patton’s Blue John in 1963 on Blue Note and subsequently recorded two albums as a leader for label boss Alfred Lion: Soul Stream and Extension, featuring ace guitarist Grant Green.

Braith switched to Prestige in 1966. (The only other short burst of recording activity was in 2006/2007, when Braith released two albums on Excellence) Precursing the progressive oddity Musart, it’s Laughing Soul that hits bull’s eye, presenting concise, to-the-point and catchy tunes with the help of a rhythm section that defined soul jazz in the early/mid 1960’s: Grant Green, organist John Patton and drummer Ben Dixon. The band is completed by bassist Victor Sproles Jr., the rhythm guitar of Eddie Diehl and conga of Richard Landrum. The liner notes by the uncompromising Christopher Peters refer to Braith’s stint with Blue Note: “… a few record dates on which his ability to play two or three horns simultaneously became more important then what he played or what he expressed. Something or someone put the perspective out of whack; the means became the end.” Christopher evidently felt no need to branch out and look for another job.

Seriously, all tunes are killer, no filler. Vibrant and upbeat, six compositions are by Braith, two by Dixon, one by Tom McIntosh, the beautiful moody ballad With Malice Toward None. Carribean rhythm is omnipresent, notably pervading the Dixon classic Cantalope Woman, a woman whose main interest probably was the act of strollin’ on a tropical island. Typically unpretentious but nifty, unusual bar length is one of many charms of Dixon’s Latin blues. Braith’s r&b-drenched Please Let Me Do It is a sassy melody that features biting licks by Grant Green. This Gibson’s on fire.

Braith’s tight-knit band sounds joyful and inspired. It hardly matters that the leader isn’t a very strong soloist. There’s Green and Patton for compensation. Furthermore, Patton is uncommonly versatile as accompanist, adding spot-on touches to the repertoire with a variety of sounds like the flute-tone of Cantelope Woman and the churchy organ of Coolodge, an intriguing tune that seals a surprising bond between classical, vertical lines and groove and grease.

From the opening potential jukebox favorite Hot Sauce, hot little numbers as Chop Sticks and Chunky Cheeks (the art of song titles shouldn’t be underestimated) to chitlin’ circuit contender Cantelope Woman, Laughing Soul is a merry affair, bubbling with life, and definitely George Braith’s finest effort.

Laughing Soul is on out-of-print vinyl and released on CD in Japan. Only three tunes are on YouTube. Here’s Crenshaw West.

Cal Massey - Blues To Coltrane

Cal Massey Blues To Coltrane (Candid 1961/87)

Posthumous release doesn’t do justice to the vision and artistry of Cal Massey.

Cal Massey - Blues To Coltrane

Personnel

Cal Massey (trumpet), Hugh Brodie (tenor sax), Julius Watkins (French horn), Patti Bown (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), G.T. Hogan (drums)

Recorded

on January 17, 1961 at Nola Penthouse Sound Studio, New York City

Released

as CS 9029 in 1987

Track listing

Side A:
Blues To Coltrane
What’s Wrong
Bakai
Side B:
These Are Soulful Days
Father And Son


Imagine bassist Jimmy Garrison on his first working day with John Coltrane in late 1961. “By the way, John, I did this record with your old friend Cal Massey back in January, they gonna call it Blues To Coltrane, dig?” What is there to answer when people start honoring you when you have only been present on the planet for about thirty-four years? No telling if Coltrane ever heard the tapes from his pal Cal.

Blues To Coltrane is the only album by trumpeter and composer Cal Massey. I remember, back in the day, that I discovered the records of Lee Morgan, chief among them Leeway which included the wonderful and to my ear pretty immortal melody These Are Soulful Days. It was written by Cal Massey and I remember thinking that this must be a hip musical mind. I soon after enjoyed the killer version by organist Don Patterson.

Cal Massey was a great composer. Massey, from Philadelphia, where Garrison and Coltrane were raised and Morgan was born, led a band in the mid-50s that included McCoy Tyner, Garrison and Albert “Tootie” Heath and occasionally featured Coltrane and Donald Byrd. Having relocated to New York, Massey eventually shunned live performances altogether and focused on work as arranger and composer. Notably, Bakai and Nakatani Suite were recorded by Coltrane. Morgan recorded six tunes by Massey and Archie Shepp (who was from Philly and lured Massey out of hiding and formed a group from 1969 till ’72) no less than nine Massey compositions. Jackie McLean recorded Message From Trane and Charlie Parker put Fiesta on wax as early as 1951.

You know Massey. There’s the tune Cal Massey on Clifford Jordan’s eponymous Glass Bead Games.

Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite from 1970 was recently brought to life by Fred Ho (and Quincy Saul), who has provided most of Massey’s biographical details over the years. It is suggested by Ho that Massey’s affiliation with the militant Black Panthers prevented the release of Blues To Coltrane on Nat Hentoff’s Candid label. This may or may not be true. Massey supported Eldridge Cleaver but also wrote Dr. King, The Peaceful Warrior. It is more likely that Hentoff and Massey were not completely satisfied with the results of their session.

Blues To Coltrane ain’t bad and saying this perhaps says it all. Sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on slightly disappointing listening experiences. Lack of purpose is the best explanation I can give. Besides, another explanation, it’s hard to deny, is a horribly out-of-tune piano, which ruins the playing of the fine female pianist Patti Bown.

The fast rendition of Massey’s classic These Are Soulful Days is not without bite but feels a bit hurried. To be sure, Massey’s tunes are marvelous, excluding the tepid 12 bar blues Blues To Coltrane. Particularly Bakai, What’s Wrong and Father And Son are challenging and varying playgrounds for all concerned and the session’s rabbit in the hat, tenor saxophonist Hugh Brodie, wrestles with them with zest and Coltranesque flair. Garrison and G.T. Hogan form a crisp rhythm section. Massey may seem a bit unfocused at times but plays with a lot of space and a lovely tart tone. He was mentored by Freddie Webster, who tellingly was an example for Miles Davis as well.

Massey himself eventually turned into a notable mentor. He passed away in 1972 at the age of 44.

Freddie Roach - Good Move

Freddie Roach Good Move (Blue Note 1964)

Checkmate: there’s no escaping the dynamic and tasteful organ playing of Freddie Roach.

Freddie Roach - Good Move

Personnel

Freddie Roach (organ), Blue Mitchell (trumpet A2, A4, B1 & B3), Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone (A2, A4, B1 & B3), Eddie Wright (guitar), Clarence Johnston (drums)

Recorded

on November 29 & December 9, 1963 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as BST 84158 in 1964

Track listing

Side A:
It Ain’t Necessarily So
When Malinda Sings
Pastel
Wine, Wine, Wine
Side B:
On Our Way Up
‘T Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way You Do It)
Lots Of Lovely Love
I.Q. Blues


Freddie Roach is remembered primarily by his run of LP’s on Blue Note. It was a fruitful period for the New York City-born organist. His stint of leadership dates in the early and mid-sixties, five in all, was bookended by guest appearances on Ike Quebec records in 1960 and Donald Byrd’s I’m Trying To Get Home in 1965. Jimmy Smith’s popularity was impossible to beat – The Boss had traded Blue Note for Verve in 1963 – but the Afro-American community was enamored by Roach and his singles did well on the jukebox charts, especially Mo’ Greens Please. His albums Down To Earth, Mo’ Greens Please, Good Move, Brown Sugar are perennial favorites.

Pure B3 ‘artiste’, Roach handled his gritty and greasy repertory with care, peppering it with unmistakable gospel feeling while moving his lines with elegance and a canny sense of dynamics. Although Blue Note Roach is the apex of his career, Prestige Roach – he recorded three albums for Bob Weinstock’s label in 1966/67 – is a noteworthy hodgepodge of soul jazz and Latin-tinged jazz, finished off with quirky spiritual desserts. The title of Avatar from The Soul Book speaks volumes.

Attracted to philosophy and esoterica all along, Roach was widely known among colleagues as an intellectual and playwright, even going as far as presenting plays in his garage at home in Newark. In fact, the sleeve of The Soul Book shows Roach holding one of his plays in his hands. He did bit parts in movies and relocated to Los Angeles towards the end of his life, reportedly pursuing a career in theatre. Good move? Well, Roach passed away in California in 1980 at the age of 49. But you only live once and Mr. Roach was the opposite of 9 to 5, living creative life to the full.

Speaking about good moves, Good Move is prime Roach (considering the sleeve, likely prime Roach as a chess player as well), a subtle shift away from the chitlin’ jazz of Mo’ Greens Please and stepping stone to the burned rubber of Brown Sugar. Accompanied by drummer Clarence Johnston, guitarist Eddie Wright and major-league label mates, trumpeter Blue Mitchell and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, Roach is in his element. The tunes flow elegantly, the band keeps a solid groove and there’s a unity of sound and purpose that makes these Blue Note’s Hammond heart food of the highest order, Grandma’s unforgettable apple pie putting the corner bakery to shame.

It is the second appearance of Mobley on an organ record, the first being Jimmy Smith’s A Date With Jimmy Smith Vol 1 & 2, the last being Grant Green’s I Want To Hold Your Hand with Larry Young, great company and why not merging with the hot tamales of the B3, Hank Mobley cooks and his sophisticated lines blend nicely with the artful grease of giants as Smith, Young and Roach, even if they hardly represent a Mobley career high. The other hard bop champion, Blue Mitchell, snappy here as a fox, buoyant and bluesy, was an organ combo regular. He recorded with Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Big John Patton and preceding Good Move flexed his muscles with Brother Jack McDuff on Harold Vick’s Steppin’ Out. Such a great bunch and, eventually, such a sad loss, Mitchell perishing in 1979 at age 49, Roach passing away in 1980 at age 49 and Mobley steppin’ on a rainbow in 1986 at the age of 55, destitute, burned out, sick and tired. But for many decades now living like a torch light in the hearts of jazz fans around the globe.

The beauty is in the approach of Roach, who commands the diverse components of the organ – generally acknowledged as an “awkward” instrument at heart, a beast that’s hard to tame – like a puppeteer, shifting sounds ever so slightly, tapping the pedals and the bass keyboard notes with effortless swing and letting ideas flow with logic. This man’s got class. He loves to swing on the shuffle beat, as is evidenced by Roach originals as On Our Way Up, Lots Of Lovely Love and Wine, Wine, Wine, which alludes as much to the party songs of Wynonie Harris, Floyd Dixon or Smiley Lewis than to the sermons of the preacher at the downtown church. All of them use smashed grapes to great effect one way or the other.

Varied tonal colors mark the jaunty ‘T Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It) and his succinct ballad reading of Erroll Garner’s Pastel. Roach’s workout of It Ain’t Necessarily So moves from waltz to 4/4 and finds Roach at the zenith of his ability to tell a short story. We’re just pawns in his hip and tasteful game.

Joe Alexander - Blue Jubilee

Joe Alexander Blue Jubilee (Jazzland 1960)

Unsung and acclaimed hard boppers meet for thoroughly enjoyable jazz jubilee.

Joe Alexander - Blue Jubilee

Personnel

Joe Alexander (tenor saxophone), John Hunt (trumpet), Bobby Timmons (piano), Sam Jones (bass), Albert Heath (drums)

Recorded

on June 20, 1960 at Bell Sound Studios, New York City

Released

as JLP 923 in 1960

Track listing

Side A:
Blue Jubilee
Brown’s Town
Side B:
I’ll Close My Eyes
Terri’s Blues
Weird Beard


The history of the jubilee goes back to Judaism. Hebrews celebrated liberation from slavery every fifty years. Their concept of the jubilee trickled down to Roman Catholic culture, altered as works of repentance and piety, all the way to religious Afro-Americans who sang songs of emancipation and future happiness. Joe Alexander’s Blue Jubilee, obviously it wouldn’t be red or green or yellow, indirectly refers to the latter practices and its sense of relief and buoyancy is contagious. It’s the only record of the unknown tenor saxophonist from Birmingham, Alabama and a good’n.

And make that two unknowns, since Alexander’s frontline colleague is John Hunt, neither a household name though familiar to diehards as the excellent trumpeter in the Ray Charles band and, a bit later on in the early and mid-1960’s, the group of Charles’s former musical director, saxophonist Hank Crawford. They are supported by Bobby Timmons on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums, success guaranteed. The trio – in 1959 and 1960, hit maker Timmons (Moanin’, This Here) had gone from Art Blakey to Cannonball Adderley and back to Blakey, sharing stages with Sam Jones during his successful Adderley stint) fulfills its promise as a front-rank hard bop outfit, clearly enjoying the carefree, blues-drenched vibe. Blue Jubilee radiates with the pleasure of making good-time music together.

Tenor saxophonist with a hard tone, Joe Alexander reminds of Sonny Stitt, though bop figures are less prominent in his bag. John Hunt is a lively trumpeter, no virtuoso but someone who tells little lilting stories, combining one phrase to another with vocalized bends and slurs that enthuse the listener, likely a positive side effect of having limited time to do your thing in the Ray Charles band. Their ensembles are uplifting and they play sassy up-tempo melodies as Hank Crawford’s Weird Beard and Norris Austin’s Brown’s Town, kept interesting by tight-knit stop time rhythm and typical, sparkling gospel-meets-bop solos of Bobby Timmons. Another one who sounds very good is Albert “Tootie” Heath, whose snare beat accents on the mid-tempo blues tune Blue Jubilee, a succinct game of tension and release, properly activate the soloists. Most of all, and thinking back about other recordings, it seems to be typical, Heath sounds so amazingly crisp and urgent. Give the drummer some.

Then there’s the ballad I’ll Close My Eyes, definitely not a fossilized and predictable ritual and marked by a meaty and energetic solo by Joe Alexander. Alexander’s sole recording is a festivity of joy, catharsis and hope very well-spent.

Julius Watkins Sextet Vol. 2

Julius Watkins Julius Watkins Sextet (Blue Note 1954/55)

Nobody swung on the French horn like Julius Watkins.

Julius Watkins Sextet - Vol 1

Julius Watkins Sextet Vol. 2

Personnel

Julius Watkins (French horn), Frank Foster (tenor saxophone 1-4), Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone (5, 7-9), George Butcher (piano 1, 2 & 4), Duke Jordan (5-9), Perry Lopez (guitar 1-4, 6, 8 & 9), Oscar Pettiford (bass), Kenny Clarke (drums 1-4), Art Blakey (5-9)

Recorded

on August 8, 1954 and March 20, 1955 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey

Released

as BLP 5053 in 1954 and BLP 5064 in 1955

Track listing

Linda Delia
Perpetuation
I Have Known
Leete
Garden Delights
Julie Ann
Sparkling Burgundy
B And B
Jordu


Jazz soloists on the ‘awkward’ French horn are scarcer than the four-leaf clover. The two biggies and pioneers of modern jazz are Julius Watkins and David Amram. Amram came on the scene at the legendary Five Spot Café in The Bowery in New York City in the mid-fifties and at 90-years old looks back on a career as indigenous player and composer in jazz and popular music. Julius Watkins, born in 1921, unfortunately only went as far as 1977. Regardless, the Detroit-born French horn player must’ve looked back with pride. His legacy is impressive.

Need a French horn? Call Julius. He’s omnipresent as soloist and part of big ensembles. To give you an idea, Watkins was associated with Milt Jackson, Oscar Pettiford, Thelonious Monk (Monk, Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins), Donald Byrd, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis (Porgy & Bess), Gil Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Randy Weston, John Coltrane (Africa/Brass), Johnny Griffin, Tadd Dameron, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and McCoy Tyner. Watkins co-led The Jazz Modes with tenor saxophonist Charles Rouse from 1956 till ’59.

Isn’t it wonderful how jazz musicians managed to incorporate such oblique European instruments as French horn? I love the sound of the instrument, bittersweet, silk and satin, like thin air, like the voices of angels that have slept off their wining and dining. The horn is lovely supportive to big ensembles, providing a soft landing for the crackling brass of trumpet and trombone. It was like wax in the hands of Julius Watkins. His fluidity on the instrument was virtually unparalleled. His sound is rich and flexible, varying from cushion-soft reveries to tart calls to arms. You hear those stories about how classical music pros from the big symphonic orchestras were stunned to hear what kind of unbelievable stuff legends like Louis Armstrong coaxed from their instruments and imagine many will have been fascinated by the efforts of Julius Watkins. See what Julius was able to do with the horn in this YouTube excerpt of his hand-muted solo with Quincy Jones in 1960. Fantastic.

Watkins recorded his leadership debut on Blue Note in 1954 and ’55, two 10 inch records that were belatedly repackaged on CD in 1995. At least to my knowledge Blue Note did not re-release the sessions on the new 12 inch format soon afterwards, as it usually did with their 10inch platters like the New Stars New Sounds LP’s. Am I right? Anyway, the sessions consisted of top-notch hard bop with the cream of the crop, the first session featuring tenor saxophonist Frank Foster and drummer Kenny Clarke, the second session featuring Hank Mobley, pianist Duke Jordan and drummer Art Blakey, all of them underlined by bassist Oscar Pettiford. Pleasant surprises are provided by guitarist Perry Lopez and pianist George Butcher.

The highlight of the first session is Linda Delia, which takes us down to Mexico on a beat that’s as lively and fulfilling as the smile of a baby, engendered by Kenny Clarke’s masterful finger strokes and rolls, and includes a brilliant, clattering entrance by Watkins, who sustains the jubilant feeling with a diversity of sunny colors. Guitarist Perry Lopez, a kind of mix between Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Raney throughout the two sessions, is especially cool. All-rounder Frank Foster is another asset of this top-notch BLP 5053 record.

BLP 5064 beats this to the punch, though, Blakey unusually forceful with the brushes, Mobley’s smooth sound blending particularly well with Watkins’s sweet and sour stories, Duke Jordan laying down some of his most urgent and pleasantly bouncy lines of that era. Here, amongst the sultry Garden Delight and an early version of Jordan’s instant classic Jordu, the sprightly boppish Sparkling Burgundy stands out, a title that couldn’t have been more appropriate. This band pops the cork with some bubbly, captured beautifully by the legendary Rudy van Gelder, at that time still working from the living room of his parents in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Killer sleeve of Vol.2 as well.