Saturday, February 25, 2023

GRP All-Star Big Band

“A pretty snazzy idea well executed: The label's stars join forces for a set of big-band arrangements of combo-jazz standards. Holding forth swingingly on numbers from the books of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and others are such formidable players as Tom Scott, Lee Ritenour, Gary Burton, Eric Marienthal, Randy Brecker, Arturo Sandoval, Kenny Kirkland, and John Patitucci. A pleasing project with immediate jazz radio sizzle.” - Billboard (May 23, 1992)

By the early nineties, Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen’s GRP Records had become such a force of nature, not only in jazz – by then, a pretty smooth kind of jazz – but in the music industry itself. Indeed, by this point, GRP surprisingly inherited the rights to issue and reissue the imposing Impulse catalog as well. Honestly, whoever expected to see the GRP logo on an an Albert Ayler CD? But it happened.

What was little-known at the time and is hardly recalled to this day – this writer pleads guilty to at least on one count here – is that GRP was always devoted as much to mainstream jazz as to whatever you want to call the music that sold discs at the time. GRP issued well-received discs by the Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington orchestras in the eighties as well as Gerry Mulligan’s Re-Birth of the Cool.

The label also never prohibited its by-then stellar roster of artists to put out the occasional straight-ahead disc. Consider any number of GRP records by Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Lee Ritenour, Tom Scott, Dave Valentin, Eddie Daniels or Arturo Sandoval that swung toward the mainstream.

So, it should have surprised no one when the first GRP All-Star Big Band disc appeared in 1992. Then celebrating its 10th year, GRP had amassed a fairly impressive roster of real jazz talent. Perhaps not since producer Creed Taylor’s CTI All Stars in the seventies and producer/empresario Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic in the fifties had there been a collective this significant in jazz. (There was the Concord All Stars in the eighties, but a group of significantly smaller scale.)

The brainchild of the GRP All-Star Big Band was GRP co-founder and long-time engineer Larry Rosen (1940-2015), who got his start playing drums in Marshall Brown’s Newport Youth Band in the late fifties. That band also included teenage pianist Michael Abene (b. 1942).

Both would go on to other roles in music: Rosen (the “R” of GRP) would team with Dave Grusin to form a production company and, later, GRP Records while Abene went on to arrange for a variety of jazz and pop artists including Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, Liza Minelli, Larry Elgart and the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. But both their hearts were rooted deeply with the big bands.

Abene has since gone on to lead the tremendous and highly well-regarded German-based WDR Big Band, where he’s helmed discs with Patti Austin - whom he worked with at CTI in the seventies – Joe Lovano, Paquito D’Rivera, Ali Ryerson, Biréli Lagréne, Bill Evans, Steps Ahead, Steve Gadd and a few of the most exciting Maceo Parker recordings ever waxed.

Rosen asked Abene, who had previously worked on several previous GRP discs, to craft a program of big-band tunes for the GRP roster of recording artists. The goal was not to cover the golden age big-band staples but rather take jazz classics of the fifties and sixties and present them in a big-band format. Or, as the note in the second disc puts it so nicely: “The big band is where jazz songs want to go when they grow up.”

The pair selected tracks they wanted to record and “assigned” songs to arrangers including Tom Scott, Russell Ferrante, Bob Mintzer, Vince Mendoza, Dave Grusin and Abene himself. Then they contracted the musicians and scheduled sessions. Remarkably, then, they assembled a stellar cast of leaders and GRP session players to craft a straight-ahead approach to jazz that was more idealistic and appreciative than commercial at the time.

It’s hard to believe this music came out some three decades ago. It’s hard for me to fathom that it took this long for me to catch up with these discs. From a distance of thirty some years, these discs not only merit renewed attention but manage to exceed all expectation. Honestly, I was imagining a nineties-era fusion take on jazz standards. That’s not at all the case here.

The GRP All-Star Big Band put out three discs between 1992 and 1995, the first two of which were also issued on video in the VHS and Laserdisc formats.

The star power here is fairly dazzling: GRP leaders in their own right include pianist Dave Grusin; trumpeters Randy Brecker and Arturo Sandoval; saxophonists Tom Scott, Eric Marienthal and Nelson Rangell; bassist John Patitucci; drummer Dave Weckl; and the Yellowjackets’ Russell Ferrante and Bob Mintzer (who was helming his own big band at the time). Frequent GRP session players like George Bohannon on trombone, Ernie Watts on saxophones and Alex Acuña on percussion factor on all three discs.

The three discs, particularly the first one, likely sold well. But I wonder whether the folks who bought any of these discs knew what they were getting? I didn’t, which is why I avoided them at the time. And you could find plenty of these discs at second-hand stores back in the day for about a buck a piece. I figure many people were not happy with what they got. They’re pretty easy to find to this day.

Each one of the three of the GRP All-Star Big Band discs were nominated for a Grammy Award, while the last of the three, All Blues, won for Best Large Ensemble Performance. Michael Abene himself was nominated for Best Instrumental Arrangement on each one of the series’ three discs with “Airegin” (1992), “Oleo” (1993) and “Cookin’ at the Continental” (1995) while Tom Scott was nominated for “Stormy Monday Blues” (1995).

GRP All-Star Big Band (1992)

Sonny Rollins’ ”Airegin” serves as the GRP All-Star Big Band’s opening salvo. No one familiar with GRP at the time was likely expecting anything like this: an acoustic killer that swings ferociously. Michael Abene serves up a magnificent arrangement that has real grit and stamina. While he had previously, although very differently, arranged “Airegin” for Maynard Ferguson (in 1964 and 1977), this “Airegin” is a real knockout.

The dueling horns of Ernie Watts (on tenor) and Tom Scott (on alto) are reminiscent of those old “Jazz at the Philharmonic” jams, but considerably more congenial and much more enjoyably compacted. That cordiality is striking: these leaders never let their egos get in the way. Their music is in service of the band – just as it was in those great big bands of yore.

But “Airegin” is just the beginning. Abene really shines on Horace Silver’s 1959 jazz standard “Sister Sadie” (recall, too, that Silver was pianist on the original “Airegin”), letting George Bohannon’s growling trombone positively dance with Eric Marienthal’s barking alto.

The Tom Scott-arranged “Blue Train” nicely updates John Coltrane’s 1957 classic with solos by Nelson Rangell (on alto sax), George Bohannon (doing his Curtis Fuller part), Bob Mintzer (on tenor sax) and Russell Ferante (on piano) soloing.

Wayne Shorter’s jazz standard “Footprints,” (1966), arranged by Yellowjacket Bob Mintzer, benefits mightily by pianist David Benoit and guitarist Lee Ritenour. Trumpeter Sal Marquez suggests what Freddie Hubbard might have contributed to this track had he been included (he wasn’t). Ritenour is absolutely joyous here.

Mintzer’s magnificently arranged “Manteca” is derived from the 1947 Afro Cuban jazz standard by Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller. Flautist Dave Valentin – who previously recorded a fiery version of the song with Jorge Dalto in 1984 – tackles one of the leads here. Trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Randy Brecker are all in for dueling solos while Kenny Kirkland wows on piano and both Dave Weckl and Alex Acuña power up the percussion beyond anything Dizzy could have envisioned. (Mintzer even nicely quotes Kool and the Gang’s “Let’s Go Dancing [Ooh La La]” here.)

Dave Grusin’s elegant yet Grusin-y arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s standard “Maiden Voyage” (1965) may not be to all tastes, probably because it is so Gruisin-y. But this listener readily appreciates one great pianist’s take on another great pianist’s work, particularly because of who those players are. Bob Mintzer offers a lovely solo on bass clarinet that nicely tips a hat to Mwandishi/Headhunter Bennie Maupin.

I am also especially impartial to the Vince Mendoza-arranged “Round Midnight,” Thelonious Monk’s 1943 jazz standard. It begins in a mode that Gary McFarland (who Abene worked with briefly in the late sixties) then offers up lovely solos by Ernie Watts, Gary Burton (who also worked with McFarland) and (briefly) Dave Grusin, all in midnight mode.

Others are likely to find favorites here I haven’t mentioned. It’s really that appealing. Much to my surprise, there is much to enjoy here, particularly upon repeated listens.

Zan Stewart’s surprisingly extensive liner notes are interesting and informative. But this is the only one of the big band discs featuring the GRP all-stars Lee Ritenour (who solos on “Footprints” and “Spain”), Kenny Kirkland (“Sister Sadie,” “Manteca”), Dave Valentin (“Manteca,” “Spain”) and Sal Marquez (“Seven Steps to Heaven,” “Footprints”).

While the GRP All-Star Big Band’s eponymous debut may not be the most ambitious of collective’s three discs, it is surely the best.

Dave Grusin Presents GRP All-Star Big Band Live! (1993)

One year after its eponymous debut, the GRP All-Star Big Band was invited to mount a seven-city tour of Japan. The concerts were intended to promote Panasonic’s Digital Compact Cassettes (DCC), a recently-launched competitor to DATs (both formats soon fizzled out). But it was enough to bring all these leaders together for concert presentations. It’s unclear if the collective ever performed live again but probably unlikely.

Added to the group this time out are Chuck Findley and Byron Stripling on trumpet and then-recent GRP signee Philip Bent on flute. The GRP All-Star Big Band revisits its arrangements of “Manteca,” “Blue Train” and “Sister Sadie” (here adding solos by Gary Burton and Eddie Daniels) from the previous record.

Tom Scott is credited as bandleader while Dave Grusin, who makes a much more forwarded presence here, gets the billing that gives the disc its name: Dave Grusin Presents GRP All-Star Big Band Live!.

The disc opens with Michael Abene’s dazzling arrangement of Sonny Rollins’ 1954 jazz standard “Oleo.” It is an exciting performance – loaded with formidable solos by Eddie Daniels, Gary Burton, Chuck Findley, Eric Marienthal, Dave Grusin, Russell Ferrante and Dave Weckl – that sounds more apt as the set’s closer than its introduction. I would have opened with “Sister Sadie” and closed with “Oleo.”

The highlight for this listener is Grusin’s contemporary-sounding take on “My Man’s Gone Now,” from George Gershwin and DuBose Hayward’s Porgy and Bess (1935). This rendition is pretty much the same arrangement that Grusin performed on his 1991 disc The Gershwin Connection (also with Marienthal, Patitucci and Weckl). But the band is all in here with Randy Brecker and Eric Marienthal delivering terrifically rousing solos.

Also reprised from The Gershwin Connection is the charming piano duet on “S’ Wonderful.” Here, Russell Ferrante swaps seats with Chick Corea from the earlier disc for a pas de deux. The big band sits out – disappointingly. With all the Gershwin heard here, it’s worth noting that “Oleo” is based on the same chord progressions as George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”

Another highlight is surely Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing” – also sounding more contemporary – with compelling solos by Eddie Daniels, Gary Burton and, notably, Dave Weckl. This version is similar to the Daniels/Burton quartet version heard on the pair’s 1992 Benny Rides Again - with an electrifying horn orchestration added by Tom Scott that reminded me of a Michael Small cue riffing off “Sing, Sing, Sing” from the 2001-2002 Nero Wolfe TV series.

Also new to this collection is the arrangement by Gary Lindsay (not “Lindsey” as listed in the disc’s credits) of Ray Noble’s 1938 big band standard “Cherokee.” This version of the song originates on Arturo Sandoval’s 1992 disc I Remember Clifford, where Sandoval overdubbed four trumpet parts. Here, the entire trumpet section – Sandoval, Randy Brecker, Chuck Findley and big-band vet Byron Stripling – get into a friendly battle royale that really wound the audience up.

The audience is Indeed enthusiastic and appreciative throughout, even on the disc’s odd duck: Dave Grusin’s original, “Blues for Howard,” a song I don’t think Grusin had previously recorded and one that hardly rates as big-band fare. Presumably named for guitarist Howard Roberts, this one’s little more than a fairly open-ended quintet piece with horn charts and Tom Scott’s terrific, yet lone solo on the disc.

All Blues (1995)

The third and final GRP All-Star Big Band disc has more than a little different flavor. Now there is a “theme”: the blues and its ever-abstract truth. All-stars Gary Burton and Eddie Daniels are gone. And the new all-stars joining the fold include Ramsey Lewis (on three songs); Chick Corea and Michael Brecker (on two songs) and blues legend B.B. King (on one song). As of this writing, sadly, all four of those have since passed on.

Evidently, the disc started off as a Horace Silver tribute. During the disc’s planning, however, a number of natural-event setbacks convinced all concerned to do an album of...the blues.

These are blues that run the gamut and take in many shades of the genre. It’s a gamut that gamely recognizes anything with “blue” in the title as “the blues.”

The disc opens with Michael Abene’s splendid take on Horace Silver’s fast blues “Cookin’ at the Continental.” The song dates back to a 1959 Silver album called Finger Poppin’ and is named for a club in Brooklyn Silver’s quintet played at. Abene’s arrangement fuels terrific solos by Arturo Sandoval on trumpet and Tom Scott on tenor sax, the former blowing props to Blue Mitchell and the latter swaggering like Junior Cook.

Dave Grusin offers an especially rousing take on Silver’s Latinate standard “Señor Blues” (1956). Something of a hit in its day – and one of Silver’s best-known pieces – this “Señor” offers nods to Nelson Rangell on flute (obviously standing in for Dave Valentine but sounding remarkably here like Hubert Laws), Ramsey Lewis (and not Grusin!) on piano and Arturo Sandoval on trumpet.

(For another striking big-band swing on “Señor Blues,” consider trombonist Urbie Green’s take on the tune, the title track to his 1977 album on CTI, arranged beautifully by David Matthews and featuring the tenor sax of Grover Washington, Jr.)

Another of the disc’s highlights is Dave Grusin’s mesmerizing take on the classic Miles Davis “sketch” “All Blues” (1959). Again, it is fascinating to hear Grusin take on another pianist. In this case, Grusin sits in Bill Evans’ chair, a seat he rarely occupied (Grusin waxed two tracks for a 2002 Japanese set called Portrait of Bill Evans). Solo kudos go to Grusin and Randy Brecker on trumpet, who like Grusin, hardly needs to prove himself to anyone.

John Coltrane’s little-known “Some Other Blues” – originally from the 1961 album Coltrane Jazz - was recorded eight months after the original “All Blues” with the same rhythm section. Tom Scott serves up a lovely arrangement here with solos by Chuck Findley on trumpet, Bob Mintzer on tenor sax and Russell Ferrante on piano.

The appearance of Chick Corea and Michael Brecker here – both of whom were said to be unable to appear on at least the first of the big band’s discs – is likely to appeal to many. But their two features, Corea’s Russell Ferrante-arranged “Blue Miles” (originally on the 1993 Chick Corea Elektric Band II album Paint the World) and the Abene-arranged “Mysterioso/Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” don’t give them much to work with. They’re up to the task but both songs sound out of place here.

Shortly after All Blues was recorded, Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen left GRP. Many of the other GRP all-stars soon followed suit. The feeling of “one last hurrah” hangs over the disc. “I love the way this album sounds,” said Michael Abene in the album’s notes. “It’s got a little hair on it, which I think is cool. I didn’t want this album to be too slick because this is the blues.”

This is, indeed, the blues. But it’s also GRP and slick is what they do best. The “hair” here might be the result. Had the producers stuck to their original vision of dedicating an entire set to Horace Silver – who was in the midst of a “comeback” at the time – they might have come up with a real winner. The two Silver tunes here, in fact, yield gold.

This survey of various kinds of blues comes across as more of a hodge podge that could have used a bit more focus. So, last hurrah or last gasp? Maybe it’s just a way to go out.

All three GRP All-Star Big Band discs were reissued in 1995 on the budget Jazz Heritage label and have occasionally reappeared in Japanese CD reissue campaigns.

Friday, February 17, 2023

The Queen and Mister T: Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine

The music of Shirley Scott is not often heard or talked about much these days. Twenty-one years after her sudden and far-too early March 2002 death, the one-time “queen of the organ” is barely even remembered today, despite Scott being one of the few headlining females in mid-century jazz. She recorded an amazing 50-some albums from the fifties to the seventies and then added more to her discography during the nineties.

Imagine, then, my surprise and joy to hear Kevin Whitehead review the recently-released Cookin’ With Jaws And The Queen, a compilation of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’ 1958 “Cookbook” sets with Shirley Scott, on NPR’s Fresh Air.

In his enthusiastically positive review, Whitehead claimed to prefer those recordings to the many recordings Scott waxed with tenor saxophonist great Stanley Turrentine (1934-2000), to whom she was married from 1960 to 1971.

Great as those Lockjaw records may be – and they are – Shirley Scott’s work with Stanley Turrentine is, to these ears, much more soulful, more engaging, often more striking – not to mention the music she said she preferred to make – and well deserving of considerably more consideration than it has really ever had.

Shirley Scott was born in in 1934 in Philadelphia, which was the birthplace of other such organ greats as Charles Earland, Jimmy McGriff and, of course, the legendary Jimmy Smith. She often accompanied John Coltrane – on piano – before he broke out of Philadelphia, switching to organ when a club owner asked her to. She took to the mighty Hammond B-3 immediately, developing a sound, approach and style that no one else had ever had. It wasn’t rinky-dink or overwhelming: it was airy, thoughtful and even spiritual.

”Ms. Scott emerged in the mid-1950’s,” wrote the New York Times in its obituary of Scott, “with a quick, punchy sound that merged bebop, gospel and the blues. She had a lighter touch than Jimmy Smith, the leading organist in jazz and relied on the blues less heavily than he did.“ That summary leaves out Scott’s mastery of soul-infused jazz and the fact that she coaxed an entirely different sound out of the very same organ Smith played at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio.

Indeed, the great bulk of Shirley Scott’s discography was waxed at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studios – an important part of her particular legacy. She always said that Van Gelder’s organ was her very favorite. And for all the organists who recorded there, no one ever sounded as warm or as vibrant as Shirley Scott had.

Stanley Turrentine and Shirley Scott toured, performed and recorded often during their years together. But they also maintained nominally individual recording careers. Turrentine recorded with the Three Sounds, fellow Pittsburgher Horace Parlan, Oliver Nelson and a series of bracing records with Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner.

Meanwhile Scott made more than her share of notable discs with the Latin Jazz Quintet, Oliver Nelson and Gary McFarland, to name just a few. She eventually earned the title “queen of the organ” (also the name of one of the albums featured here), although she had little competition: only fellow B-3 ladies Gloria Coleman (1931-2010) and Trudy Pitts (1932-2010), also from Philadelphia, even spring to mind. And their records were few and far between.

Not Scott. Shirley was highly prolific, from the mid-fifties through the mid-seventies, when the organ fell out of favor in jazz. Eventually, she went into education and briefly reappeared in the nineties on a series of fine discs that sometimes brought her back into Rudy Van Gelder’s studios.

The records that Shirley Scott waxed with Stanley Turrentine evince a remarkable chemistry. They brought out each other’s natural feel for gospel, the blues and soul. Their mutual love of jazz, if not always the same (Scott seemed to dig the Basie and Ellington bands while Turrentine was into other bands), brought it all together.

Even though Scott had little problem holding court on melody lines on her other recordings, she was perfectly content letting Turrentine carry the tunes on most of their records. But listen to how she backs her husband: it’s no less than a witty conversation; all give and take. It sparkles throughout. Scott is never “the little woman”: she’s a full partner. Then, when she solos, she doesn’t merely grab attention. She commands it.

For the following set, I’ve selected at least one highlight from each of the fourteen records the couple waxed between 1961 and 1968. These are what I believe are the best of the bunch. But there is so much more worth hearing here. Shirley Scott and Stanley Turrentine very rarely made a dud. But what do you expect? This is royalty here.

Hip Soul - Shirley Scott (Prestige – recorded June 1961, released April 1962): The couple’s earliest recording together, with Turrentine billed as “Stan Turner” due to contractual concessions. While Stanley’s originals (“Hip Soul” and “Stanley’s Time”) are nice features for the saxophonist, the pair cooks more meaningfully on this long take of “Out of This World.” Dig Ms. Scott’s fiery yet encyclopedic solo here. Hip Soul is part of the 1998 CD set Legends of Acid Jazz – Shirley Scott.

Dearly Beloved – Stanley Turrentine (Blue Note – recorded June 1961, released February 1962): Recorded just six days after Hip Soul, where Ms. Scott is billed as “Little Miss Cott.” Not very subtle or particularly respectful to 21st Century sensibilities. This album is unusual in Shirley Scott’s discography as there is no bassist on board. She is therefore required to “man” the bass pedals of her Hammond B-3, as she did in many of her live performances. And “man” them she does; she positively dances over those pedals. Consider the little-known Jerome Kern-Johnny Mercer title track, “Dearly Beloved,” which originated in the forties with Fred Astaire in the film You Were Never Lovelier. Hardly the coolest song choice – until Shirley swings in. The album’s opener “Baia” cooks nicely, too.

Hip Twist - Shirley Scott (Prestige – recorded November 1961, released April 1962): At this point, Prestige was putting out about five Shirley Scott albums a year. Surprisingly, Hip Twist was released at about the same time as Hip Soul, but with Stanley Turrentine given credit under his own name here. The album’s typical Turrentine title track and Scott’s “Rippin’ and Runnin” are worth checking out but nowhere near as interesting as the curiously-titled “Violent Blues” heard here. Hip Twist is part of the 1998 CD set Legends of Acid Jazz – Shirley Scott.

The Soul is Willing - Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine (Prestige – recorded January 1963, released August 1963): An album of mostly jazz standards and two blues riffs Turrentine could – and probably did – knock off at will. Both of the Turrentine pieces are of interest but the title track is textbook finery for Stanley and Shirley. The Soul is Willing is part of the 1994 CD Soul Shoutin’.

Never Let Me Go - Stanley Turrentine (Blue Note – recorded Jan.-Feb. 1963, released November 1963): Trumpeter and composer Tommy Turrentine (1928-97) contributed many songs to brother Stanley’s albums over the years. Tommy’s “Sara’s Dance” is the highlight of this 1963 album that Mr. and Mrs. Turrentine waxed for Blue Note. Another highlight here is the addition of Ray Barretto’s congas. The leaders’ co-composed “Major’s Minor” is a fine runner up as well.

A Chip Off the Old Block - Stanley Turrentine (Blue Note – recorded October 1963, released August 1964): This not altogether successful album serves as a tribute to the Count Basie Orchestra and adds the trumpet of Blue Mitchell to the proceedings. Ms. Scott would seem to have more affinity to Basie and his band than either Mitchell or Turrentine. Indeed, her features are among the album’s most interesting. “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” is my favorite tune here, but the performance seems stilted and backgrounds Scott far too much. Perhaps “Midnight Blue” best accomplishes what they set out to do here but it is “Cherry Point” that makes this one worth hearing.

Soul Shoutin’ - Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine (Prestige – recorded October 1963, released July 1964): A significant improvement over A Chip Off the Old Block (this disc was recorded on October 15, a day after and six days before Chip’s two sessions), Soul Shoutin’ is undoubtedly the Turrentine team’s best outing to this point. “Their teamwork is faultless and deeply evocative,” wrote Record World. Billboard additionally enthused that Mr. and Mrs. Turrentine “make beautiful jazz together.”

From Turrentine’s rousing title track to Cole Porter’s closer “In the Still of the Night,“ everything here simmers, cooks and burns. While Turrentine’s galvanizing gospel groover “Deep Down Soul” is magical, the album’s title track ranks among the pair’s very best performances. This Soul Shoutin’ is also on the CD compilation titled Soul Shoutin’.

Hustlin’ - Stanley Turrentine (Blue Note – recorded January 1964, released May 1965): Perhaps sensing a glut of Scott/Turrentine titles in 1964, Blue Note held this one back for more than a year – when there really was a glut of Scott and Turrentine albums released. This is the first of several Turrentine/Scott records with Ms. Scott’s regular rhythm section of Bob Cranshaw on bass and Otis “Candy” Finch on drums. It’s a well-oiled machine that hums and swings with drive and soulful energy. Taking it up a notch here is guitarist Kenny Burrell, who had previously teamed with Turrentine on “The Incredible Jimmy Smith” classics Back at the Chicken Shack and Midnight Special.

Hustlin’ is a consistently enjoyable set that yields at least two memorable burners: “Trouble No. 2” (“number one” is heard on the earlier Never Let Me Go) – without Burrell – and Scott’s splendidly “airy” blues waltz “Ladyfingers.” Both contain not only imaginative support by Lady B-3 but especially remarkable solos that beautifully bear Ms. Scott’s superb signature. Turrentine’s fine minor blues “The Hustler” is noteworthy – with first-rate solos from Burrell, Scott and Turrentine – but not a stand-out in the saxophonist’s pantheon of blues-drenched swingers of the time.

Blue Flames - Shirley Scott and Stanley Turrentine (Prestige – recorded March 1964, released June 1965): A strangely backwards-looking album, the only real stand-outs here are the two Scott compositions, “The Funky Fox” and “Hips Knees an’ Legs.” Both are low-key “compositions,” but the former is the real stand-out here, yielding to one of Ms. Scott’s amazing gospel-blues solos. Turrentine slays those “Hips.” But…as lovely as Scott is there (and she really is), her “Fox” creeps ahead.

(The Shirley Scott-credited “As it Was” was recorded during these sessions but left off the original LP issue of Blue Flames. While the song eventually appeared on the 1967 Scott compilation Now’s the Time (never issued on CD), “As it Was” was surprisingly not added as a bonus track on the 1995 CD issue of Blue Flames.)

Everybody Loves a Lover - Shirley Scott (Impulse – recorded September 1964, released May 1965): This is an absolutely lovely album that has – amazingly! – never found its way on to CD. Every single piece here is a joy. On three of the album’s very best tracks, guitarists Howard Collins and Barry Galbraith and Latin percussionist Willie Rodriguez are added. Of these, “Little Miss Know It All” makes you wonder how much Brazilian organ player Walter Wanderley borrowed from Ms. Scott. Also, among these, “Blue Bongo,” (without Turrentine) is especially notable. But it is surely Turrentine’s amazingly wonderful Latinate “Shirley” that stands out most of all. Turrentine didn’t often work this groove, but he excels in this then-fashionable and still-riveting tribute to his then-wife.

(The standard “Time After Time” was recorded during these sessions and included on the 1965 LP compilation The Definitive Jazz Scene Volume 3. This track – plus three tracks from Everybody Loves a Lover - were added as “bonus tracks” to the 1992 CD release of Stanley Turrentine’s Let it Go.)

Queen of the Organ - Shirley Scott (Impulse – recorded December 1964, released August 1965): Recorded live at The Front Room club in Newark, New Jersey, Queen of the Organ is likely Shirley Scott’s best-known of all her records. It is, surprisingly, also that rare live album in either leader’s discographies. Curious, though, that Impulse denied Stanley Turrentine equal cover credit. (Perhaps Impulse – or Scott? – was getting back at Blue Note for not giving Scott equal credit on the previously-issued Turrentine/Scott Blue Notes?) The original album featured obscure themes from Broadway musicals and one piece each by Ellington/Strayhorn and Miles Davis. A later reissue added several more tunes (including two worthy blues by the organist) but this live set’s highlight is surely trumpeter Dave Burns’ “Rapid Shave.” The song seems to have been written for this date. It’s a real cooker that lives up to its title. Both Scott and Turrentine burn through this one and the audience enthusiastically cheers them on.

(In 1978, Impulse issued the five tracks from Queen of the Organ with five previously unissued titles from the set as The Great Live Sessions. The 1993 CD release of Queen of the Organ contained all the tracks from the 1978 LP except, for some reason, “Shirley’s Shuffle.” Also, three tracks from Queen of the Organ, including “Rapid Shave,” can be heard on the terribly-curated 1998 “Priceless Jazz” CD compilation Stanley Turrentine/Shirley Scott.)

Let It Go - Stanley Turrentine (Impulse – recorded April 1966, released March 1967): Let it Go was my first taste of Shirley Scott and I still can’t get enough. This may well be the most consistently joyous record Mr. and Mrs. Turrentine ever waxed. Perhaps that’s because it falls somewhere between the rehearsed formalism of Blue Note and the jam-session quality of so many of the Prestige records. And something about the addition of the formidable bassist Ron Carter (with Miles Davis at the time) raises the stakes too. (I contend that Rudy Van Gelder always gave Ron Carter a very special place in the sound mix of any record he was on, particularly the CTI recordings.)

Ms. Scott had already waxed six dates (two with her husband) for Impulse by the time Mr. Turrentine waxed Let it Go, his sole Impulse date. Its opening salvo is the superb title track, a sixteen-bar blues that, if slowed down a bit, immediately suggests Stanley Turrentine’s better-known signature tune, “Sugar.” To these ears, “Let it Go” is, without question, the Queen and Mr. T’s finest moment together. While there is no dud in the bunch here, the saxophonist’s “Good Lookin’ Out” is another winner, with Scott nicely front-lined here too. “Let it Go,” backed with “Good Lookin’ Out,” was also the album’s sole single, one that surprisingly never caught on.

(Five tracks from Let it Go, including both featured here, can be heard on the terribly-curated 1998 “Priceless Jazz” CD compilation Stanley Turrentine/Shirley Scott.)

Common Touch - Stanley Turrentine featuring Shirley Scott (Blue Note – recorded August 1968, released August 1969): Although the Turrentines were always steeped in “soul jazz,” Common Touch veers toward what “soul jazz” was becoming in the late sixties. The funk quotient is upped considerably with Bob Cranshaw on electric bass, drummer Idris Muhammad (fueling Lou Donladson’s similar records of the period) and the addition of guitarist Jimmy Ponder. Indeed, Ponder is part of the front line with the leaders and solos just as often.

While there are no Turrentine originals, trumpeter Dave Burns – whose “Rapid Shave” reigned on Queen of the Organ - contributes three originals. Of these, only the on-and-off funk of “Buster Brown” stands out. Also included is a gorgeous take of “Lonely Avenue” and the first of the couple’s two bluesy takes on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Ms. Scott’s only contribution, the appropriately titled “Boogaloo,” is the album’s most memorable moment. (The generic title was likely a place holder for a song to be titled later as there is no song titled “Boogaloo” among Ms. Scott’s published works.)

There are plenty of signs here – not the least of which is the strangely inscrutable cover photo of the couple – that the times were indeed a-changin’ and neither leader was quite sure where to go with the music…or, possibly, each other.

(An abandoned Turrentine-Scott recording session from May 1968 yielded a cover of Carolyn Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” that was first included on the 1981 Turrentine compilation Ain’t No Way, then later added as a bonus cut to the 1997 CD release of Common Touch.)

Soul Song - Shirley Scott (Atlantic – recorded September-November 1968, released March 1969): The last album collaboration of Shirley Scott and Stanley Turrentine, Soul Song is the first of Shirley Scott’s three albums for Atlantic. This is also the only recording featured here not recorded by Rudy Van Gelder.

Perhaps one of the biggest disappointments, though, is the album’s opener, “Think.” It’s not Aretha Franklin’s hit of the same year (also on Atlantic) but rather Lowman Pauling’s 1957 hit for the “5” Royales, and also a 1960 hit for James Brown (the song had also recently been covered by Booker T and the MG’s). One can only imagine what Scott and Turrentine would have made of the Queen of Soul’s tremendous song.

The outstanding number here is the album’s title track, Shirley Scott’s sole original. Amply guided by Bernard Purdie’s rhythmic driving and, to be fair, Stanley Turrentine’s absolutely spot-on soulful soloing, “Soul Song” is all that and more. This is one that carries this musical and matrimonial union out on a positively high note.

The Queen – or, “The First Lady of the Organ,” as she is unfortunately billed here – went on to pursue a career in academia and occasionally returned to the studios and bandstand later on, while Mister T., of course, went on to greater fame at CTI Records and other labels. Their albums, apart from each other, are already celebrated and well worth cherishing. But their work together is magical and may be their best work ever.

(One title from the Soul Song sessions, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” – without Turrentine – appears on Scott’s next Atlantic album, Shirley Scott and the Soul Saxes. For several reasons, I think this is a beautiful note to go out on.)

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Rediscovery: Tom Scott – “Great Scott!”

Great Scott! was the fifth album composer and multi-reed player Tom Scott released under his own name. He was only 23 years old at the time, yet he’d already spent a good part of the previous decade honing his craft in the studios.

By the time of Great Scott!, Tom Scott had already developed a distinctive sound, particularly on both alto and tenor sax. But it wasn’t until this album that Scott clarified his style and personal approach – one that would guide him through his many successes later in the decade and throughout the remainder of his career.

Released in February 1972, after two albums a piece for the Impulse and Flying Dutchman labels (all produced by Bob Thiele), Great Scott! makes more of a case for Scott as a headliner than any of his previous albums had. Notably, for a change, without any gimmicks.

Even the title – based on an even-then antiquated saying conveying a surprised amazement – makes the claim that Tom Scott had finally arrived.

It is Scott’s only album on Herb Alpert’s A&M label, but it comes on the heels of such A&M productions by Stephan Goldman for Roger Kellaway and Gerry Mulligan, which also featured Scott. All sought crossover appeal that, weirdly, never seemed to happen.

Joining Scott here are fellow studio pros Howard Roberts (whose 1969 album Spinning Wheel prominently featured Scott) on guitar, Mike Wofford on keyboards, Jerry Scheff on bass, Emil Richards on percussion and fellow L.A. Express co-founders Larry Carlton on guitar and John Guerin on drums.

The more composed “Liberation” is conducted by Roger Kellaway and adds Victor Feldman (in whose quartet Scott was often featured) on percussion, Bud Shank and several other wind players as well as Ray Brown on Fender Bass(!).

Six of the album’s eight songs are Scott originals and seamlessly display how the composer excels in various shades of jazz – from the refreshingly catchy stuff he’s well-known for to the moody pieces that ably suit a soundtrack. In that way, Scott aligns with fellow film composers and jazz peers Lalo Schifrin (Scott had recently factored on Schifrin’s Rock Requiem) and, notably, Dave Grusin, both of whom Scott has worked with extensively.

Highlights include the proto-L.A. Express-like “Lookin’ Out for Number Seven” (with Scott on electric sax) – also the album’s only single release – the surprisingly Don Cherry shades of “Mantra” (with Scott overdubbing himself on flutes and vocals) and the breezy California ballad “Malibu,” which finds Scott beautifully transitioning from clarinet to alto sax seemingly without a break.

Scott again shows his affinity here for John Coltrane – he’d earlier covered “Naima” and wrote a piece called “With Respect to John Coltrane” – with a hard blues take on “Dahomey Dance.” Originally from the 1961 album Olé Coltrane, “Dahomey Dance” would be revisited by Scott on the 1974 album Tom Scott and the L.A. Express and again on the 1990 disc Them Changes.

Perhaps the album’s centerpiece is Scott’s genuinely inspired slow-blues take on Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” Mitchell’s tremendous anthem was a 1970 hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – who were actually there – among others. Scott’s cover here was a jazz first for the song.

Scott plays the melody on recorder, which gives the song the haunting touch of an elegy – a side of the song Mitchell’s lyrics hint at: “We are billion-year-old carbon” and especially the verse “And I dreamed I saw the bomber-jet planes/Riding shotgun in the sky/Turning into butterflies/Above our nation.” (The 2017 cover of “Woodstock” on the DeJohnette/Grenadier/Medeski/Scofield disc Hudson is similarly inclined.)

According to a 1974 Rolling Stone article, Joni Mitchell’s sound engineer Henry Lewy had heard Scott’s version of “Woodstock” and asked if he would bring a copy to the studio where they were working on Mitchell’s album For the Roses.

Scott complied and “Joni was knocked out.” She asked Scott if he would play on her album: “I said, ‘Of course, “I’d love to.” The following year, when Scott formed the L.A. Express, the group not only opened for Mitchell but became her back-up band – her first experience performing with a band. Scott would later factor largely on Mitchell’s Court and Spark and Miles of Aisles (both 1974).

Great Scott! seems to have come and gone with surprisingly no critical attention over the years. The album did, however, hit number 20 on Billboard’s Jazz chart and earned Scott his very first Grammy nomination for “Best Improvised Jazz Solo Performance,” which he lost to Gary Burton’s Alone at Last.

The album was reissued in 1982 as an audiophile edition (with a different cover) but, to date, it remains unissued on CD and streaming services. If Great Scott! isn’t necessarily “great Scott” – like many of the records the saxophonist put out between 1974 and 1979 – it certainly is “pretty good Scott” and worthy of a few spins of appreciation.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

The Gary McFarland Quartet featuring Gabor Szabo – Soft Samba Live! Jazz from the Penthouse

Seattle’s famed jazz club the Penthouse, located in the city’s historic – and now trendy – Pioneer Square neighborhood, only operated from 1962 to 1968.

The hotel that housed the club was soon thereafter demolished. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they paved paradise and put up a parking garage. Really! Yet, in that short time, the club witnessed – and even more remarkably, for posterity, taped! – an amazing treasure trove of incredible music.

A 1965 John Coltrane performance – with Pharoah Sanders, Donald Garrett, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones – recorded at the Penthouse, was famously issued (in part) as Live in Seattle in 1971. And most recently, the reluctant-to-revisit-the-past pianist Ahmad Jamal agreed to issue Emerald City Nights, two double-disc volumes of his own remarkable mid-sixties Penthouse performances.

Longtime Seattle DJ Jim Wilke (on KNKX since 1988) recorded some 350 reel-to-reel tapes at the Penthouse in the sixties and has been working with Charlie Puzzo, Jr., the son of Penthouse founder Charlie Puzzo, to get more “Jazz from the Penthouse” out for a whole new generation to experience jazz greats in a whole new setting.

In the summer of 1965, Wilke captured two superbly-performed Penthouse sets by the then-fledgling Gary McFarland Quintet, an East Coast unit featuring such newcomers as Japanese reed player Sadao Watanabe (b. 1933), Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo (1936-82), Puerto Rican bassist Eddie Gomez (b. 1944) and American drummer Joe Cocuzzo (1937-2008).

Even McFarland (1933-71) himself was something of a newcomer. In 1965, McFarland was known as more of an arranger – for Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Anita O’Day – than a leader. And while he had helmed several notable albums of his own, these are records that were probably not well known out West…and maybe not even outside of New York City area.

Although McFarland was new to jazz by only a few years, he immediately felt hemmed in by its limits – and his own lack of reach in the traditional jazz language. He was, after all, a young man in what was by then considered an old man’s game. After the composer’s success with his ballet Reflections in the Park (1964) as well as work outside jazz in TV, jingles and film, McFarland sought to expand his reach.

This led to the birth of Gary McFarland’s Soft Samba, a blend of the Beatles – a real rarity at the time – and bossa nova as well as popular film themes with an easy swing. Nary an original in sight. The songs were shorter and the jazz was minimal, a calculation intended to open opportunities for pop-radio programming.

Soft Samba was released in February 1965 and the critics either hated it or ignored it altogether. In its one-star review DownBeat called it “cheap and trivial” as well as “musical self-pollution” (whatever that means). But the Creed Taylor-produced album found more of an audience than anything McFarland had previously participated in.

Soft Samba, which Verve Records dubbed “the sound for ’65,” afforded McFarland the opportunity to form his first group in the summer of that year and take his genuinely unique brand of music out on the road. During a swing along the West Coast – the quintet also played San Francisco’s Basin Street West around this time – McFarland’s group played two nights at the Penthouse.

Much of the group’s Penthouse performances were initially featured as a bonus CD to the 2014 DVD release of Kristian St. Clair’s documentary film This is Gary McFarland (2006).

For this first-ever vinyl release, St. Clair has astutely pared down the program to feature the concerts’ highlights. As he notes on the record’s inner sleeve, he curated the album as though it were “programmed and released in 1965 at the height of McFarland’s popularity.” It’s a perfect calculation.

Of the six tracks on Soft Samba Live! - nicely mimicking the era’s fondness for imbuing jazz titles with major significance – three come directly from Soft Samba. And one of these, “She Loves You,” appears here for the first time.

Sure, there’s pop here but there’s plenty of jazz. Good jazz, too. The tracks are all longer than the studio originals and the solos – usually by the leader, Watanabe (most often on flute) and, most especially, Szabo – are consistently thoughtful and engaging.

To these ears, Szabo adds a real edge to the proceedings. It’s a positively cohesive quintet and the flute-vibes-guitar combo makes a nice sound, particularly ignited by the interesting work Gomez and Cocuzzo do to power up the engine.

McFarland’s bah-bah vocals are minimal (he does a little whistling on “La vie en rose”) and limited to the melody lines of a few songs. But McFarland & Co. veer away from Soft Samba, too. Indeed, the set opens with McFarland’s enchanting “Caravan”-like “Pecos Pete,” the highlight of McFarland’s 1964 sextet album Point of Departure.

Luiz Bonfá’s “Manha de Carnaval” was previously covered by McFarland as a vibes player on Bob Brookmeyer’s Trombone Jazz Samba (1962) and as arranger, days later, on Stan Getz’s masterful Big Band Bossa Nova.

McFarland’s lovely “Train Samba” – which seems to mirror a bit of Edu Lobo’s “Reza” – was originally written for J.J. Johnson’s 1965 LP J.J.! but became a staple in the quintet’s repertoire. Surprisingly, McFarland never recorded “Train Samba” under his own name, so it’s nice to have it here: It is surely the album’s highlight and spotlight’s Szabo’s finest moment on the record.

In August, McFarland would wax the Soft Samba sequel, The In Sound with Szabo and Watanabe in tow, while the quintet would reconvene for the DownBeat Jazz Festival in Chicago on August 13 and 14 (highlights are said to have been McFarland’s never-released “I’ll Write You a Poem,” here a feature for Szabo, and “Train Samba”).

By September, Szabo hooked up with Charles Lloyd’s quartet but reunited in November with McFarland and Watanabe for the guitarist’s debut studio album Gypsy ‘66 - whose iconic cover, like the genuinely haunting image of McFarland on the cover of Soft Samba Live!, was shot by Fred Seligo (1935-69).

Sadao Watanabe returned home to Japan that November and recorded his own album Sadao Watanabe Plays (1966), which features Watanabe’s flute-led take on “Train Samba,” with the nice addition of Akira Miyazawa’s second flute.

McFarland would reunite with Szabo and Cocuzzo for the McFarland orchestra’s February 6, 1966, Lincoln Center performance (part of which was issued on record as Profiles) and once more in May of that year for the McFarland-Szabo pop project Simpático.

While Gary McFarland and Gabor Szabo would go on to work together for the next several years, that is pretty much the entire history of the Gary McFarland Quintet. To date, Soft Samba Live! remains the sole documentation of the group’s all-too brief existence.

Each member of this group has made their own unique contributions to music over the years. But the sound they make together here at this particular moment in history, however rare, is a beautiful one and one I am particularly thankful to the producers for not only capturing but releasing.

One of McFarland’s earliest albums praised his “remarkable versatility and effortless melodic inventiveness.” That may well sum up Soft Samba Live! better than any other album in Gary McFarland’s divinely – or, depending on your viewpoint, divisively – diverse discography. It all comes together here.