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Cal Massey: Blues to Coltrane (2006)

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Cal Massey: Blues to Coltrane How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

This is the only recording by the luckless, quasi-legendary trumpeter-composer Cal Massey, whose elliptical, often anonymous career can be a challenge to piece together. Some close followers of the music are aware of the late musician, at least by name, because of "These Are Soulful Days," a composition programmed by trumpeter Lee Morgan (Lee-Way, Blue Note, 1960) and subsequently recorded by pianist Benny Green and organists Don Patterson and Joey DeFrancesco. For others, the name registers because of pianist Stanley Cowell's composition "Cal Massey," one of the tracks on saxophonist Clifford Jordan's scintillating and indispensable Glass Bead Games (Harvest Song 1973, 2006).

The present recording appears to have been made in 1961 for Nat Hentoff's Candid Records, when Massey was 32. It was immediately lost and forgotten, then rediscovered and released for the first time, posthumously, in 1987. As for Massey, he died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 43, the night after he had seen the preview performance of Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy, to which he had contributed several songs.

Listening to this new edition is an experience of great ambivalence. The music is as original as it is conventional and accessible. It's as well played as it is occasionally somewhat ragged and amateurish in its construction and execution. Jimmy Garrison's bass on "Blues to Coltrane" gets the proceedings off to a strong, reassuring start, but his resonant sound subsequently gets lost in the audio mix until a second unaccompanied walking bass solo later in the program. Massey's trumpet at times reveals a minimalist quality reminiscent of Miles Davis' seminal Walkin' session (Prestige 1954). Julius Watkins' French horn proves a gratuitous solo instrument, limiting the already brief playing time of the leader. Patti Bown, despite her impressive credits, is on this occasion a "dabbling" pianist (on an out-of-tune piano at that), her feathery touch making it difficult to appreciate her contributions or even to distinguish her comping from her soloing.

The revelation on the date is a tenor player by the name of Hugh Brodie, who sounds closer to John Coltrane than any number of players who have provoked the comparison. In fact, on "These Are Soulful Days," it's likely many listeners would guess Coltrane in a blindfolded heartbeat—he's that close to the legendary tenor giant in terms of his technique, harmonic-melodic conceptions and, above all, intense, gripping sound.

Blues to Coltrane will strike many as a dismissible album, though it's very likely a touchstone to the music and life of Cal Massey—undeniably sad yet intermittently satisfying—delicate, frail, vulnerable yet possessing unmistakable honesty and self-candor (twice during his solos he quotes "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen," and he can be heard scolding himself when he misses a note).

If nothing else, the recording helps keep alive the name "Cal Massey," even if the man himself remains a shadowy and inscrutable figure, forever inviting questions that seem to go to the heart of the jazz life itself.

Track Listing: Blues to Coltrane; What's wrong?; Bakai; These Are Soulful Days; Father and Son.

Personnel: Cal Massey: trumpet; Julius Watkins: French horn; Hugh Brodie: tenor sax; Patti Bown: piano; Jimmy Garrison: bass; G.T. Hogan: drums.

Record Label: Candid Records

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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