Published since 1999
An avid audiophile and music collector, Hovan is a Cleveland-based writer/photographer.
A veteran of the Basie fold for many years, trombonist Al Grey made a wonderful series of albums for the Chicago-based Argo Jazz label, the majority of which are still unavailable as of this writing. Interestingly enough, Grey eschews his swing roots on the majority of these records, preferring to go for a modern and soulful sound that puts shear fun at a premium. Arguably, the best of his lot was 1962’s Snap Your Fingers, which features hard blowing tenor man Billy Mitchell and youngsters Herbie Hancock and Bobby Hutcherson before their breakout period at Blue Note. The studio tracks are all under five minutes a pop and tap a funky vein that’s a pleasure to listen to. The real meat here though lies in the three tracks recorded live at Birdland- “Minor On Top,” “African Lady,” and “Hi Fly.” Mitchell pulls out the stops with his Hawkins-based soloing, Grey blows some gutsy lines of his own, and Hutcherson is a real marvel to hear even at this early stage.
One of the key trombone innovators of the be-bop era, J.J. Johnson’s recordings as a leader while small in number have been relatively hard to track down over the years. While his early Blue Note sides are easily obtainable, his later work for Verve and RCA has been much less widely disseminated. One of his finest works of the ‘60s, J.J.’s Broadway had been long overdue for reissue and it ranks as one of the better albums of show tunes done up in a jazz style thanks to Johnson’s smart arrangements. While the quartet tracks offer Johnson full range to blow at will, it’s the arrangements for trombone choir (Urbie Green, Lou McGarity, Tommy Mitchell, and Paul Faulise) that come off the strongest with some of Johnson’s best writing in the offing. While not as well known as John Coltrane’s iconic version, Johnson’s take on “My Favorite Things” joins the ranks of inspired jazz fare based on the tune’s workable structure.
For this writer, one of the most rewarding musical developments of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was the rediscovery of swing and Dixieland musicians who still had something left to say and were offered the opportunity to say it on record. Thus, men like Red Allen, Bud Freeman, Kid Ory, Rex Stewart, Roy Eldridge, Claude Hopkins, and many others left us some very gratifying albums that updated earlier efforts and could be heard in better-recorded fidelity. One musician who especially transcended decades was Jack Teagarden, both as a masterful bone soloist and a distinctive jazz vocalist. While the bulk of his renowned work is contained in his Capitol and Roulette sides, his final days recording for Verve left us with three very fine albums too. My favorite of these is Mis’ry and the Blues, available once again and featuring his working group of the period with trumpet sensation Don Goldie, clarinetist Henry Cuesta, pianist Don Ewell, bassist Stan Puls, and drummer Barrett Deems. The fare is standard Dixie stuff, but the interpretations are anything but standard. Highlights include a frothy “Basin Street Blues” and T’s melancholy vocal on “I Don’t Want To Miss Mississippi.” This is great stuff that might have been overlooked at the time, but is undoubtedly worthy of rediscovery here and now.
Shifting our focus to trumpeters, we come to the 1955 session Buddy Rich and “Sweets” Edison, a first-rate and swinging effort produced by Norman Granz and featuring a distinctive David Stone Martin cover design. Cut on the West Coast, Rich joins forces with pianist Jimmy Rowles, guitarist Barney Kessel, and bassist John Simmons. While largely a blowing session, there’s inspired work from all hands on basic structures such as Bird’s “Now’s the Time” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” Sweets lets loose with characteristically fine muted work and Rich plays very tastefully, soloing at length to good effect on “Barney’s Bugle.” Nothing all that innovative occurs here and Rich may not always be the lightest of drummers, but this one’s worth it for Edison’s splendid playing.
Lastly, we come to a real rarity among this lot in an early glimpse of South African trumpet man Hugh Masekela. Grrr is a 1965 Mercury date which has very little in the way of identifying information. None of the accompanying musicians are named and Masekela takes the lead throughout. The ten tracks contained within are all in the neighborhood of three to four minutes apiece and the overall sound is in the “highlife” tradition, with bristling and insistent rhythms providing the structure for the jaunty originals. Better and more memorable moments would be just a bit down the road for Masekela, but this set does prove to be an enlightening look at the trumpet man early on.
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