Victor Feldman - Part 2: From Cannonball to Russia
“ Victor's vibes 'sing out' with notes that are sustained into overtones, almost doing the impossible by giving the instrument a 'vocal' quality. ”
As to the title of this piece, I thought about calling it "Part 2: The Cannonball Years," but since Victor was with Cannonball for only less than a full year, I thought that might be overstating things a bit. I lived in San Francisco for most of the decade of the 1990s. And it was there on March 4, 1999, a typical, foggy San Francisco late afternoon, that I met with record producer Orrin Keepnews, a hero of mine from my earliest days as a jazz fan.
We got together in one of the city's many restaurants serving Asian food, this one with the innocuous name of "The Beach House," located next to the now defunct Coronet Theater near the corner of Geary and Arguello. Orrin had very kindly consented to be interviewed about Victor Feldman, particularly about Victor's time with Cannonball Adderley's quintet and Victor's association with Riverside Records, which Orrin co- owned with Bill Grauer.
Although the sessions have since become legendary, at the time The Blackhawk gig [with which we closed Part 1] with Shelly Manne's group amounted to a couple of weeks of work for Victor plus some out- of-town expenses. Upon returning to Los Angeles in late September, 1959, Victor had to find work for his trio with Bob Whitlock on bass and John Clauder on drums, who was soon replaced by Colin Bailey.
There was also the matter of what to do about an attractive woman named "Marilyn" (the former Marilyn McGrath, whom he had met during a local gig. Nine months after they met, they married in 1960. As Victor recounted to John Tynan in his June 6, 1963 Downbeat article:
"I decided all of a sudden that I'd like to take her to England. I'd saved some money and we were away for three months. While we were there, I played the Blue Note in Paris and appeared with Kenny Clarke on a Dinah Shore TV special.
"Cannonball had called me about a month before I went back to England. He called me to make a record with Ray Brown, Wes Montgomery, Louis Hayes and himself. (Cannonball Adderley and the Poll Winners, Riverside/Landmark, 1960). While we were in England, I got a cable from him with a definite offer as a pianist-vibraphonist with his group."
Picking up my 1999 interview with Keepnews at the point of the Adderley Poll Winners album, Orrin said that he and Cannonball had decided to use guitarist Wes Montgomery and bassist Ray Brown on the album, which led them to think further about "unusual instrumentation." Although there was some talk about Les McCann, the feeling was that he was primarily a blues player but, more importantly, Cannonball just didn't want to use a pianist. The rest of the conversation went as described by Keepnews in the album's liner notes:
"With all the established musicians (including the regular Adderley drummer, Louis Hayes) living fully up to expectations, the surprise element was provided by the then-unknown Victor Feldman.
"In view of the unconventional feeling of guitar and bass, Cannon had wanted something less routine than just a pianist. West Coast friends recommended a highly skilled young L.A. studio vibraphonist, recently arrived from England; figuring that we only need him for coloration, we took a chance and invited him up [to San Francisco where the album was being recorded by Wally Heider at Fugazi Hall near North Beach.
"At rehearsal, Victor sat down at the piano to demonstrate a couple of his compositions. I can still clearly visualize all of us standing there, open-mouthed and thunderstruck, as we listened to the totally unexpected swinging and funky playing of this very white young Britisher.
"Finally one of us, struck by an apparent facial resemblance, expressed our mutual amazement. 'How can the same man,' I asked, 'look like Leonard Feather and sound like Wynton Kelly?'
"As you will note, two of Feldman's tunes [The Chant and Azul Serape] were inserted into the repertoire; and within just a couple of months he had been hired as the Adderley Quintet's regular pianist."
As was the case at this time, all vibraharpists were quite unfairly cast in the shadow of Milt Jackson, yet Victor's vibes solo on Frank Loesser's "Never Will I Marry" on The Poll Winners is four choruses of the most original vibes playing you're ever likely to hear. Not only that, it doesn't contain one Milt Jackson "lick" or a single repeated phrase.
In the flood of admiration for Milt Jackson's playing as a vibraphonistmost of it deserving but some of it simply fawningby the New York-based Jazz writers, Victor's development of his own, singular approach to playing the instrument was never given the attention it deserved. Victor was always very respectful of Milt and his contributions, but what he plays during the "Never Will I Marry" improvisations are inventions that go well beyond Jackson's sometimes repetitive, blues-inflected phrasing.