Great Sidemen - Great Leaders
Tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse (1924-1988) is always going to be associated with his time spent in Thelonious Monk's 1960s quintet. His tenure was marked by some real highlights in Monk's discography, but he was also criticizedand with some justificationfor staying too long, soldiering on in an outfit that sometimes seemed formulaic...bored, even. Rouse remained in Monk's employ for eleven years, by far the longest musical association in either artists' careers.
Rouse cut some great records both before and after his time with Monk. A number of his later releases feature, in particular, some of his best playing and most distinctive voice. His Sphere quartet, initially conceived as a tribute to Monk, quickly became a vehicle for new composition. Flight Path (Elektra, 1983) has only one Monk song ("Played Twice"), instead featuring music by Rouse and band mates, bassist Buster Williams and pianist Kenny Barron. Rouse's tenor is smooth and understated, delivering well- written melodies and some sophisticated soloing. His sound on this date is, in some ways, reminiscent of Desmond with his focus on restrained delivery over emotional over-blowing. With this outfit, Rouse is clearly performing in a group rather than acting as a leader, with ample spotlight given over to his partners.
But Rouse saved his best for last. On June 6th and 7th, 1988, he entered the Rudy Van Gelder Studio (which mercifully had its piano issues sorted out by this time) with a sextet that included two underappreciated veterans, pianist Walter Davis Jr. and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Sahib Shihab, as well as then-relative newcomer, trumpeter Claudio Roditi. The Resulting Soul Mates (Uptown, 1993) is a fantastic and undervalued set that remains unheard by many jazz fans.
The hallmark of this date is the arranged harmonizing between Shihab's baritone and Rouse's tenor, which adds punch and bottom end weight to almost everything on the disc. Shihab's "DiDa" highlights the two saxophonists' instrumental interplay, with a bouncing two-note call-and-response, before the theme dissolves into a strolling blues. The band covers a lot of ground, including infrequently heard compositions by Elmo Hope, Mal Waldron, and Oscar Pettiford. They play deep blues, swing and bebop with equal aplomb and vigor. They really cook on the opening "November Afternoon," and interpret Monk's battle-worn "Green Chimneys" with one of the most inventive renditions ever cut. Davis, in particular, pays homage to Monk, with a few direct quotes, but expands to include a broader piano language, even as someone in the background sings along, Keith Jarrett style. Ray Bryant's "Prayer Song" possesses a harmonic texture reminiscent of "Abide With Me," from Monk's Monk's Music (Riverside, 1957).
This was the broadest, most creative album Rouse ever recorded in his forty-year career. His soloing demonstrates a creativity and verve that, for whatever reason, was not as prominent on his other recordings, and the arranging takes full advantage of the instruments at hand. The playlist alone is notable for its selections, drawn from deep in the vaults of composition. It's a crying shame this album was a one-off studio date, as this would have been one hell of a working band.
Strangely, the tapes were shelved after the session was completed. Four months after Soul Mates was recorded, Rouse was dead. Sahib Shihab followed the next year, and Davis Jr. just a couple years after that. Sadly, none of them lived to see the album released.
Rouse, Hodges and Desmond are just three of many musicians who made terrific music outside their stints with more famous leaders. There are surely hundreds, if not thousands, of albums out there by great musicians whose primary role was supporting other leader's ensembles. Pay attention to something that stands out on a session a saxophone break on a piano album, or a single instrument soloing over a big band and there's a very good chance that somewhere there is a recording, under that sideman's own name, that is well worth hearing.
Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out (Columbia, 1959)
Jim Hall, Concierto (CTI, 1975)
Johnny Hodges, Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges (Impulse, 1964)
Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges, Back to Back (Verve 1959)
Thelonious Monk, Straight, No Chaser (Columbia, 1967)
Charlie Rouse, Social Call, featuring Red Rodney (Uptown, 1984)