Johnny Hodges: Second Set
Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges left Duke Ellington's band in 1951 feeling underappreciated and underpaid and convinced that he would have better luck on his own. Unfortunately he was never able to turn his considerable artistry into a lucrative career, and was back with Ellington in a few years for good. Working with Ellington was definitely where he belonged; his fluttering, gusty sound was one of the benchmarks of the band. Yet his brief solo career produced a couple of handfuls of great, if not classic, records, four of which are collected on Second Set.
The first albumThe Blues, recorded in 1952-1954features Hodges in several different settings with outstanding accompaniment by former Ellington bandmates, including tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and trombonist Lawrence Brown. "Rosanne," which kicks off the album, is a medium tempo ballad with the kind of swooping melody tailor-made for Hodges. The rest of the album is a grab bag of gentlemanly small group swing and sturdy rhythm and blues. Tracks such as "Shiek of Araby," with its antsy call and response, and the playful "Hodge-Podge," make good use of guys who could swing in their sleep. With trumpeter Emmett Berry, Webster, and Brown joining Hodges in the front lines, the expected tasty soloing ensues. The jukebox tunes that dominate the second half of The Blues are surprisingly good; Hodges is not the first guy you might think of when it comes to honking and wailing, but acquits himself nicely nevertheless. If there's one weakness on all of these sessions, it's in the piano chair: Leroy Lovett and Ted Brannon simply cannot provide the nuanced support that the group needs to really turn in balanced performances.
More of Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra, from 1954, brings together even more Ellington band members with Louis Bellson holding down the drum chair and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet, Shorty Baker on trumpet, Harry Carney on baritone sax, and Brown. The first track is a lengthy ballad medley that gives each member the spotlight for some lovely playing, then joining together on a few tracks for a swinging "Sunny Side of the Street" (with saxophonist John Coltrane, who unfortunately doesn't solo), and "Warm Valley," plus a lovely "Madam Butterfly" and one throwaway with "Skokiaan." The playing is just as good as you would expectthese guys had very few bad days in them. However the problems with the piano chair persist; Call Cobbs is all elbows.
In a Tender Mood, from 1952, kicks off the second disc and is uniformly excellent, featuring pretty much the same collaborators as the previous two records. Three tracks merit special acclaim: a swinging "Sweet Georgia Brown" where the band really kicks it into gear, a "Tea For Two" in which Hodges plays around with the melody in a seemingly endless number of configurations, and a masterful "Tenderly," all swooping and gusting Hodges just as we like him. He's right in the forefront, only backed by the piano. It's a lovely performance, and one of the best of Hodges's career.
After such a pleasant group of albums the last of the four is a letdown. Johnny Hodges and His Strings Play the Prettiest Gershwin seems like a surefire winner: pair Hodges with a string orchestra conducted by Russell Garcia on a number of Gershwin classics. By and large though it's about as boring as you can get; all medium tempo, goopy strings over which Hodges solos well, but it would have been good to hear him play the same songs backed by a rhythm section that might have pushed him a little bit. It's pleasant enough, but everything sounds like the overture to a Broadway play. Only "Summertime," a song which is pretty difficult to screw up, seems to hit the right mood. Otherwise, who wants to hear "'S Wonderful" done this slowly?
Hodges solo work has been released before in a long-gone Mosaic set. Second Set, along with an earlier Avid compilation, collects all that work again. Hodges always did his best work under the aegis of Ellington, but his small group records are quietly, swinging, thoroughly enjoyable affairs.
CD1: Roseanne; Hodge-Podge; Jappa; Through For the Night; Sheik of Araby; Latino; Johnny's Blues; Indiana; Easy Going Bounce; Burgundy Walk; Ballad Medley (Autumn in New York/Sweet Lorraine/Time on My Hands/Smoke Gets In Your Eyes/If You Were Mine/Poor Butterfly/All of Me); On the Sunny Side of the Street; Warm Valley; Madam Butterfly; Skokiaan; Used to Be Duke.
CD2: Who's Excited; Sweepin' the Blues Away; Standing Room Only; Below the Azores; Sweet Georgia Brown; Duke's Blues; Tenderly; Tea For Two; What's I'm Gotchere; Nothin' Yet; Sweet As Bear Meat; Love Is Here To Stay; Nice Work If You Can Get It; 'S Wonderful; Summertime; Soon; But Not For Me; Somebody Loves Me; They Can't Take That Away From Me; Someone To Watch Over Me; They All Laughed; The Man I Love; Oh, Lady Be Good.
Johnny Hodges: alto sax; Emmett Berry: trumpet (CD1#1-9, CD2#1-10); Lawrence Brown: trombone (CD1#1-6, CD1#10, CD1#12, CD2#11, CD2#1-10); Ben Webster: tenor sax (CD1#1-6); Rudy Williams: tenor sax (CD1#4-6); Leroy Lovett: piano (CD1#1-3, CD1#7-9, CD2#1-10); Red Callender: bass (CD1#1-3); J.C. Heard: drums (CD1#1-3, CD1#7-9); Ted Brannon: piano (CD1#4-6); Barney Richmond: bass (CD1#4-6); Al Walker: drums (CD1#4-6); Arthur Clarke: tenor sax (CD1#7-9); Ray Brown: bass (CD1#7-9); Shorty Baker: trumpet (CD1#10-15); Call Cobbs: piano (CD1#10-15); John Williams: bass (CD1#10-15); Louis Bellson: drums (CD1#10-15); Jimmy Hamilton: clarinet (CD1#11, CD1#13-15); Harry Carney: baritone sax (CD1#11, CD1#13-15); John Coltrane: tenor sax (CD1#12, CD2#11); Al Sears: tenor sax (CD2#1-10); Flip Phillips: tenor sax (CD2#1-10); Lloyd Trotman: baritone sax (CD2#1-10); Barney Richmond: baritone sax (CD2#1-10); Joe Marshall: drums (CD2#1-10); JC Heard: drums (CD2#1-10); Russell Garcia: arranger and conductor (CD2#12-23).