Whether playing bass or cello, Oscar Pettiford was an extraordinary soloist and ensemble player with a singlar sound and focused attack who levitated sessions with Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, among many others. In '56 and '57, when Swing Era big bands had given way to small groups and singers, it may have seemed defiant to assemble a jazz orchestra of well-known and presumably costly soloists, but the OP assemblage made two records and appeared at Birdland. This newest reissue, following on the heels of the studio tracks released in '94 as Deep Passion
, adds three Birdland tracks and clocks in at an impressive 78 minutes.
The Orchestra was nothing if not original, relying on harmonically sophisticated repertoire by Randy Weston ("Little Niles"), Horace Silver ("Speculation"), Gigi Gryce (Nica's Tempo," "Smoke Signal"), Lucky Thompson ("Deep Passion"), Benny Golson ("I Remember Clifford") and OP himself, with Gryce doing most of the arrangements. In the fashion of the times, the band sported an unusual instrumentation: two trumpets, trombone, two French horns, a four-piece reed section, and a three-piece rhythm section with harp and OP doubling on cello.
The pieces are intriguing but only intermittently vibrant, due to Gryce's rudimentary arrangements. Perhaps it's an oversimplification, but the great jazz orchestras of the '30s and '40s offered simple propulsive arrangements that kicked soloists into greater inventiveness (eg. Basie) or beautifully idiosyncratic voicings integral to the material (eg. Ellington). Gryce's charts have the mundane prettiness of television and movie soundtracks, offering rhythmically updated Swing Era conventions and harmonized versions of simple solos. In ensemble passages, the OP Orchestra seems faceless, except for the leader's powerful presence. Even the two Johnsons (drummers Osie and Gus), usually ebullient, seem muffled: one thinks wistfully of how the late Big Sid Catlett would have energized this group.
From the recorded evidence here, Pettifordlike other gifted musicians who preceded him in a desire for the tonal colors and intensity only a big band could provideopted for a format that unintentionally diluted his strong musical personality. Ironically, the less formal versions he made of many of these compositions in the '50s are more compelling music. As a soloist, OP always deserves attention, and his playing is always joyous, whether on "Perdido," "Little Niles" or the Birdland recording of "Aw! Come On." But listeners who want to hear him at his best should seek out the small band recordings he made in this period with Lucky Thompson, Hawkins, Nat Pierce, Ruby Braff, and Kenny Dorham, or under his own name. To enjoy this recording fully, one must be prepared to focus on the brief solos, not the formulaic ensemble writing.
Personnel: Oscar Pettiford, Art Farmer, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Jimmy Cleveland, Tommy Flanagan,
Lucky Thompson, Benny Golson, Osie Johnson, Gus Johnson and others.