You know, things just ain’t what they used to be. There was a time when the average blue-collar worker could stay with a job 30 or 40 years without so much as a care. The same held true for many musicians who happened to be caught in the orbit of Duke Ellington’s mercurial jazz institution. For Johnny Hodges, the Ellington band provided the alto sax legend’s bread and butter for much of his natural life. First, there was the 22 years that he spent with Duke from 1928 to 1950, followed by five years out on his own and then a second stay with Ellington from 1955 to Hodges’ death in 1970.
The foregoing provides a basis for understanding Hodges’ solo work, which was done almost exclusively for the Verve imprimatur. The first spate of activity with Hodges as a leader came about during the five years that he split from the Ellington fold, with that material collated on a previous Mosaic boxed set that alas is long gone. The focal point of the set at hand is Verve material that was recorded during the time when Hodges had rejoined the Duke’s band, although technically not everything he did for Verve during the years 1956 to 1961 is included. The large band titles from the albums Ellingtonia ‘56 and The Big Sound, the sessions with Duke Ellington as heard on Back To Back and Side By Side, and a “with strings” date entitled The Prettiest Gershwin are not to be found here. Furthermore, the late sixties sessions with Wild Bill Davis, Earl Hines and the like (anyone remember the forgettable Don’t Sleep In the Subway ?) are not included.
Hopefully no one will muse greatly what has been left out of this transcendent collection, because what is inside this box is nothing short of marvelous. In fact, the only reason to get into minutia here is to insure that diehard collectors are aware of the exact contents. Disc one gets us going with the small ensemble tracks from the album Ellingtonia ‘56 along with introducing us to the distinguished sidemen that appear throughout this package, such as Lawrence Brown, Jimmy Hamilton, Sam Woodyard, and Billy Strayhorn. The same selective process holds suit for the four smaller group tracks included from a big band album aptly entitled The Big Sound.
The core of the previously released material comes from three Hodges albums, each one a masterpiece and only one of them previously available on compact disc. Duke’s In Bed was cut at a Chicago session in 1956 and features the trumpets of Clark Terry and Ray Nance, along with Quentin “Butter” Jackson, Jimmy Hamilton, and Harry Carney. From two dates in 1958 come the title Not So Dukish and Blues-A-Plenty (this album is the one that has previously been reissued as a gold disc from Classic Records). Tenor giant Ben Webster is an incredibly valuable asset on such gems as “Honey Hill,” “Saturday Afternoon Blues,” and “Preacher Blues.” Second only to Lawrence Brown, another great swing trombone stylist, Vic Dickenson, makes the scene on Blues-A-Plenty.
Up next for our perusal are two sessions that were never released at the time, only to appear in 1979 on the two-record set A Smooth One. One dates from 1959 and the other from 1960, both of them considerably Ellingtonian in character. We get to meet a few new names that were not part of the earlier sets including trumpeter Shorty Baker, guitarist Les Spann, tenor man Harold Ashby and bassist Aaron Bell. The need for further description seems merely superfluous. Hodges and his men came to swing and that they did. Why these tapes were released at such a late date is merely inexplicable.
Now we come to a mother load of previously unreleased performances that fills up nearly two and a half discs. The first of these, from November of 1960, was recorded on the West Coast and sports merely Hodges, Webster, and a rhythm section including guitarist Herb Ellis. Nothing too pretentious here, but things groove along nicely anyway. Fast forward one month for the only real clinker of the lot. Hodges and Lawrence Brown front a top quality backing group, but focus on ballad tempos for the duration of the program. Possibly John Clements says it best in his liner notes when he comments that “everything is well played, [but] it is rather like having spaghetti for dinner every day for 11 days!” Much more rewarding are the two final sessions from January and February of 1961. A meeting of the minds for Ellington sidemen and West Coast luminaries, such as vibraphonist Emil Richards, pianist Russ Freeman, and bassist Leroy Vinnegar, makes for merriment of the Hodges persuasion.
So in the final analysis, one couldn’t be better-off with the reissue of several long unavailable Hodges classics with more than a few bonus selections thrown in for good measure. Presentation is outstanding, as is always the case with Mosaic. The 12 x 12 box includes six discs and a 20-page booklet. Session by session commentary is provided, along with brief bio information on all the key players, and photos from the cameras of Burt Goldblatt, Francis Wolff, and Jack Bradley. All recordings are available solely through Mosaic Records; 35 Melrose Place; Stamford, CT 06902; (203) 327-7111. Check their web site at www.mosaicrecords.com for more information or to place an order.
Personnel: Johnny Hodges (alto saxophone) with such featured musicians as Ben Webster, Ray Nance, Vic Dickenson, Jimmy Hamilton, Quentin Jackson, Russ Freeman, Shorty Baker, Billy Strayhorn, Mel Lewis, Leroy Vinnegar, Lawrence Brown, and many more