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Chico Hamilton Quintet: Three Classic Albums

David Rickert By

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Chico Hamilton Quintet

Three Classic Albums

Avid Records

2010

The first thing the Chico Hamilton Quintet had going for it was unusual instrumentation. The quintet built its sound around the cello, and featured guitar, bass, either flute or clarinet (with the occasional sax), and Hamilton on drums, forgoing the sticks for brushes or mallets. The second thing was a style that wasn't quite jazz, exactly, but not as composed as classical (and definitely not as boring as third stream.) Many called it chamber jazz, an apt title for a group that applied counterpoint and melody to a lightly swinging beat. And the compositions from the group were abstract, modern works unlike what anyone else quite had in mind.

For a while, apart from a long-gone Mosaic set, the Quintet's music was pretty difficult to find. However, lately several import labels have put out compilations of their albums in various arrangements. Unfortunately it's still difficult to pick up the entire body of work from this masterful group without duplicating any sessions; some have these, some have those.

This collection from Avid features three early, 1950s albums. The first two, The Chico Hamilton Quintet Featuring Buddy Collette and The Chico Hamilton Quintet in Hi-Fi feature the original group with Carson Smith on bass, Fred Katz on cello, Jim Hall on guitar (in his first ever jazz group) and Collette on flute, clarinet, and sax. The third, The Chico Hamilton Quintet, swaps out Hall and Collette for Paul Horn on reeds and flute, and John Pisano on guitar. Rounding out the set are seven selections from a 1953 trio recording with Howard Roberts on guitar and George Duvivier on bass (and one duo with Duvivier), capturing all of the album except three tracks that featured Hall instead of Roberts.

The first two albums are some of the best music the West Coast had to offer in the 1950s. The first half of the first album features lively originals that make use of the lightweight sound of the quintet; "A Nice Day" pretty much says it all in the title, a lively reworking of the "Miss Jones" changes. "The Morning After" is an energetic and insanely catchy little melody. In what would soon be a trademark approach to standards, "My Funny Valentine" is given a drastic reworking with Katz holding down the melody; "Blue Sands" channels the Middle East through mallets and flutes. The second half is a live set from Stroller's that focuses on more standard fare. But from early on Hamilton had assembled a group of sympathetic musicians who were willing to rewrite what a jazz group could be.

The second album continues the fun of the first as the group continued to find out what it could accomplish that other more conventional groups couldn't touch. A waltz, a few tone poems, more severely monkeyed with standards; it was apparent that Hamilton had a top-notch group. Although Hamilton was not often front and center in his music, these sessions truly show what a great drummer he is. He plays very melodically, treating the drums like a true instrument, and seems to have an endless supply of interesting ideas. "Drums West," is one of the rare drum solos that will stand up to repeated listening.

Once Hall and Collette left, it took a little while for the group to recover (despite Hamilton's assertion to the contrary). Instead of forging ahead, the Quintet now seemed to be merely maintaining its identity. Horn and Pisano were good enough improvisers and fit in well, but the true loss was in the composition department with Collette, who contributed some of the group's best songs. Some of the originals seem aimless, lacking focus, and there are a quite a few more standards, including a "Satin Doll" taken at a plodding pace. Only "Siete-Cuatro"—a nifty 7/8 tune—shows the magic of the original line-up.

The trio selections are worth a listen, if for no other reason than it shows the seeds of what Hamilton was cooking up in his mind for later: no rhythm section, per se, and instead all the instruments were on equal footing. It would have been nice to have the entire set, but better to have some than not at all.

Hamilton's early quintet recordings are a mess to sort through and this set from Avid helps to present three great albums in some semblance of order. If you've snapped up a few earlier reissues there's a good chance you'll have some of the stuff here. If not, it's an excellent introduction to a little-known gem of a group.

Tracks: CD1: A Nice Day; My Funny Valentine; Blue Sands; The Sage; The Morning After; I Want To Be Happy; Spectacular; Free Form; Walking Carson Blues; Buddy Boo; Jonalah; Chrissie; The Wind; Gone Lover (When Your Lover Has Gone); The Ghost; Sleepy Slept Here (Santa Monica); Taking A Chance On Love; The Squimp; Topsy. CD2: Drums West; Sleep; I Know (theme); Chanel #5; Beanstalk; September Song; Siete-Cuatro; Mr. Jo Jones; I Know (theme); Satin Doll; Lillian; Reflections; Soft Winds; Caravan; I Know (theme); Street Of Dreams; Nuttye; Broadway; Uganda; Lollypop; We'll Be Together Again; Skinned Strings.

Personnel: Chico Hamilton: drums; Buddy Collette: flute, clarinet, tenor, sax, alto sax; Jim Hall: guitar; Fred Katz: cello; Carson Smith: bass; Paul Horn: alto sax, tenor sax, flute, clarinet; John Pisano: guitar; George Duvivier: bass; Howard Roberts: guitar.

Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Avid Records UK | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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