Great Sidemen - Great Leaders

Greg Simmons By

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Being a sideman can be a thankless job. Sure, you might get to play regularly, but you rarely get to call the tune. If your boss is a big star, the gig might even pay pretty well, but if the band is going to Fargo, North Dakota in January, brother, so are you, and you weren't even consulted on travel arrangements.

Of course, most jazz musicians—including the ones now thought of as great leaders—have to start out as sidemen in some capacity or another. Miles Davis started as a sideman for Charlie Parker. John Coltrane got his big break as a sideman for Davis. Even Keith Jarrett started as a sideman for Charles Lloyd, before they briefly reversed positions. It's very rare that a musician pops out of the ground fully formed and ready to lead an ensemble. As the saying goes, "You've got to pay your dues."

Whatever the drawbacks to being a sideman, there have been musicians who have nevertheless found themselves pegged in the role for the duration of their careers. These were the guys who made their names or achieved their greatest fame in other people's bands but were never able to convert that notoriety to equal success under their own monikers, despite releasing some really great music of their own that is worth hunting down.

Although, they'd already been playing and recording together for a couple of years, altoist Paul Desmond (1924-1977) probably sealed his fate as a sideman to Dave Brubeck the moment Time Out (Columbia 1959) was released, although their relationship actually began the other way around. Desmond penned the album's strongest track, "Take Five," and the record was such a huge success—and the quartet in such demand—that retaining the lineup was almost inevitable. There is a case to be made that it was actually Desmond's dry, intellectual technique that defined the Brubeck sound—a more emotive player would have completely destroyed that subtle, laidback vibe—but at the end of the day, it was Brubeck's name on the cover.

Eventually, in 1967, that version of the Brubeck band did break up, and Desmond took a hiatus from performing. By 1973, after a rest, he had signed with the CTI label and began to release a series of records under his own name, as well as working on projects with other musicians. A good example is Desmond's Pure Desmond (CTI, 1974), a quartet date featuring bassist Ron Carter, Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay, and guitarist Ed Bickert. This is a date of standards, and Desmond's playing style isn't dramatically different from his Brubeck years, but his playing is strong, and the addition of guitar creates an altogether different dynamic in contrast to Brubeck's piano.

Eventually, Desmond did reconnect with Brubeck for a tour and album, recapitulating the greatest success either of them had known, but in the interim the saxophonist made some worthwhile music on his own.

Johnny Hodges (b. 1907) is as close to the consummate sideman as ever there was. Joining Duke Ellington's orchestra in1928 on alto sax (and occasionally soprano), he continued the association with only a few interruptions for over forty years, until his death in 1970. His tone was so deeply blue, and so emotive, that in his eulogy, Ellington described him as, "Never the world's most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes—this was Johnny Hodges."

But forty years is a long time to be a sideman, and Hodges regularly recorded under his own name, even leaving the Ellington Orchestra for a few years to set up his own outfit. Some of his records are pure Ellingtonia, but others are small combo dates that spotlight his horn in ways he could never enjoy in the big band. The small dates are, in fact, great way to go for those looking to hear the essence of Hodges' sound.

A terrific example is Buenos Aires Blues (Lone Hill Jazz, 2009). This reissue of a 1963 quintet date is all about Hodges' gorgeous, emotive alto. The songs are a mix of Ellington classics, the saxophonist's own compositions, and a pair of tracks penned by pianist Lalo Schifrin, who backs the date. Hodges' leadership is immediately solidified with the seven-note theme of his own "Mama Knows," which clearly highlights his style on during both its melody and his solo. Schifrin's "Dreary Days" proves to be a terrific vehicle for Hodge's best melancholia, and all nine tracks emphasize why the saxophonist may well have been the best individual stylist ever to pick up the alto.


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