The heyday of hard bop was a boon for jazz piano enthusiasts. New names on the ivories surfaced continuously like seedlings after a fresh rain. Along with the acknowledged masters like Powell and Monk were their second generation acolytes: Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Harold Mabern and Junior Mance among them. Like their forbearers these fellows paid their dues as sidemen. A Chicagoan by birth, Mance got his first high profile gig with Gene Ammons. Future employers included Lester Young, Cannonball Adderley as well as a recurring spot at the Windy City watering hole The Beehive Lounge where he served as pinch-hit piano man for Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Stitt. Quite an enviable resume and all before he hit the age of 32. The steady exposure led to a contract with Milestone Records and the two albums reissued here, his first and third for the label.
On both of the dates collected here Mance isn’t especially adventurous in terms of his tune choices, but his playing is quite often agile and creative with an emphasis placed on propulsive drive rather than structural complexity. Toe-tapping blues patterns fuel the bulk of the seventeen tracks with a judicious balance between standards and originals adding to the variety. Tucker shows himself the better of the two bassists, but Rowser fulfills his role competently. The two drummers come across basically as session men, doing what’s required behind their respective kits, but little more. Gathered under somewhat slapdash title The Soulful Piano of Junior Mance , the first nine cuts find pianist capitalizing on a keen confluence between his hands and fingers. “The Uptown” is a marvel of interlocking rolls and adroit accents as his left holds down a funky stride-derived vamp and his right tinkles away with a string of variations. “Ralph’s New Blues” almost sounds like a continuation, so seamless is the transition, starting slow and quickly gaining steam under the aegis of the leader’s bright rippling progressions. Drummer Bobby Thomas spends a surprising amount of time wielding brushes and his relaxed sensitive demeanor only augments the after hours ambience of the session.
Big Chief! , the second platter represented, reflects the then-vogue kitsch of all things Native American only in its cash-in title. A wise move on the part of Mance as it wards off any chance of the date sounding dated. Even the eponymous piece avoids any faux Indian rhythms and instead focuses on some particularly punchy bass work from Rowser reeled out on a corpulent walking line. The menu is much the same with a cerulean hue tinting much of the action. Was there a keyboardist in the Sixties who didn’t take a stab at “Summertime”? Mance notches his name in the long roster of interpreters with a muscular reading that transforms the theme into a steady strolling march emphasizing momentum over sanguine reflection. Another standout of the session is “Swish,” a feature for second drummer Paul Gusman who paints the purpose of the title in bold relief with his supple and speedy brush play before stoking the fires with some ferocious stick-driven press rolls. Around the time of these sessions Mance was also tapped as the pianistic sparkplug for the joint tenor venture of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin. No doubt the music on the first of these albums had something to do with their decision to recruit him.
Tracks: The Uptown/ Ralph’s New Blues/ Main Stem/ Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup/ Playhouse/ Sweet and Lovely/ In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee/ I Don’t Care/ Swingmatism/ Big Chief!*/ Love For Sale*/ Fillet of Soul*/ Swish*/ Summertime*/ Ruby, My Dear*/ Ruby, My Dear*/ Little Miss Gail*/ Atlanta Blues
Personnel: Junior Mance- piano; Ben Tucker- bass; Jimmy Rowser- bass*; Bobby Thomas- drums; Paul Gusman- drums*. Recorded: October 25, 1960 and August 1, 1961, Plaza Studios.
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