Earlier this week, I posted on two superb orchestral albums by Dizzy Gillespie in 1960—A Portrait of Duke Ellington (arranged by Clare Fischer) and Gillespiana (arranged by Lalo Schifrin). Both albums for Verve featured exciting scores with Gillespie soloing. As my friend and saxophonist Bill Kirchner reminded me in an email, Gillespie's orchestral adventures for the Verve label didn't stop there. To be sure. Another Gillespie album that jazz repertory orchestras should be performing today is Perceptions, arranged by J.J. Johnson and conducted by Gunther Schuller.
The album was recorded in May 1961 and was produced by Creed Taylor shortly after he took over the helm as jazz A&R chief at Verve following his launch of the Impulse label at ABC-Paramount. The reed-less orchestra on Perceptions is sizable and spectacular: Dizzy Gillespie, Robert Nagel, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Nick Travis, Doc Severinsen and Joe Wilder (tp); Jimmy Knepper, Urbie Green and Paul Faulise (tb); Dick Hixson (b-tb); Jimmy Buffington, John Barrows, Paul Ingraham and Bob Northern (fhr); Bill Stanley and Harvey Phillips (tu); Gloria Agostini and Laura Newell (harp); George Duvivier (b); Charlie Persip (d) and Michael Colgrass (perc).
Trombonist and arranger Johnson (above) wrote the album's six works specifically for Gillespie at Gillespie's request. Gillespie had turned to Johnson after hearing his Poem for Brass on the 1956 album Music for Brass by the Brass Ensemble of the Jazz-Classical Music Society. Johnson arranged Perceptions for Gillespie between September 1960 and March '61. As Johnson reflected in the liner notes by Dom Cerulli:
At the outset I began to think of the role to cast Dizzy in. I keep thinking about the role he had played with big bands. He's a very exciting player. He plays very high and very fast, and can do this just about the best. But I wanted to cast him in a different role because few people realize that Dizzy is also a very sensitive musician with great lyrical gifts. A lot of pieces really don't show his great capacity for lyricism and melodic playing. I wanted to show this sensitive, lyrical side."
Perceptions features jazz orchestral writing at its finest. This isn't classical in the European tradition nor is it jazzy cinematic soundtrack music. If there's a starting point for this grand symphonic jazz sound it would probably be Stan Kenton's Cuban Fire, arranged by Johnny Richards in 1956, Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder in 1957 and Gil Evans's score for Miles Davis's Miles Ahead (Miles +19) in 1957. In Perceptions, a glorious orchestral story is being told with Gillespie as its champion and narrator. I'll have more Dizzy Gillespie orchestral masterpieces in the days ahead.