Joe Newman: Happy Cats


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Joe Newman doesn't get nearly enough credit for being a juicy jazz trumpeter. Usually, he's merely thought of as a member of Count Basie's post-1952 orchestra or as a sideman. But from 1954 to 1984, Newman recorded nearly 30 albums as a leader, with several others arriving after his passing in 1992. Many of these albums are superb, particularly the ones recorded in the 1950s with Basie-ite Frank Wess on tenor saxophone and flute.

One of these gems is The Happy Cats recorded for Coral in January 1957. The sextet featured Joe Newman (tp), Frank Rehak (tb), Frank Wess (fl,ts), Johnny Acea (p), Eddie Jones (b) and Connie Kay (d). In addition to spectacularly warm playing by this compact unit, the arrangers were top shelf: Ernie Wilkins scored Cocktails for Two, Robbins' Nest, Feather's Nest, I Never Knew and Joe's Tune. Al Cohn handled They Can't Take That Away From Me, Mean to Me and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Quincy Jones arranged Buttercup, while the arranger on The Happy Cats and Later for the Happenings isn't known.

Newman's playing, with a sizzling mute or without, is tap-dancer tight throughout. He never played more than necessary to charm the ear. Foster offsets him with bird-like grace on flute and with arm-wrestling brawn on tenor sax. Rehak adds a mellow tone on trombone without overshadowing Newman, reminding the listener how gorgeous a player he was back then.

The sleeper star on the album is Johnny Acea (above), who came up in the 1930s on trumpet and saxophone before switching to piano after his military service in World War II. Surprisingly, he never recorded as a leader and died in 1963 at age 45. He provides rich chord voicings and a Basie simplicity behind the three horns.

The wonderful thing about these guys is that they were band players who carried with them to Newman's small group the high level of sight reading and tightness that wraps around your ear. The music is like a perfect shoe shine, new chrome or a triple play in baseball. The art of swinging perfection is remarkable while the arrangements have a Basie feel. The execution is exquisite.

JazzWax clips: Here's Ernie Wilkins' arrangement of Robbins' Nest...

And here's Quincy Jones's arrangement of Buttercup...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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