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Kenny Clarke and Ernie Wilkins


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I purposefully left my favorite Hank Jones record off my top-20 list last Sunday to talk about the album here in full. This record is a rare and rather obscure date from March 1955 for Savoy, when a&r chief Ozzie Cadena was producing some amazing music at the label. You probably would never know about this baby unless someone hipped you to it, so here I am.

This early Savoy LP didn't have an official title. Instead, two musicians' names graced the cover: Kenny Clarke & Ernie Wilkins. The album's notes say that the band was led by saxophonist Ernie Wilkins on four tracks and by drummer Kenny Clarke on three. In truth, Wilkins was the leader throughout. Clearly, this was a split date to get around the American Federation of Musicians' rules about recording only four tracks per session. By claiming there were two different leaders, the studio was able to skirt the union's regulations and complete the record in a single afternoon or evening.

All of the tracks were arranged by Wilkins [pictured], who was just coming into his own, having written extensively for Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey over the previous three years. By 1955, Wilkins' charts had developed a knack for tightly wound swing and swagger, typically resulting in a polished shout chorus at the end. With Wilkins, every arrangement was an aerodynamic adventure, and he never relied on gimmicks or repeated phrases. His originals always sounded modern--the blues retrofitted with an automatic transmission and air conditioning.

The septet on this session includes spirited trombonist Eddie Bert, Ernie Wilkins (alto and tenor saxes), George Barrow (tenor and baritone saxes), Cecil Payne (baritone sax), Hank Jones (piano) [pictured], Wendell Marshall (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums).

Best of all, you can hear Hank Jones distinctly throughout, at times in a Basie mode and at other times running impeccable accompaniment lines and solos. Teasing out Jones' keyboard choices are Marshall's firm upright bass and Clarke's dice-toss drum figures.

The tracks are Summer Evening, Oz the Wizard, I Dig You the Most, Pru's Bloose, Plenty for Kenny, Cute Tomato and Now's the Time. This album is worth grabbing if only for Cute Tomato, my favorite track, which features a jaunty Wilkins theme line and snappy solos by Eddie Bert [pictured] and Hank Jones.

For me, this is a perfect mid-1950s jazz album of seductive beauty crafted for a small group that thinks it's a big band. Hats off to the late Ozzie Cadena [pictured], a truly unsung jazz catalyst who had an ambitious vision and consistently pretty taste at Savoy. As for Ernie Wilkins, this was just the beginning.

JazzWax tracks: Kenny Clarke & Ernie Wilkins has been slipped onto the CD release of Fresh Sound's Telefunken Blues, a Savoy recording that featured Clarke and Wilkins a month earlier in 1955. The musicians on the latter date include Frank Wess and Milt Jackson.

In the past, Telefunken Blues has sold for a fortune. But I noticed yesterday that a bunch of new copies of the Fresh Sound release in 2008 (with Kenny Clarke & Ernie Wilkins added) is available from non-Amazon vendors for $15 or less here. Better hurry.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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