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Thad Jones, Frank Wess, Teddy Charles: Olio

AAJ Staff By

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The title is not misspelled, and the Sonny Rollins tune is not played here. (Ira Gitler made this point in the original liner notes; it’s a point still worth making.) “Olio” is an old vaudeville term meaning “medley” or “variety”, and that’s what you get in this Prestige jam session from 1957. While some do not like the looseness of jams, this one benefits from two great organizers: Mal Waldron, who could be counted on to bring ambitious tunes to his session, and Teddy Charles, producer of Prestige’s most “advanced” ‘Fifties dates. It’s Teddy’s production, and he also brings his distinctive vibes sound, giving us a different-tasting Olio.

The group is unfamiliar, but its members are not. Waldron and Doug Watkins had played on many Prestige jam sessions, Thad Jones and Frank Wess were on a 1954 date for Debut, and Charles was there with Elvin Jones on Miles' Blue Moods. With this familiarity, the sound gels early. It opens with Waldron’s “Potpourri”, which was also done by John Coltrane. The contrapuntal theme, a bit blurred on the Trane version, here stands out, with Charles playing the melody, Wess and Thad playing unison responses. Elvin explodes on the bridge; his cymbals are great and his sticks click like mad. Wess takes the first solo, and makes himself known. His flute was a little breathy on the theme, but here he asserts, stretching fluid lines. Thad is similarly active, starting warm and slowly getting brassy. Charles starts slow while the rhythm pushes on; after four bars of meditation he gets moving, his tone blunt with little vibrato. Left and right hands converse in Waldron’s solo, which is more introspective than anyone else’s. The theme returns, and again Elvin steals the show.

“Blues Without Woe” is as described, a 12-bar pattern that sounds like a piece of a larger song. Thad’s solo sticks to theme in the first chorus, then gets more adventurous. Like “Potpourri” he starts subdued with short phrases, quickly developing into long boppy lines. He stays relaxed, even in his shouts. Charles comes on quiet, his rolling patterns sounding cool and intellectual. Wess, on tenor this time, is very mellow, recalling Lester even when his solo gains energy – a controlled heat which befits this track. Waldron’s solo is a series of patterns. Walked around the chords and repeated to great effect. Elvin crashes up a storm on his first round of fours, and snares us in the second round. The horns are more energetic on the fours, and Charles plays chords for the first time. The theme is played a single time, as it was in the beginning, and the happy blues come to an end.

“Touche” is Waldron’s best tune on the album, a clever bit of call-and-response with Wess’ flute sounding especially lovely. Wess opens with a handful of twittering figures, and sends us off with a long funky line, with the slightest gutteral sound at the end. Charles’ solo is a glory to behold. He starts off cerebral, his sounds picks up heat, Charles gets animated, and when he stops the excitement is visceral. Waldron’s solo begins just before Charles’ ends, heavy chords on the left side, deft notes on the right. Wess and Thad trade fours on the close, and the last half of the theme brings us to the end.

Charles’ “Dakar” is a revelation. The famous version was recorded two months later with Coltrane and two baritones. That version was dark and mysterious; what a difference a lineup makes! Charles parallels Waldron on the rhythmic opening; the vibes make the thunderous chords lighter. The theme is stated by Wess, and Thad’s harmony part is so high and pure it sounds like a second flute. The Trane version was a smoky, busy seaport; this is a graceful lady on a distant shore. Wess opens in the lower register, playing it slow and sensual, trilling a bit as the lady beckons you closer. The second chorus is higher and cheerful; you are now beside the lady, and she does a dance for you. Charles’ solo is low and sparse; as on Blue Moods he says a lot with a few notes. Thad’s solo is warm and confident where the others were exotic; perhaps he is a visitor to this distance place. Some nice dissonant chords from Charles open Waldron’s solo, which is brittle and percussive like some of his others. This “Dakar” is a nice place to visit; Coltrane would show us its other side later.

Warm chords and soft brushes open “Embraceable You”, a feature for Thad. Charles chords with Waldron, making the comping wonderfully thick. Thad never states the theme fully; that is up to Wess’ tenor, which really sounds like Lester this time around. The sophisticated sax takes us out, with a nice descending figure at the end.

“Hello Frisco” has an involved, clustered theme in which trumpet and sax weave while Charles dances on top. Waldron’s solo is sparse, reminiscent of “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise”; he then chords thick around Thad’s sad solo. Charles gets bluesy, with a fair bit of vibrato; it’s his best since “Touche”. Wess’ solo does a slow burn, with more aggression than his last effort. The theme closes it up, and we are left with an album that serves up varying moods, tangy tastes and varied voices. In other words, Olio.

Title: Olio | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Fantasy Jazz

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