Red Norvo played the vibes while leading his own band during the swing era and grew into smaller groups in the forties and fifites once the practicality of leading a large ensemble became too much. He was one of the first to specialize of what has always been somewhat of an unusual instrument for jazz, but his nimble soloing and chords provided a template for others like Milt Jackson to follow. The four sessions collected here are from his fifties records when Norvo was occasionally leading larger ensemble but also doing some interesting modern work in smaller ensembles.
The Red Norvo Trio featured an unusual lineup of vibes, guitar, and bass. The original incarnation, which featured Charles Mingus on bass, may generate more interest from listeners; however, this lineup on 1952's Dancing on the Ceiling also offers solid playing. With Norvo on vibes, Red Mitchell on bass, and either Tal Farlow or Jimmy Raney on guitar, the trio offers a sophisticated take on swing and standards. While the presentation may be too formal for some tastes (this record wanders into the dreaded "chamber jazz" label) there's enough interesting ideas to make this album a solid gem. Mitchell is given plenty more to do than just keep time in the spacious arrangements as he often picks up the melody while the other two comp. Norvo's vibes, which can be overwhelmed by a larger setting, is perfectly suited for the softer sound of the guitar. Both Farlow and Raney were masters of their instruments and find new ways to approach some old chestnuts; the "Skylark" head is done completely with harmonics. There's plenty of nimble playing by all and although nothing gets too rowdy it never detracts from what proves to be a lightly swinging date.
Dancing on the Ceiling would have been a better title for Norvo's next session featured here in that it harkens back to his days leading a big band. The title REd Norvo In Stereo is a dead giveaway: this 1958 session features the sound of Norvo's earlier band with better quality sound, appealing chiefly to those who enjoyed the music the first time around and want more vibrant sounding records for their hi-fis. Make no mistake, this is a dance record. Practically every song is done at a medium tempo and the solos are just a few notes away from sounding completely scripted. Helen Humes does a fine job in the Mildred Bailey role and the band of West Coasters, who honed their chops in studio orchestras, is superb. However, it's really difficult to distinguish one song from the next and the session rewards restless feet more than careful listening.
Red Plays the Blues from later in the year on the other hand is a fantastic session. Four of the numbers feature Ben Webster and Harry "Sweets" Edison in the front line, and it's very difficult to have anything less than a captivating listen when those two are involved. With Jimmy Rowles at the piano (who was also Billy Holiday's go to accompanist) Webster and Edison are completely in their wheelhouse with Webster's gusty swoops offering a counterpoint to Edison's bright bursts. Norvo seems invigorated by their presence and lays down some soulful bluesy lines. The remaining tracks return to the big band sound of Red Norvo in Stereo. This time, however, Humes sounds more at home in the bluesy number than she did on the dance numbers. Red Norvo Plays the Blues is hard to beat in presenting both sides of the vibraphonist's talents.
Music to Listen to Red Norvo By from 1957 is a contemplative, quietly joyful record featuring a bevy of West Coast jazzmen. It's easy to judge what kind of record this will be from the titles: any talk of "divertimento" and "moment" indicates that this is a group with serious compositional aspirations. Furthermore, the instrumentationvibes, clarinet, guitar, flutewill be enough for some to steer clear completely. However, there are plenty of opportunities for solos from Buddy Collette on flute, Bill Smith on clarinet, and Norvo to keep this from being an exercise in pretension and the end result is a fine example of the chamber jazz that West Coasters like Chico Hamilton and Jimmy Giuffre were peddling with fine results. The cover, with images of wildflowers and children, captures the essence of this record perfectly. "Poeme" is light and spirited while "Paying the Dues Blues" allows the group to dig deep. Even the "Divertimento" section doesn't seem overly composed. Music to Listen To Red Norvo By is one of the great oddball records from the West Coast where an effort is made to stretch the boundaries of jazz with an unusual lineup.
Red Norvo had a series of compelling records in the fifties and these four albums are a fine sampling from someone who could play high quality modern jazz.
CD1: Dancing On the Ceiling; Lover, Come Back To Me; I Remember You; Skylark; Good Bait;
Strike Up the Band; The Spider’s Web; Tenderly; I Hadn’t Anyone Till You; Says My Heart; You
Leave Me Breathless; My Last Affair; Garden of the Moon; They Can’t Take That Away From
Me; Why Do I Love You; It’s Wonderful; I Was Doing All Right; (I’ve Been) Saving Myself For
You; I See Your Face Before Me; Some Like It Hot; Britt’s Blues; The Night Is Blue. CD2: Shed
No Tears; Easy on the Eye; Just a Mood; I Sing the Blues; Sunrise Blues; Poeme; Red Sails; The
Red Broom; Rubricity; Paying the Dues Blues; Divertimento 1st Movement; Divertimento 2nd
Movement; Divertimento 3rd Movement; Divertimento 4th Movement.
Red Norvo: vibes; Tal Farlow: guitar (CD1#3-4,8); Jimmy Raney: guitar (CD1#1-2, 4-6); Red
Mitchell: bass (CD1#1-8); Don Fagerquist: trumpet (CD1#9-20); Conrad Gozzo: trumpet
(CD1#9-20); Ollie Mitchell: trumpet (CD1#9-20); Dick Nash: trombone (CD1#9-20); Ray
Sims: trombone (CD1#9-20); Gus Bivona, Bus Shank, Eddie Miller, Bill Perkins: reeds (CD1#9-
20); Jimmy Rowles, John Williams: piano (CD1#9-20); Helen Humes: vocals (CD1#9-20,
CD2#1,4); Don Fagerquist, Ed Leddy, Ray Linn, Don Paladino: trumpet (CD1#21, CD2#1,4);
Ray Sims: trombone (CD1#1, CD2#1, 4); Willie Smith, Harold Land, Chuck Gentry: reeds
(CD1#1, CD2#1, 4); Jimmy Rowles: piano (CD1#21-22, CD2#1-7); James Wyble: guitar
(CD1#21, CD2#1, 4); Lawrence Wooten: drums (CD1#21, CD2#21-22); Mel Lewis: drums
(CD1#21, CD2#1,4); Harry Edison: trumpet (CD1#22, CD2#2-3, 5); Ben Webster: tenor sax
(CD1#22, CD2#2-3, 5); Bob Carter: bass (CD1#22, CD2#2-3, 5); Buddy Collette: flute
(CD2#6-14); Bill Smith: clarinet (CD2#6-14); Barney Kessel: guitar (CD2#6-14); Red Mitchell:
bass (CD2#6-14); Shelly Manne: drums (CD2#6-14).