The Saxman Cometh: New Verve LPR Reissues

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Still the leader of the pack when it comes to reissues, the Verve Music Group has had a banner year with a wealth of intriguing product that comes from a vast number of catalogs in their holdings including Verve, Mercury, Argo/Cadet, MGM, Smash, and Phillips. The LPR series, which stands for LP reproduction, attempts to package facsimile reissues with the same aesthetic values as the original 12” vinyl records. These cardboard digi-pak style sets are remastered with excellent sound to boot and are available at a modest and affordable price, an important factor when so many great ones are coming out and you just have to have them all! This time around, the latest set of LPR’s has a theme running through them, mainly that each album is led by a saxophonist. So in no particular order, here’s a look at them all.

Although he tended to record more than the market seemed to bear at times and not all that shined was pure gold, Sonny Stitt’s tenure with Verve did produce some fine recordings, like the 1956 set New York Jazz. In the company of pianist Jimmy Jones, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Jo Jones, Stitt wields his alto and tenor saxophones mightily over the course of ten selections, mostly standards and three basic Stitt originals. The quick pace of “Twelfth Street Rag” is typical of the brand of bebop that Stitt specialized in over the course of his career. He throws off phrase after phrase with obvious ease and in utilizing the tenor horn he sounds more like himself than his tendency to echo Charlie Parker when playing the alto. Long unavailable, this Stitt set ranks among his best and comes highly recommended.

As a high school music teacher in Florida, Cannonball Adderley’s impact on jazz was limited, but once he made his way to New York in the summer of 1955 things began to click and in no time he was recording material for both the Savoy and EmArcy labels. In August of that year he cut Julian “Cannonball” Adderley with his brother Nat and a six piece group arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones. The program is split almost evenly among standards and tunes from the pen of Jones. Sound quality is top notch even at this early date and there’s an admirable balance between Adderley’s alto and the rest of the ensemble that compliments the entire production without taking away from the leading man. Although his bop chops are well in evidence, it’s Adderley’s ballad work on gems like “Purple Shades” that most impresses, along with the handiwork of Jones.

Somewhat of an iconoclast, Jimmy Giuffre has been exploring some of the more cerebral elements of jazz since his first recordings for Capitol back in the mid ‘50s. In terms of his legacy, he will be most remembered for an outstanding series of albums he led for Atlantic in the late ‘50s and for his 1963 Columbia set Free Fall. In between however, there’s his great body of work cut for Verve which isn’t better known simply because it’s largely unavailable currently. Getting things on the right track is the reissue of the 1959 release The Easy Way, which features Giuffre on clarinet, tenor and baritone saxophones, Jim Hall on guitar, and Ray Brown on bass. During this time period Giuffre rarely worked with a drummer (although a live set with a quartet on Verve is out there; another album long overdue for reissue!), which may put some off. But there’s still a vibrant swing to be found in the performances that makes them quite accessible. Worth special notice is the debut of Hall’s classic piece “Careful” in what is surely a definitive performance.

Among the landscape of exemplary saxophone led dates, one must hold a special place for Motion, a rare trio outing for Lee Konitz in the company of bassist Sonny Dallas and drummer extraordinaire Elvin Jones. The 1961 sessions that produced the original album have been packaged prior in complete form on a now out-of-print three-disc set so what we have here is the album as it was originally released with five lengthy performances. That Jones, in particular, inspires Konitz to new heights should go without saying. What might be a surprise is how intense and fluid the saxophonist is in his improvisations, putting to an end any remaining myths about the ‘cool school’s’ inability to engage in heated bop solos. The recorded sound has always been problematic, yet this edition seems to get more things right than any previous one. That aside, this album is an undeniable keeper.

Over the course of his extremely fruitful tenure with Verve, Gerry Mulligan documented his terrific Concert Jazz Band (watch for a reissue of that material on a Mosaic boxed set coming soon!) and led a few sublime albums in tandem with other leading horn men of great stature, namely Bob Brookmeyer and Ben Webster. His 1959 set Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges may not be as well known as the pairing with Webster, but it is no less engaging. Hodges sounds positively giddy and contributes three of his own catchy originals. “What’s the Rush” brings to the fore Hodges’ creamy ballad stylings and “18 Carrots for Rabbit” is a bop-inflected number that finds both sax men at the top of their game. Special mention should go to drummer Mel Lewis who puts things over the top with his infectious swing on a set where Hodges often steals the show.

For a large part of his career, Stan Getz recorded for Verve and many of his quintessential sides were cut for the label, often with producer Creed Taylor at the helm. This is the team that brought us the famous ‘sax and strings’ adventure Focus and ushered in the bossa nova craze with the Getz/Gilberto and Getz/Byrd sides. Overshadowed among these undeniable classics were several other minor gems that somehow got lost in the shuffle. Such was the case with 1963’s Reflections, a collection of short pieces arranged by Claus Ogerman and Lalo Schifrin for full orchestra. The mood is mainly of the late night variety, with Getz in a lusty ballad mode. Schifrin’s pieces typically feature a Latin bent that picks the tempo up on occasion for variety’s sake. Despite the dated sound of some of the numbers, there’s much to recommend here and Getz fans should positively not be disappointed.

Best remembered, if remembered at all, as a vital member of the Basie unit for a short spell, tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell came from the budding Detroit jazz scene that also brought us the Jones Brothers. His own recording career as a leader was somewhat short lived, consisting of two 1962 sessions led for the Mercury subsidiary Smash. The first of these, This Is Billy Mitchell, could go down as one of the surprise reissues of the year, not necessarily because it’s a fantastic jazz record, but because of the exposure it gives Mitchell and the taste it gives us of a young and maturing vibraphonist by the name of Bobby Hutcherson. Mitchell is heard in two settings, one with Sleepy Anderson on B3 organ and the other with Billy Wallace on bass. As for Mitchell, his sound can be very Getz-like on slower numbers like “Sophisticated Lady” or pointed and bristling as on the perky “Automation.” Trumpeter Dave Burns also makes a fine showing on five numbers reminding us of his forgotten talents as well.

So prominent as a sideman and revered as a leader of his own fine quartet/quintet of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and beyond, there seems to be a whole period of work by Phil Woods that remains relatively unknown to all but the most astute devotees. Right before leaving the States at the end of the ‘60s to reside in Europe for a few years, Woods cut the albums Round Trip and the newly reissued Phil Woods at the Montreux Jazz Festival to very little fanfare. In hindsight these album should have been welcomed as substantial additions to the Woods oeuvre. A definitive statement, the four long jams taped at Montreux in 1969 feature what Woods called his European Rhythm Machine- namely pianist George Gruntz, bassist Henri Texier, and drummer Daniel Humair. The emotions are heated throughout and even gentler items such as “I Remember Bird” boot along on high octane. Herbie Hancock’s “Riot” lives up to its name with some of the most avant-garde playing to be ever heard by Woods. This one will come as a surprise to most fans of Woods and will certainly be a welcomed addition to the collection.

Finally, we conclude with an item that might provide a revelation for many. An icon of what would eventually become the smooth jazz phenomenon, John Klemmer made a name for himself in the mid to late ‘70s with albums such as Touch and Hush, his breathy tenor work serving as romantic background music for mature audiences. Truth be told, he got his start first with the Chicago-based Argo/Cadet label and Involvement is among his first recorded efforts. Even at this early stage, the warmth and unique swagger that has always marked Klemmer’s approach is apparent. The best items here are his originals, performed by two different quartets, one featuring piano luminary Jodie Christian and both highlighting the work of drummer Wilbur Campbell. While nothing all that revolutionary occurs, this early glimpse at Klemmer in his formative years is still highly fascinating.

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