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The Ten Most Essential Art Farmer Albums

Peter J. Hoetjes By

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Bassist Keter Betts, who played with Art Farmer briefly during the 1970s, described him best: "He was a gentleman's trumpet player, not a rebel trumpet player."

At 25 years of age, Farmer was given the opportunity to travel Europe with Lionel Hampton's jazz band. He had spent the past few years wandering Los Angeles as a struggling musician with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and the chance for adventure was a welcome one. Upon his return to the States in 1954, he played in bands with Gigi Gryce, Gerry Mulligan, Horace Silver, and Hank Mobley. At the start of the sixties he and saxophonist Benny Golson founded the Jazztet, one of the genres most enduring all-star groups. The band shot Farmer to fame, and he spent the next forty years as a celebrated artist whose talent, work ethic, and professionalism allowed him to leave a lasting legacy of success.

Although it's true that he did in fact write over a dozen of his own songs, he was never known for them. To Farmer, being a great musician had little in common with the ability or drive to compose.

So what was Art Farmer known for?

That would depend upon who was asked. Those he worked with would describe him as ambitious and committed. "I had developed this reputation," he said, "of being a guy who would take care of business: be on the gig on time, take the music home and really work on it, and hang in there. If people had something that was out of the ordinary, they would call me to do it. It was not because I was the best trumpet player around, but I would give it my best."

To the many listeners who bought his records, Farmer was known simply for his warm lyricism; a trait which allowed him to conquer melodic form in any context, be it ballad or bombast.

Once he switched to the flugelhorn in the mid-sixties, his smooth, mellow blowing during occasionally sparse arrangements became a calling card. His understanding of talent had less to do with tackling excess, and was more about what one could do with restraint. He once stated, "you know, that's what you got to watch out for-these guys that can tell you something with one note. If they can tell you something with one note...well, then, watch out when they start playing more notes than that. That's the essence of jazz, I think."

It is imperative to note that the recordings contained here all feature Art Farmer as bandleader; his name clearly listed on the cover. The wonderful music he made as part of the Jazztet, or with other groups or artists, could fill a list twice this size, and is worth pursuing. The ten albums presented here however, will serve to paint a broad picture of one of jazz's legendary horn players, hopefully spurring continued interest in his work among not only the generation who grew up listening to him, but with those who succeed them.

Art Farmer
Farmer's Market
Prestige
1956

Wisdom comes not from foreseeing the future, but from understanding the past. Although Art Farmer had enjoyed some success with his breakthrough Early Art (Prestige, 1954), it was Farmer's Market in which the then-trumpeter laid a lofty foundation to build upon in the following decades leading up to his death in 1999.

Farmer was never much of a composer, preferring instead to play in other musicians' sandboxes. He explained this theory best in 1995, during an interview for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project; "I would classify myself as, being an interpreter, basically, of what other people have written. I find something that I feel comfortable in—that I can put myself into—and that's what I do, play it. I express myself through the music that someone else wrote. With the availability of so much good music, there's no reason to play mediocre music just because you wrote it yourself, which some people do."

He did compose a couple dozen songs, among them were "Kayin,'" "Mox Nix," and the title track to this album. "Farmer's Market" is appealingly up-tempo, brimming with carefully measured exuberance. Art Farmer allows a moderately slack leash for his pianist and band in general, and the result is a well structured composition he would continue to attack from different angles throughout his life, on numerous live and studio albums.

That band consisted of a handful of fifties legends, including Hank Mobley, Kenny Drew, and Elvin Jones Farmer's brother, Addison, was a rising bassist who would round out the band on a number of the trumpeter's early albums, until his unexpected death in 1963. Farmer's Market is a brassier, bolder album than the majority of its successors (certainly more so than those on this list), yet one which stands firmly on its own merits.

Art Farmer
The Summer Knows
East Wind Records
1976

For the majority of the 1970s, Art Farmer enjoyed the accompaniment of what was objectively his strongest rhythm section. Pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Sam Jones, and prolific drummer Billy Higgins constituted that special recipe of talent, songwriting, and something a bit more ethereal. As it is with all great bands, some musicians inexplicably sound better together than others, and for a handful of albums during the decade of funk, fusion, and flared jeans, Farmer had his.

The flugelhornist would eschew those sub-genres, favoring tradition and perfecting his approach to it. The Summer Knows stands out as not only his most underrated album, but his most accomplished. This classic's only weakness is a structural one; the placement of the title track as its opener. Here, Art Farmer recorded the definitive version of Michel Legrand's masterpiece, permeating it with a resoundingly lonely atmosphere. It is unfortunate then, that no matter how competently the quartet makes their way through standards such as "Alfie" and "I Should Care," they can't seem to pull the songs out of the shadow cast by "The Summer Knows."

This isn't to disparage their talent; the four musicians presented here are exemplary. Much as it is the case with a fine glass of rum, one can easily pick out each individual flavor with concentration. With a relaxed mindset however, the sum of their parts easily eclipses those which would otherwise merit great praise. Listeners who enjoy The Summer Knows would do well to further explore the catalogues of Walton and Higgins, as they present a rabbit hole of indeterminate depth for those inclined to jump in with abandon.

Art Farmer
When Farmer Met Gryce
Prestige Records
1955

Altoist Gigi Gryce was one of the musicians Art Farmer played with in his early twenties, touring Europe together as part of Lionel Hampton's band. They were both relative newcomers to the jazz scene, Farmer more than Gryce. When Hampton's group disbanded after returning to New York, the duo would spend a year playing live shows together, often appearing nights at Birdland.

During May and October of 1955, Farmer and Gryce met at the Van Gelder studio in Hackensack, New Jersey, to record enough music to furnish two albums for the Prestige label. The first, When Farmer Met Gryce, was released later that same year. Recording was spread over two dates in May, with differing rhythm sections for each. The autumn session provided music which would hit shelves the following year, as Art Farmer Quintet Featuring Gigi Gryce.

Farmer never played down the fact that he wasn't much of a writer. He felt that in order to do it well, one had to do it consistently. As complementary as the two musicians were to each other, their approach to music and to their careers differed widely. "Gigi said if he didn't write a song every day, it was a day wasted. That's a composer," he stated during the Smithsonian interview.

The weak point of any jazz album recorded with different sidemen is inconsistency, and there's no doubt that out of the two he recorded with Gryce, the latter is a more logical choice for this list. In spite of this, When Farmer Met Gryce proves to be the more compelling effort. Farmer's unusually up-tempo selections and youthful spirit give this album an edgy contrast to the rest of his discography. Although Gryce inexplicably retired in 1965, Art Farmer would continue to make use of his compositions for many years after.

Art Farmer
Perception
Argo Records
1961

Perception is the first album on which Art Farmer played solely the flugelhorn. Often paired with his previous 1961 release Art (Argo), hearing both together allows for some perspective of this defining event. The flugelhorn's warm tones better suit his lyrical, sensitive approach to music, and with it he found an instrument capable of carrying the style he'd spend the next thirty-eight years honing.

Interestingly enough, Farmer felt that the recording of Art was less laborious. "Sometimes things gel, and sometimes things that should gel don't, and nobody can really anticipate it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't work. In this case, it worked."

Both Art and Perception were recorded at the Nola Penthouse Studio in Manhattan. Though he declared the former to be his favorite album, Perception stands as a turning point in his career, separating the youthful trumpeter from the thoughtful, experienced flugelhornist.

Still buried in golden-age sensibilities, none of the eight songs included hit the six minute mark; most are under five. But the fluid confidence he and pianist Harold Mabern (who would briefly join The Jazztet a year later) brought to such tunes as "Nobody's Heart" and "Lullaby Of The Leaves" is a rarity even for Farmer. Also included are a couple rare originals; "Punsu" and "Kayin.'" He would build on those compositions much later, but Perception is where they, and Art Farmer as he is remembered really began.

The Art Farmer Quartet
Warm Valley
Concord
1982

It might be an overstatement to refer to Warm Valley as a concept album, but it certainly is a thematic one. The quartet, aside from Art Farmer, is made up of pianist Fred Hersch, bassist Ray Drummond, and drummer Akira Tana. This is one production which could not have been made with a quintet or sextet setup, since it relies so heavily upon aesthetics.

The passionate, exotic tones and wistful, bittersweet recollections of "And Now There's You" and "Three Little Words" contribute a great deal to that aesthetic. Sultry shadows cast by these pieces lay heavy over the entirety of Farmer's effort, set into place by its gorgeous cover art.

Simple as it would have been to use the flugelhorn's mellow tones to meander through Benny Golson's doleful "Sad To Say," Farmer instead decided to shake things up, utilizing a mute for the song. Those little touches, much like the deliberate caribbean undertones of "Eclypso," carry the momentum of Warm Valley through to its title track, which serves as a curtain call. The quartet furnishes Duke Ellington's classic with a placid climate, tying the piece into the rest of the album's carefree vibe. It's a lush, beautiful effort; easily one of Farmer's best.

Art Farmer
Yesterday's Thoughts
East Wind Records
1975

The same quartet heard on The Summer Knows first convened at Vanguard Studios in New York City to record Yesterday's Thoughts. They would form for a third album (second chronologically) as well, titled To Duke With Love (East Wind, 1976). The strict Ellington theme of that album however, led to the players sounding more cramped. Their performances on Yesterday's Thoughts fit equally with its successor, albeit lacking such a masterpiece track as "The Summer Knows."

The quartet format gave Farmer the opportunity to take control of each song's tempo and temperament. His lyrical bent took off when he was alone at the stage front, and one can't help but feel that his propensity to surround himself with top-tier talent wasn't to some extent a double-edged sword.

Yesterday's Thoughts is a well-balanced 45-minute album full of little touches that have substantial impact. When Billy Higgins' cymbals drop out prior to Cedar Walton's piano solo during "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?," the effect is stirring. Placed within a more inexact recording, this method could easily prove amateurish or worse, jarring. With Higgins seated at the drum set however, a seemingly effortless use of silence offers more resonance than any of the wilder, more pulse-pounding moments he enjoys on the record.

The 1970s saw Art Farmer increasingly uninhibited by the outdated need for sub-four minute songs. Much as it was on The Summer Knows, he used the extra time to build atmosphere and gravity within his songs, rather than adhering to bland structure or ostentatious showmanship.

Art Farmer
On The Road
Contemporary Records
1976

Sometimes there is no explaining why two perfectly capable musicians don't sound well together. Take Art Farmer and Steve Kuhn in the former's Sing Me Softly Of The Blues (Atlantic, 1965) for instance. Kuhn's piano seemed to be at odds with the flugelhornist, fighting him through tonal shifts throughout the album.

If a pair of musicians ever existed who should not sound well together, it is Art Farmer and Art Pepper. The two men contrasted wildly in both temperament and style. Pepper was amidst a comeback in 1976, hell-bent on proving to the world that he was as good as he thought he was. He was moody, insecure, and played with reckless passion. Farmer was pretty much the polar opposite. His calm, composed demeanor and methodical approach were informed by a career which had seen him perform in legendary groups and solid bands of his own forming. As a well-respected artist he had nothing in particular left to prove.

One can't help but wonder if Pepper brought pianist Hampton Hawes into the group, as Hawes was a musician of great regard to the altoist. Ray Brown plays bass while Steve Ellington and Shelly Manne take turns at the drum kit, likely due to scheduling conflicts. Recording was split between July and September of 1976. Manne was another Pepper alum, and perhaps was brought on in Ellington's absence at Pepper's request.

The album does have its share of faults. Art Pepper behaves himself far more than Art Pepper ever should, and there is some initial sense of anticipatory letdown when "Will You Still Be Mine?" closes On The Road and the usually explosive altoist quietly fades. Although Farmer's song choices are a bit too common, he does place some unique twists in his selections. After opening the album with "Downwind," a Hawes original, he and the pianist attack "My Funny Valentine" as a duet. Though usually one to own the melody in quartet performances, Farmer allows Hawes to amble through a rather orthodox rendition of the tired tune whilst his warm flugelhorn imbues it with some much needed murky atmosphere.

West coast musicians like Pepper, Hawes, and Manne offered an opportunity to hear Art Farmer in a slightly different context, as by this point in his life he split his time between New York and Europe. It's still Farmer, and he doesn't play up or down to anyone. But On The Road deserves more credit than it receives among his listeners.

The Art Farmer Quintet
Blame It On My Youth
Contemporary Records
1988

The late 1980s found Art Farmer just a little bit grayer but every bit the polished and perpetually reliable musician. The decade had seen some of his best output on numerous labels. He continued to seek connections which would challenge him, teaming up with european jazz groups, recording with string orchestras, and meeting his old friend, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan in the studio for five records. He and Jordan were an excellent team, and most of their work together manages to endure even through countless repetition.

Blame It On My Youth was the strongest outing Farmer had toward the end of his career. Aside from Jordan, the quintet was composed of then-rising stars of the era. Pianist James Williams, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Victor Lewis would all prove themselves to be the next generation of jazz. Their carefully high-strung performance of his frequent cohort Fritz Pauer's "Fairy Tale Countryside" is timeless.

The album itself is captivating, At this point in their lives, Farmer and Jordan both had a firm grasp on their identities as musicians, and could structure their selections around the tone of their choosing. The flugelhornist later alluded to this in a 1995 interview when he stated "first comes the sound, and then you decide what you want to do with the sound...The identity is the individual, and that's what we start off with." It was evident that this outlook was second nature to these musicians, and Blame It On My Youth was as good as hard bop got in the 'eighties.

Art Farmer Quintet
Art Farmer Quintet At Boomers
East Wind Records
1976

Art Farmer Quintet At Boomers may be the most contentious inclusion to this list, edging out nascent hard-bop era classics such as "Early Art" and "Modern Art." The flugelhornist wasn't particularly known for his live recordings, though he did record a handful. At Boomers is a rollicking good time, in an era when Art Farmer was better known for his balladry than fervent theatrics.

A caveat; At Boomers is a two piece set, recorded May 14 and 15, 1976 at the now-defunct Boomers jazz club on Bleeker Street in Manhattan. Clifford Jordan reunited with Farmer on stage, preceding the work they would do together in the following decade. Cedar Walton sat at the piano during those evenings, with Sam Jones on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. Three years earlier, Walton had actually released his own A Night at Boomers, (Muse, 1973) with Sam Jones in attendance at that date as well.

Depending upon the listeners viewpoint, At Boomers does share the same drawback as many live jazz albums. Due to the constraints of vinyl pressings, the two sets aren't presented in their entirety or in the order they likely were played in. Any banter from Farmer is absent. He was a reserved, soft-spoken artist, and likely said little more than the song titles and who composed them. Although unedited performances are somewhat rare, they present the clearest picture of what a jazz band was doing on any particular evening, placing listeners among the crowd rather than in their living rooms. Still, Art Farmer Quintet At Boomers is a fun jam session and a welcome reprieve from his more high-minded endeavors.

Art Farmer
Silk Road
Arabesque Records
1996

In October of 1999, Art Farmer suffered heart failure, dying suddenly at the age of 71. As such, he could not have known that Silk Road (Arabesque, 1997) would be his final major work as a leader.

Farmer's studio recordings during the 1990s saw one very noteworthy change from his output of the previous decade. Dave Monette of Chicago had built him the first flumpet, a hybrid instrument combining the strengths of both a trumpet and flugelhorn. Farmer, upon being presented with this new instrument, would employ it exclusively during the remaining years of his life.

"It's a good horn," he stated simply. "It has a darker sound than the trumpet, but it has more projection than the flugelhorn does, so if you want to go up in the high register and really project, you can do it with the flumpet more than you can with the flugelhorn."

"But," he continued, "if you want to get a mellow sound like you can with the flugelhorn, you can do that with this, but you can't get a real mellow sound with the trumpet...It is demanding, but you get something for what you put into it. I like it better than the flugelhorn because of these qualities."

Silk Road is one of Farmer's longest studio albums, finishing in just under an hour. Despite the inclusion of two saxophonists, the production isn't a blowing session. The sextet instead focuses their efforts on the intimacy and intricacy of each piece, and are rewarded with such easygoing delights as "Ancient Evening" and Don Braden's "Dance Of The One." Pianist Geoffrey Keezer joined Farmer in 1990, and his penchant for deft movements along the ivory has his contributions often arriving like sweeping sheets of rain shifting across the speakers. Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" is an opportunity for Farmer to demonstrate the range of his new flumpet, as its warmer tones fill the ballad, while still affording him the ability to climb up into brassy, higher registers during its sorrowful denouement.

Art Farmer was a reserved, stately gentleman; an artist whose contributions to the realm of jazz music couldn't possibly be counted on a discography or qualified with just a few eloquent words. His output spanned the full second half of the twentieth century, never waning in quality or commitment.

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