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Vic Dickenson: The Essential Vic Dickenson

Mark Barnett By

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Vic Dickenson: Vic Dickenson: The Essential Vic Dickenson Getting Started

If you're new to jazz, go to our Getting Into Jazz primer for some hints on how to listen.

CD Capsule

Timeless, straight-ahead 1950's jazz, played with passion and elegance by seasoned musicians at the top of their game. Don't look for bebop or coolness here. These guys weren't interested in revolutions.

Background

Although the 1950's are generally viewed as a period of Father-Knows-Best comfort and conformity, that decade was marked by major upheaval in the world of jazz. The big bands were struggling, dinosaur-like, to avoid extinction amid changes in economics and public taste, while the new sounds of bebop and cool jazz were roiling the air on the east and west coasts. Amid all the turmoil, a loosely bound group of veteran musicians, most of them big-band alumni, continued to play and record straight-ahead, no frills jazz, blissfully uninfluenced by the changes around them.

Some of the best of their recordings were issued under the Vanguard Records label, and of those, the Vic Dickenson Septet series—now re-issued as The Essential Vic Dickenson —is arguably the crème-de-la-crème. Most of the music on this disc is relaxed, easygoing. At the same time, it's openly emotional—by turns sad, playful, joyous, uplifting. And it's pervaded throughout by a certain elegance, which says something about the skill and sensibility of these musicians.

If you buy the disc, choose the genuine Vanguard re-issue for optimum sound quality. (It's a single disc with a photo of Dickenson surrounded by stuffed animals on the cover, and contains 10 tracks, from "Russian Lullaby" to "Suspension Blues.")

Although Dickenson is the nominal "leader," playing time is divided evenly among the key soloists: trombonist Dickenson; trumpeter Ruby Braff; clarinetist Edmond Hall, and pianist Sir Charles Thompson. Each brings a unique, easily recognizable voice to the group. Braff, the youngest member at 26, combines a rich, plummy tone with prodigious technical skill. (He doesn't play on three of the ten tracks.) To discover the roots of Braff's playing, listen to the groundbreaking 1926 Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven disc in "Getting Into Jazz." Hall, also heard in the Wild Bill Davison disc in "Getting Into Jazz," is searing and insistent in the instrument's upper register, gentle and plaintive in the lower. Dickenson brings a unique "voice" to his instrument, shouting, growling, slyly insinuating as he slips and slides from one note to the next. And Thompson is a master at telling musical stories using just a few, perfect notes.

CD Highlights

Track 5, "I Cover the Waterfront"

Many singers have recorded this song over the years, but it will always belong to Billie Holiday. Listen to her wistful, plaintive version, then give the Dickenson crew a chance. Notice how they've respected her approach to the song, expanding and elaborating on the aura she created. In their hands, "Waterfront" becomes an opus, a passionate, eight-minute exploration in which each musician, through a series of increasingly intense solos, engraves his own emotional signature on the melody.

The track opens with Braff laying down the verse with a tone so rich you can almost eat it with a spoon. At 1:03, Hall inserts the bridge, his delicate, breathy sound playing off nicely against Braff's. At 2:03, Thompson's piano solo begins as merely decorative, but at 2:34 he picks it up with some fine improvisation. At 3:01, a brief solo from Dickenson that's a perfect introduction to his swooping, sliding approach to the trombone. Notice that by almost humanizing the instrument's sound, he's able to convey a lot of feeling in just a few notes.

At 3:33, it's back for another brief statement by Thompson, and then at 4:02, Hall reprises the verse —quietly at first, then taking it up a notch with an upper-register outburst. At 4:59, it's Braff's turn to do the bridge. And then comes something special. At 5:32, as Braff is closing his solo, Hall suddenly cuts him off with a long, penetrating note of such raw emotion that it takes us by surprise. Go back and play that sequence again: Braff's last few pretty notes, then Hall's explosive cry of passion. A moment to remember. The rest of Hall's solo, in which he alternately soars and whispers, is possibly the best sequence in the track. After a nicely improvised solo by Thompson, the song is put to rest with Braff blowing hard and hot right up until the end.

Track 2, "Keeping Out of Mischief Now"

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