Victor Feldman - Part 1: The Arrival


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"At the time, I had no idea that Victor played drums. I soon found out as he thoroughly answered my question as well as demonstrating the answer. Shortly thereafter, Victor Feldman agreed to offer me lessons.

In an interview with him and fellow guitarist Pat Martino conducted by Jim Macnie for the March 1997 issue of Downbeat Les Paul commented: "We learn so much if we're wise enough or lucky enough to listen to the right players." I certainly "got lucky" in meeting Victor when I did as he proved to be a kind and gentle mentor from whom I learned so much.

During his year-and-a-half stay at The Lighthouse, Victor began getting more and more calls for a variety of recording dates, including the previously mentioned Vic Feldman on Vibes, the first recording date under his own name since arriving in Los Angeles.

Significantly, this date would include Carl Perkins on piano, from whom Victor had learned so much about chord voicings (the method in which notes are played together in distinctive, vertical structures), in a rhythm section completed by Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Stan Levey on drums.

As his front-line mates Victor chose Frank Rosolino on trombone and Harold Land on tenor saxophone. On the recording the group performs six tunes, four of which are Victor's originals, including his striking "Evening in Paris," a tune that was to become a fixture in the Lighthouse All-Stars' repertoire.

Victor preferred the hard-driving and "harder" sound that Rosolino projected, and he was absolutely enamored with the big, bluesy "Texas-tenor" style of Land. In combination, Rosolino and Land produced what Leonard Feather described as "a more vigorous California sound."

Interestingly, with the exception of Victor replacing Carl Perkins on piano, this same group would re- unite as a quintet a year later under Frank Rosolino's leadership for an album that was eventually released under the title of Free For All (Specialty/OJC, 1958).

1958 opened with Victor going into a Contemporary Records studio along with Scott LaFaro on bass and Stan Levey on drums to record The Arrival of Victor Feldman (Contemporary/OJC), a recording that was to become in many ways the most noteworthy of his career.

As Victor recounts in Nat Hentoff's liner notes: "It was shortly after I began working at the Lighthouse that Victor, Scott LaFaro and Stan Levey started playing together, first at the club, and then we felt so good we played on our own."

As taken from my interview with him at the 50th Anniversary Lighthouse celebration, Stan Levey commented about this recording: "The group we had with Scotty was like a moment-in-time, and the Arrival album is a musical treasure. Victor was an unbelievable player in every way; just listen to him, he was perfection."

Hentoff goes on to say in his liner notes: "The general consensus of appraisal among those American jazzmen who have heard him is that Victor's future will be sizeable and rewarding. It seems to me that ... Victor has ... [a] naturally organic conception, emotional resources, idiomatic heat and growing individuality."

In their 6th Edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Richard Cook and Brian Morton offer this evaluation of the Arrival album:

"Arrival is a marvelous record, completed just after Victor had settled in Los Angeles. LaFaro's role in extending the vocabulary of the piano trio is well-documented in his association with Bill Evans, but given how tragically foreshortened his career was, it's surprising that these sides haven't received more attention. As ever, the young bassist is firm-toned, melodic and endlessly inventive, and the interplay with the piano is stunning: long, highly wrought lines round basic bop figuration. Levey's accents are quietly insistent and the whole recording seems to have been miked very close, as was the practice at the time. 'Serpent's Tooth,' 'Satin Doll,' and 'There's No Greater Love' are the outstanding tracks. This should certainly be in the collection of anyone interested in the evolution of the piano trio in jazz..."

Victor, Scotty and Stan were recorded by Howard Rumsey later in September, 1958 in a performance at The Lighthouse along with tenor saxophonist, Richie Kamuca. Consisting of two tracks—Sonny Rollins' "Paul's Pal" (misnamed "It Could Happen to You" on the record) and John Coltrane's Bass Blues—these two tracks were issued along with three cuts by trumpeter Joe Gordon performing with Shelly Manne and His Men at the Lighthouse in 1960 as West Coast Days: Joe Gordon & Scott LaFaro (Fresh Sound). One can only hope that more of the music from this great trio will one day surface from The Lighthouse vault.

I recall Victor commenting about this trio in retrospect by saying: "Scotty and I were so young in those days and so caught up in the music that we had no idea of what we couldn't do. Stan [Levey] had such great time and laid it down so hard that it made it possible for Scotty to free up the time, something that he really went on to develop later with Bill Evans. But Stan and I were such straight-ahead players that we couldn't wait for him to start playing in 4/4 and away from the freer feeling. He really set the instrument on a different course"

This recollection harkens back to Wynton Marsalis' point: "Change the rhythm and you change the music."

Howard Rumsey, The leader of the Lighthouse All-Stars and the bassist in the group described Scott LaFaro's accomplishment this way: "His use of two base voices, a falsetto-like solo sound and a full-bodied, well- rounded walking tone timbre, made him an inspiration to most jazz players that heard him or followed him." [quoted in the insert notes to West Coast Days: Joe Gordon & Scott LaFaro.

Unfortunately, a trio that Stan Levey described as "a moment in time" disbanded when Scotty left for New York in 1959 and Victor decided to move on to other things and to leave The Lighthouse All-Stars. As he told John Tynan, the reason for this decision was "because I felt I had been in one place too long; musically you can stay in one place just so long."

However, Victor's availability would prove portentous as it would make it possible for him to participate as a temporary replacement for pianist Russ Freeman in Shelly Manne's group during its September, 1959 two- week engagement at Guido Cacianti's Blackhawk at the corner of Turk & Hyde in San Francisco.

One of my earliest impressions of Victor centered around how the All-Stars radiated a crackling, propulsive drive underscored by Stan Levey's impeccable time coupled with Victor's percussive and hard-driving piano "comping" (musician-speak for "accompaniment"). It was a characteristic of Victor's playing that always impressed me—his drive was formidable as can be heard in any variety of settings and I think it was largely responsible for transforming Shelly Manne's group in the seminal sessions recorded and issued by Contemporary from the group's Blackhawk appearances (Contemporary/ OJC).

Let's "talk" further about these classic recordings and Victor's role in helping to make them so singular from the perspective of three authorities on West Coast jazz: Ted Gioia, author of West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 (New York: Oxford, 1992), Bob Gordon, author of Jazz West Coast: The Los Angeles Jazz Scene of the 1950s (London: Quartet, 1990), and Lester Koenig, the owner of Contemporary Records who produced these in-performance albums and wrote their liner notes.

As Gioia recalls (pp. 279-280):

"The final newcomer [Shelly reorganized The Men in 1959 adding Joe Gordon on trumpet and Richie Kamuca on tenor sax] to the Manne group for the Blackhawk session was an unexpected last-minute substitution. Manne regular pianist Russ Freeman had left on a road trip with Benny Goodman around the time of the San Francisco engagement. Looking for a replacement on short notice, Manne settled on Victor Feldman.

"More familiar to some listeners as a vibes player, Feldman made clear his piano credentials during the Blackhawk gig—his ensuing engagement with Cannonball Adderley is reported to be the result of the latter's favorable response to the Manne recordings...

"Feldman... never gained the jazz reputation he deserved, although he eventually established himself as one of the premier studio musicians in Southern California.... His piano playing was anything but the limited 'two-fingered' approach of many doubling vibraphonists and instead revealed a rich harmonic texture, a strong percussive element, and a good sense of space and melodic development."

Or as Bob Gordon shares (pp.206-207):

"There was a bit of apprehension about Feldman, who was in effect learning the book on the job, but he fitted in from the start. ... Cannonball Adderley was so impressed by Victor's playing on the [Blackhawk] sides he hired Feldman for his own group."

And lastly, Les Koenig's insert-note comments:

"Those who know Victor Feldman as a vibes player will be startled to discover that on the Blackhawk set he plays piano only. Whether he is comping for the horns, or soloing, his invention, drive, and basic jazz feeling put him in the front rank of today's jazz pianists."

I think the world of Russ Freeman, Shelly's regular pianist and, having lived for a number of years within a 10 minute drive to Shelly's Hollywood club, The Manne Hole, I had the opportunity to hear Shelly with a variety of groups.

Maybe it was because they were trying to keep warm during the damp and cold San Francisco nights, but rhythmically, none of Shelly's quintets ever sounded as "heated," and tenaciously tight (together) as the Blackhawk version. To my ears, the indisputable reason for this was the presence of Victor Feldman. He makes Shelly play differently: more forcefully, with more imagination and more daring. And these changes in Manne's playing affect everyone in the group causing them to take more chances, play in a more physical manner and to create what Richard Cook and Brian Morton have called "One of the finest and swingingest mainstream recordings ever made" (Penguin Guide, p. 957).

Victor could have that effect on people. He played drums from the piano stool and booted the band along.

Some years later when I asked Shelly about these dates, he said: "Well, I can't say it was like having another drummer on these sessions as we both know that he is another one and what a bad-ass drummer he can be. The feeling is just different with Vic; it's like looking into a musical mirror only your hearing it, not seeing it."

I also asked Victor about my observation, and he laughed and said" "You have to remember that I had only been playing piano on a regular basis for less than two years when I made the Blackhawk gig. I didn't have the facility yet so I would have to fall back on chorded rhythmic phrases, particularly at the end of a long solo. After a bit, I got the feeling that Shelly liked me to bring this into my solos so he could do some things behind it.

"But what I remember most about that gig was that everybody had a good time. We couldn't wait for it to start each night."

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