Victor Feldman - Part 2: From Cannonball to Russia


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Victor's vibes 'sing out' with notes that are sustained into overtones, almost doing the impossible by giving the instrument a 'vocal' quality.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

As to the title of this piece, I thought about calling it "Part 2: The Cannonball Years," but since Victor was with Cannonball for only less than a full year, I thought that might be overstating things a bit. I lived in San Francisco for most of the decade of the 1990s. And it was there on March 4, 1999, a typical, foggy San Francisco late afternoon, that I met with record producer Orrin Keepnews, a hero of mine from my earliest days as a jazz fan.

We got together in one of the city's many restaurants serving Asian food, this one with the innocuous name of "The Beach House," located next to the now defunct Coronet Theater near the corner of Geary and Arguello. Orrin had very kindly consented to be interviewed about Victor Feldman, particularly about Victor's time with Cannonball Adderley's quintet and Victor's association with Riverside Records, which Orrin co- owned with Bill Grauer.

Although the sessions have since become legendary, at the time The Blackhawk gig [with which we closed Part 1] with Shelly Manne's group amounted to a couple of weeks of work for Victor plus some out- of-town expenses. Upon returning to Los Angeles in late September, 1959, Victor had to find work for his trio with Bob Whitlock on bass and John Clauder on drums, who was soon replaced by Colin Bailey.

There was also the matter of what to do about an attractive woman named "Marilyn" (the former Marilyn McGrath, whom he had met during a local gig. Nine months after they met, they married in 1960. As Victor recounted to John Tynan in his June 6, 1963 Downbeat article:

"I decided all of a sudden that I'd like to take her to England. I'd saved some money and we were away for three months. While we were there, I played the Blue Note in Paris and appeared with Kenny Clarke on a Dinah Shore TV special.

"Cannonball had called me about a month before I went back to England. He called me to make a record with Ray Brown, Wes Montgomery, Louis Hayes and himself. (Cannonball Adderley and the Poll Winners, Riverside/Landmark, 1960). While we were in England, I got a cable from him with a definite offer as a pianist-vibraphonist with his group."

Picking up my 1999 interview with Keepnews at the point of the Adderley Poll Winners album, Orrin said that he and Cannonball had decided to use guitarist Wes Montgomery and bassist Ray Brown on the album, which led them to think further about "unusual instrumentation." Although there was some talk about Les McCann, the feeling was that he was primarily a blues player but, more importantly, Cannonball just didn't want to use a pianist. The rest of the conversation went as described by Keepnews in the album's liner notes:

"With all the established musicians (including the regular Adderley drummer, Louis Hayes) living fully up to expectations, the surprise element was provided by the then-unknown Victor Feldman.

"In view of the unconventional feeling of guitar and bass, Cannon had wanted something less routine than just a pianist. West Coast friends recommended a highly skilled young L.A. studio vibraphonist, recently arrived from England; figuring that we only need him for coloration, we took a chance and invited him up [to San Francisco where the album was being recorded by Wally Heider at Fugazi Hall near North Beach.

"At rehearsal, Victor sat down at the piano to demonstrate a couple of his compositions. I can still clearly visualize all of us standing there, open-mouthed and thunderstruck, as we listened to the totally unexpected swinging and funky playing of this very white young Britisher.

"Finally one of us, struck by an apparent facial resemblance, expressed our mutual amazement. 'How can the same man,' I asked, 'look like Leonard Feather and sound like Wynton Kelly?'

"As you will note, two of Feldman's tunes [The Chant and Azul Serape] were inserted into the repertoire; and within just a couple of months he had been hired as the Adderley Quintet's regular pianist."

As was the case at this time, all vibraharpists were quite unfairly cast in the shadow of Milt Jackson, yet Victor's vibes solo on Frank Loesser's "Never Will I Marry" on The Poll Winners is four choruses of the most original vibes playing you're ever likely to hear. Not only that, it doesn't contain one Milt Jackson "lick" or a single repeated phrase.

In the flood of admiration for Milt Jackson's playing as a vibraphonist—most of it deserving but some of it simply fawning—by the New York-based Jazz writers, Victor's development of his own, singular approach to playing the instrument was never given the attention it deserved. Victor was always very respectful of Milt and his contributions, but what he plays during the "Never Will I Marry" improvisations are inventions that go well beyond Jackson's sometimes repetitive, blues-inflected phrasing.

Mike Hennessey,in his insert notes to Dynavibes: The Jeff Hamilton Trio featuring Frits Landesbergen (Mons, 1997), comments that Landesbergen, the excellent Dutch drummer who plays vibes on this album, " ... also has a high regard for the late Victor Feldman. He says: 'Victor was a great, all- round musician who played piano, vibes and drums and who was a fine composer and arranger. I think his vibraphone playing was more advanced harmonically than most other players."

Victor had one of the most astute harmonic minds in jazz, a gift that would be exemplified in his ability to re-harmonize something as pedestrian as "Basin Street Blues," as well as to infuse interesting harmonies with advanced rhythmic structures to create tunes like "Joshua" and "Seven Steps to Heaven."

Returning to the Keepnews interview, Orrin implied that Victor's hiring by Cannonball validated him on the New York jazz scene. For example, it made possible Victor's own release on Riverside of Merry Olde Soul (1960) as well as his appearance on other Riverside albums such as those by tenor-flutist James Clay and bassist Sam Jones, who even named one of his Riverside dates after Victor's tune—"The Chant." On this album, Victor shared principal arranging responsibility with Jimmy Heath.

The driving force behind much of this activity was Cannonball, who had become a kind of ex officio artists & repertoire man for Orrin at Riverside. One of the reasons for Cannonball's status in this regard, according to Orrin, was that, unlike many musicians, "Cannonball was extremely articulate and therefore able to express his ideas very clearly. Cannonball's approval of Victor's playing and his work gained for him instant acceptance with me and some of the giants of the music, including Miles Davis, who had tremendous respect for Cannon."

Orrin further reflected that had Victor remained in the New York area, the natural course of events would have been such that he would have made a major mark on the Jazz scene. As it was, Miles Davis looked him up when he went to "the Coast" in 1963, and the result was the Seven Steps to Heaven album.

However, the rigors of traveling which impacted adversely on his recent marriage to Marilyn and the monetary lure of the Hollywood studios proved too great and he returned to Los Angeles in 1961.

Since we all live the consequences of our choices, instead of dwelling on "what-might-have-been," let's spend time on the recordings that Victor did make while with Cannonball, in concert with others and those he made as a leader, as this is a wonderfully productive period in his career.

In their 1963 interview, Victor shared with John Tynan: "Actually, my first gig with Adderley's band was the 1960 Monterey Jazz Festival [held in September of every year]. I remember, we played 'Dis Here' [a Bobby Timmons tune and Cannonball's earliest "hit recording"] and I got lost on it."

Ironically, when Victor began his recorded tenure with Cannonball the following month, it landed him right back at his old stomping grounds—The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California. As Orrin Keepnews commented in his insert notes to The Cannonball Adderley Quintet at The Lighthouse (Riverside /Landmark, 1960):

"This was Victor's first recording with Cannonball's quintet ...and the zest he adds to an already highly- charged unit is certainly among the highlights here."

This is not hyperbole on Keepnews' part as Victor's presence is felt throughout this album be it in the form of the I-dare-you-not-to-tap-your-foot during his five solo choruses on Jimmy Heath's "Big P," a blues tribute to bassist big brother, Percy, or be it in the form of his intriguing original composition "Exodus" with its modal vamp and its circle-of-fifths bridge and which also has Julian saying "Yeah, Vic" to his brilliantly constructed solo on the tune, or be it in the form of his masterful comping on "What is This Thing Called Love?," the evergreen that closes out the album (a classic example of Victor "drumming" from the piano chair).

And on this album, it's easy to discern that one year and one month after the Blackhawk sessions recorded with Shelly Manne's quintet, Victor's piano chops had come a long way as the improvised lines just flow from his right hand. As is exemplified on "Azul Serape," the other original by Victor that Cannonball included in this album, this time the block chord rhythmic riffs are interspersed throughout the piano solo and the "tag" that ends the tune instead of being relied on to complete the solo. Victor has more stamina and control while at the keyboard, and there's little doubt that both of these skills would continue to grow as a result of his time with Cannon.

While in town for The Lighthouse appearance, Victor participated on James Clay's A Double Dose of Soul (Riverside/OJC, 1960). Recorded on October 11, 1960, it was part of the "Cannonball Adderley Presentation series" and as such was an example of what Keepnews meant when he talked about the effects of Cannonball's patronage on Victor's career.

Vic, who always had a knack for writing no small number of tunes that were rhythmically and harmonically interesting to play on, contributed "New Delhi" and "Pavanne" (a jazz waltz) to the Clay session while playing vibes on these and an up-tempo version of the standard "I Remember You." On this latter track in particular, you can hear the continued maturity of his vibes playing, especially on the three choruses of four-bar "trades" (back and forth solos between flute and vibes, each spanning four bars of the tune) with Clay's flute following Gene Harris' piano solo. His vibes are marked by a clean and accurate attack and a series of interesting harmonic substitutions upon which he builds his improvisations. There is very little of the Milt Jackson blues-inflected picks-ups or licks, nor anything that is reminiscent of the heavier, mallet attack of Lionel Hampton or Terry Gibbs in his style. Victor's vibes "sing out" with notes that are sustained into overtones, almost doing the impossible by giving the instrument a "vocal" quality.

Soon after their stint at The Lighthouse, Cannonball's quintet embarked on a tour of Europe as the group was becoming something of a phenomenon in world-wide Jazz coteries, in no small part due to Riverside's earlier albums featuring the group, most especially the In San Francisco album (Riverside/OJC, 1959). The band traveled as part of a Norman Granz-organized "Jazz at the Philharmonic" package, from which two albums were later produced on Granz' Pablo label.

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