Warne Marsh Quartet

Nic Jones By

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...Marsh did indeed possess such improvisational skills that his playing was marked by the absence of licks and a flair for quick thinking.
Throughout the history of the music players have relied upon licks as staples of their musical vocabulary, phrases or turns of phrase which, whilst they haven't been the be-all and end-all of any musician's style, have been an integral part of too many styles to discuss here. Warne Marsh was one of the starkest exceptions to this rule. Described by the British critic Alun Morgan as 'one of the greatest improvisers our music has ever known'(1) Marsh did indeed possess such improvisational skills that his playing was marked by the absence of licks and a flair for quick thinking. He never took the obvious approach in his music making, and the fact that he spent almost his entire career working within the realm of popular songs, or what might be described as variations upon popular songs, makes his legacy on record all the more remarkable.

Unlike John Coltrane, or Wayne Shorter, say, Marsh does not in the present day have a band of professional adherents for whom his playing is not only the primary source of inspiration, but also the first and last word. Only Ted Brown, and more recently Mark Turneer, amongst a select group that also includes Lenny Popkin and Jimmy Halperin, a guest on the latter of the two discs discussed here, have put out more than a couple of records under their own name.

Despite the fact that the two of them are so readily associated, Marsh did not share a prolonged musical association with Lee Konitz -'Lee 'n' Warne' does not roll as readily off the tongue as does 'Al 'n' Zoot'. However their limited association has its foundations in the time they spent together under the tutelage of Lennie Tristano, to whose small groups of the late 1940s and early 1950s they made such telling contributions. The association did not end there, as they turned up on each other's records and at each other's gigs at various times.

For convenience Marsh has sometimes been regarded as a proponent of the 'cool school'. His musical association with the area from which this sound emanated was at best tenuous; cerebral though his playing was, the level of invention was enough to heat it up. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on Back Home (Criss Cross), where the pianist is Barry Harris, arguably the most visible keeper of Bud Powell's flame, and one of the most devout adherents of his bebop message. The two men effortlessly surmount any supposed stylistic obstacles, and the outcome is solid music making.

The other side of the coin reveals that Marsh put in some of his most conventional playing on record in the course of Music For Prancing (VSOP), where he's to be found in the company of a sympathetic and two-thirds West Coast -and thus 'cool'- rhythm section consisting of the British-born pianist Ronnie Ball, bassist Red Mitchell, and Stan Levey on drums. Marsh's phrasing throughout is some of his most direct on record, and there's nothing in the way of negative creative tension within the group. The date simply flows by, with the ebb and flow of ideas always running at a high level. On 'You Are Too Beautiful' Marsh sounds as though he's thoroughly enjoying himself, not the easiest feeling to convey, whilst 'Autumn In New York' right from Ball's unaccompanied introduction, has just the slightest hint of melancholy, which is far from inappropriate in musicians prompted perhaps to ponder the closing months of another year.

Marsh's own 'Playa Del Ray' balances that melancholy with a kind of restrained exuberance dictated by the medium tempo at which the song is taken. Ball is present and correct with fleet-fingered articulation, whilst Marsh, whose solo comes first, works out over the accompaniment of just bass and drums with cleanly articulated notes that are a tribute to the control he had over the tenor sax. As Marsh's career progressed, so that control grew only more evident.

By the time of 'Back Home' he was one of the most distinctive saxophone players on the planet; he hadn't reached that status through anything other than single-minded devotion, and although Halperin might be considered an acolyte of Marsh, his tone is fuller, as can be heard on Tristano's apposite 'Two Not One', notable also for how Marsh was nothing if not an accomodating player and a master of the not inconsiderable are of true musical collaboration.

Elsewhere, he proves himself equal to the demands of a fast tempo on his own 'Big Leaps For Lester', a nod to Lester Young at the same time as it's far removed from that man's musical domain -certainly the 'Flintstones' theme, which Marsh quotes in the absence of licks, was not around when Young was. Given the tempo it's unsurprising that Harris reveals his love for the bebop idiom, and through so doing evokes the spirit of Bud Powell, without aping his distinct musical mannerisms.

Now that tradition has become such an issue in jazz, thanks largely to the sharply dressed neophytes who keep spouting rhetoric about it, the career of a musician like Warne Marsh can seem like little more than a musical cul-de-sac, the product of his undoubted musicianship and fertile imagination; to be sure, in the years between the two albums discussed here his playing retained all of its idiosyncratic individuality. Assuming this to be the case, it tells us a lot about how the notion of jazz has become devalued. If Marsh's work is not seen as an end in itself, but rather as the product of a highly distinctive voice within a much broader continuum, then his music, for all of its cerebrality, becomes serious fun for those who have ears for listening.

1. Booklet note for Warne Marsh / Lee Konitz Quintet 'Live At The Montmartre Club.
Jazz Exchange Vol. 1. Storyville STCD 8201 (1983)

Photo Credit
Sheera Waisman (1977)


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