LP review

Red Rodney Quartet – “Red Giant” (1988 recording)

Red Rodney Quartet – Red Giant
(SteepleChase SCS 1233. 12” vinyl. Recorded in Denmark 6-7, April, 1988. Review by Leonard Weinreich)

Of all the notable jazz musicians (Allen, McKenzie, Nicholls, Norvo, Rodney, Garland, Callender) saddled with the nickname ‘Red’, arguably Rodney was the most colourful (and, no, I haven’t forgotten that Chicagoan veteran Red McKenzie, also a professional jockey, made his name blowing paper wrapped around a comb).

Born Robert Chudnick in 1927, he started studying trumpet at bar mitzvah age and gained big band swing experience in the brass sections of Jimmy Dorsey, Elliot Lawrence, Gene Krupa, Claude Thornhill, Woody Herman and Charlie Ventura. In 1946, having been gobsmacked by Dizzy Gillespie’s bravura appearance at Billy Berg’s club in Los Angeles, he experienced a wholehearted conversion to bebop.

Quickly mastering the new music’s complex demands, his talent and facility impressed no less a god than Charlie Parker who hired him for his band for a tour of southern states. He introduced the white, Jewish, red-headed Rodney as ‘Albino Red’, adding that he was “a well-known blues singer”, to defuse accusations of racial integration.

But Rodney’s life was stalked by darkness and drama. Following two years working with Bird, he eventually developed a serious heroin habit (as he reported later to critic Ira Gitler: “that was our badge…(it) gave us membership in a unique club…and we gave up everything in the world”).Falling asleep in the back seat of his car while his wife was driving, he was shaken awake to find that she, and their 14-year old daughter, were dead in the front seat after the car had plunged into a ravine. Then he assumed the identity and uniform of a U.S. Army officer and attempted some serious payroll frauds, a caper that had him spending time in a state penitentiary. In 1963, disastrously for a brass player, he lost teeth during a run-in with the San Francisco police causing severe dental and embouchure problems which, fortunately, he was able to overcome. In 1972, playing in Las Vegas show bands, he suffered a stroke.

It’s often said there are no second acts in American lives, but Red Rodney proved he was different kind of cat. Slowly and cautiously, with help from sympathetic fellow musicians, he managed to came back. And this album provides evidence of how far he’d travelled (literally). Recorded in Denmark during a European tour, we hear a mature musician whose experiences have shaped his music. Playing flugelhorn, his tone is deep and richly burnished. His playing is thoughtful and complex but never showy. The album opens with Red Giant, written after meeting vertically-challenged and disputatious fellow-trumpeter Ruby Braff in a bar, suggesting a duet album and arguing about who was the taller (Braff, by one centimetre). Taken medium slow, but with a firm rhythmic grip, it’s a showcase for Rodney’s sumptuous lower register. Hugo Rasmussen and Aage Tangaard provide reliable support. Pianist Butch Lacy, a U.S. émigré, is excellent throughout. It’s followed by the venerable Greensleeves (more than likely to be of Elizabethan origin than composed by Henry VIII), introduced by solo flugelhorn and sensitively styled as a slow waltz, which after an interlude from Tangaard, segues into an athletic version of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, a leap of half a millennium. Freed and Hollaender’s exquisite ballad, You Leave Me Breathless, receives sonorous low notes from Rodney and romantic piano from Lacy, the seductive kid-glove treatment it deserves.

Helene, a Rodney original, is a slow, poetic theme, sensitively introduced by Lacy with a few well-selected, almost minimalist notes. Rodney extends the mood with almost Milesian middle register tones. Rasmussen delivers a heartfelt bass solo. The band whips a Latin frenzy with Ron Miller’s Sun Child featuring some brass callisthenics from Rodney. Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye is shot through with yearning and some beautiful piano playing from Lacy. Finally, Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz gets a whiplash waltz makeover with Rodney dancing all over the horn.

I hope producer Nils Winther and engineer Ole Hansen were showered with praise for such a fine album and such wonderful sound.

Red Rodney, flugelhorn; Butch Lacy, piano; Hugo Rasmussen, bass; Aage Tangaard, drums

LINK: Mads Mathias’ tribute to Hugo Rasmussen

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