Pianist Jimmy Rowles (1918-1996) is something of an insider name, writes songwriter/arranger/pianist Alex Webb (*), but most jazz listeners will have heard him in some or other context whether they realise it or not. He made more than 40 albums as leader and appears on perhaps 60 or so others, and his composition ‘The Peacocks’ has become a latter-day standard. Here are ten tracks to show some of the many facets of this true jazz individual:
1) Day In, Day Out – Billie Holiday, from Songs for Distingué Lovers (1957)
Rowles accompanied Billie Holiday on some of her best late studio sessions, such as this one for Norman Granz’s Verve label in 1957. All of his pianistic trademarks are here – the deft intro, the tinkling comments behind the vocal, then the quirky solo, full of original melodic shapes and rhythmic surprises. And the band – with Ben Webster, Harry Edison and Barney Kessel – swings like hell.
2) Lester Left Town – Stan Getz with Jimmy Rowles, from The Peacocks (1977)
Twenty years on, Rowles takes on a much more modern composition by Wayne Shorter. Pushed along by Elvin Jones, Rowles’ comping is more muscular and his percussive solo (a nod to another Billie accompanist, Mal Waldron?) conspicuously avoids bebop cliches. Getz is perfect, as usual.
3) They Didn’t Believe Me – Julie London, from Julie At Home (1960)
Rowles wrote the sleeve note for this 1960 album and, I suspect, the slick small-band arrangements. Rowles’ comping is faultless; his solo starts elegantly and then, half-way through he drops in a series of descending slurs as if to wake us up. London’s vocal is typically lush and seductive on this Jerome Kern song.
4) Used To Be Basie – Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, from Sweets (1956)
From 1956, with an almost identical band to the Billie date, Rowles’ solo is a masterclass in unhurried, supremely confident swinging and the use of space. Like many of the Granz recordings of the 1950s, this is a chance to hear mature talents like Webster and Edison who have nothing left to prove and can just lay down joyous music.
5) At Long Last Love – Carmen McRae, from The Great American Songbook (1972)
Singers loved working with Rowles, who could combine solid support with some playful commentary. This 1972 reading of the Cole Porter song is at the loping mid-tempo which suited Rowles so well, and his comping nudges things along while skilfully staying out of the way of guitarist Joe Pass.
6) Skylark – Hoagy Carmichael, from Hoagy Sings Carmichael (1956)
Carmichael, though certainly one of the great songwriters, had what might best be called a ‘signature’ voice. Rowles’ helps bring out the best of him with his superb ballad comping and tinkling ornaments from high up the keyboard, while Art Pepper contributes a sensitive and melodic solo.
7) Go Home – Gerry Mulligan, from Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (1963)
A blues which Rowles opens at his most Monk-ish; after Mulligan blows, Rowles’ extended solo, by turns rhapsodic and clunky, is surprisingly abstract, as if testing what he could get away with in such mainstream company. Then Webster brings it all home in his inimitable way.
8) Gone With The Wind – Ben Webster, from Live At The Renaissance (1960)
Another grooving performance with Ben, this time simply playful and carried along by the irresistible swing of Red Mitchell (bass) and Frank Butler (drums).
9) Brahms… I Think – Zoot Sims, from Suddenly It’s Spring (1983)
A rare Latin feel from Rowles here, in this theme borrowed from Johannes Brahms (which sounds like a charming old bolero). Rowles’ solo plays off bassist George Mraz in big, logical architectural shapes; Sims is authoritative (and perfectly in tune) on soprano.
10) A Timeless Place – Norma Winstone, from Well Kept Secret (1993)
Rowles contributed a lasting standard to the jazz repertoire, ‘The Peacocks’ – definitively played as an instrumental on the Stan Getz album of the same name. The peerless Norma Winstone wrote the impressionistic lyric for this beautiful, if nearly unsingable, melody, and she sings it with Rowles on this 1993 album. Then called ‘A Timeless Place’, it has since been recorded (under either title) by many singers including Mark Murphy, Tiny May, Tessa Soutar, Cécile McLorin Salvant and Jazzmeia Horn. The instrumental has been recorded by Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, John McLaughlin, Guy Barker and Clark Tracey – among many. But it’s hard to beat this version, in which Winstone’s haunting vocal is supported by Rowles’ superb piano accompaniment.
(*) LINK: Alex Webb’s website