Album reviews

‘Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band In Concert’ (rec. 1960)

‘Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band In Concert’
(SteepleChase SCCD 36502. Album review by Len Weinreich)

Sometime during the late 1940s, jazz hipperati first clocked Gerry Mulligan as a fledging composer and arranger slyly inserting bebop flavouring into charts for the Elliot Lawrence, Claude Thornhill and Gene Krupa big bands. In 1949, his reputation increased through his total immersion in the legendary Miles Davis’s ‘Birth of the Cool’ Nonet for which he supplied original charts and arrangements and occupied the baritone chair.

Until then (notable exceptions: the revered Harry Carney in Ellington’s orchestra, Serge Chaloff in Woody Herman’s Herd and, to a lesser extent, Jack Washington with Basie), the sole function of baritone saxophonists had been to anchor big band reed sections and/or, occasionally, provide corny novelty effects. But Mulligan, displaying the benign influence of Lester Young, redefined the baritone’s role by developing an individual timbre (significantly, his first wind instrument was the Bb clarinet) coupled with a fearsomely dextrous technique. Describing the unwieldy horn as ‘a butterfly with hiccups’, by giving it a lyrical voice he liberated the baritone forever.

But Mulligan’s big time arrived in 1952 at Los Angeles’ Haig club when he shocked aficionados by forming joining an iconoclastic quartet with trumpeter Chet Baker that elbowed the piano. Supported only by bass and drums, their two-part harmonies and counterpoint produced an airy, unencumbered sound unlike any other. Haig audiences were transported to a new level of cool.

Having applied his minimalist approach to upend the jazz universe, innate arranger Mulligan perplexed fans and critics by altering his approach. Instead of continuing with his stripped-down instrumentation, drawing on his arranging skills, he opted for sumptuous backdrops, draping his baritone with the dense textures and voluptuous harmonies of a full-blown jazz orchestra. Explaining why, eight years after his triumphant Haig debut, we hear him in 1960 surrounded by 14 star musicians at two concerts in Copenhagen and West Berlin.

In effect, it was a glorified arranger-fest. Mulligan shared chart duties with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer (the unofficial co-founder of the Concert Jazz Band, according to Neil Tesser’s informative sleeve notes), and the highly experienced arranger, Bill Holman.

The Danish concert opens with Mulligan’s spiky theme tune, Utter Chaos, before Buddy Clarke’s walking bass and Mel Lewis’s drums usher the band into Johnny Mandel’s Black Nightgownfrom the soundtrack of the noir Hollywood movie,‘I Want To Live’ (Mulligan played baritone on the soundtrack recording). The brilliance of the brass section, each member a virtuoso, stimulates excited Danish applause. Then the mood softens for Django Reinhardt’s exquisite Manoir De Mes Reves, a serious contender for thedreamiest jazz song ever composed. Over luscious organ chords, Mulligan reveals his emotions with elegance without ever resorting to sentimentality.

Due homage is paid to one of Mulligan’s greatest heroes, Johnny (Rabbit) Hodges, alto-saxophone superstar of the Ellington band, with the furiously fast 18 Carrots For Rabbit, arranged by Bill Holman and featuring exceptional (and elusive) altoist Gene Quill and the equally breath-taking reed section.

Johnny Mandel’s Latin-inspired Barbara’s Theme is the album’s second visit to the ‘I Want To Live’ movie soundtrack, this time featuring the trumpet of Don Ferrara and consummate big band drumming skills of Mel Lewis (who would later co-lead his own ground-breaking orchestra with trumpeter Thad Jones).

The next couple of tracks present two facets of Zoot Sims, master tenor saxophonist. Bill Holman arranged Mulligan’s composition Apple Core (a contrafact of Love Me Or Leave Me) at a fierce up-tempo, highly suited to Sims’ tearaway mode, immediately followed by Mulligan’s succulent chart of Arlen and Mercer’s ballad, Come Rain Or Come Shine, offering a glimpse of Sims’ more sensitive side.

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As well as appearing in the movie ‘Anatomy Of A Murder’ as a roadhouse piano player, Duke Ellington also wrote the unorthodox 6/8 time theme of I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ as part of the soundtrack (sometime later, singer Peggy Lee added lyrics). Trumpeter Conte Candoli, Zoot Sims and Mulligan take turns at weaving intricate solos around the tricky time signature and Brookmeyer’s lilting arrangement.

At track 9, the recording switches location to West Berlin which, in 1960, is a beleaguered island surrounded by a hostile Soviet sea. But neither harsh geopolitics nor the auditorium’s excess reverb faze this enthusiastic band. Both Brookmeyer and Mulligan solo on Brookmeyer’s fine arrangement of Rogers and Hart’s You Took Advantage Of Me demonstrating relaxed swing and relaxed dynamics prior to an abrupt and surprising halt. The first chorus of Mulligan’s Bweedia Bobbida provides a nostalgic reminder of the original Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker. Johnny Green’s Body And Soul, arranged by Brookmeyer, allows both Brookmeyer and Mulligan ample room to contemplate the venerable ballad against an opulent, yet sympathetic, backing from the band.

The extra versions of I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ and 18 Carrots For Rabbit recorded in Berlin provide unusual opportunities for listeners to contrast, compare and marvel at the soloists’ musical creativity. Furthermore, listeners can delight in an extra helping of the gifted Gene Quill, a much-overlooked alto player, once the recording partner of alto player, Phil Woods (‘Phil and Quill’).

So, if you crave unlimited virtuosity and brilliant arranging, all bristling with the high voltage of live performance, here’s your album. And many thanks to Nils Winther who restored the tapes with so much love and care.

TRACK LISTING: Utter Chaos; Black Nightgown; Manoir De Mes Reves; 18 Carrots For Rabbit (version-1); Barbara’s Theme; Apple Core; Come Rain Or Come Shine; I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ (version-1); You Took Advantage Of Me; Bweedia Bobbida; Body And Soul; 18 Carrots For Rabbit (version-2); I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ (version-2).

PERSONNEL: Gerry Mulligan, baritone saxophone and piano; Don Ferrara, Conte Candoli, Nick Travis, trumpets; Bob Brookmeyer, valve-trombone, Willie Dennis, Alan Raph, trombones; Gene Quill, clarinet and alto saxophone, Bob Donovan, alto saxophone, Jimmy Reider, Zoot Sims, tenor saxophones, Gene Allen, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Buddy Clarke, Bass, Mel Lewis, drums. Tracks 1-8 recorded at Tivoli’s Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark, 31 October 1960. Tracks 9-13 recorded in West Berlin, Germany, 4 November 1960.

LINK: Buy ‘Gerry Mulligan Concert Band in Concert’

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