Sunday, March 13, 2016

Thad Jones & Mel Lewis All My Yesterdays


All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Recordings at the Village Vanguard
(2-CD + 87-page booklet; Resonance HCD-2023)

Thad Jones (tp, flh, arr, con); Jimmy Nottingham, Snooky Young*, Jimmy Owens, Bill Berry, Danny Stiles** (tp);
Bob Brookmeyer* (v-tb); Garnett Brown, Jack Rains, Tom McIntosh** (tb); Cliff Heather (b-tb);
Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion (as, cl, f); Joe Farrell (ts, cl, f); Eddie Daniels (ts, cl);
Marv “Doc” Holliday*, Pepper Adams** (bar-s);

Hank Jones (p); Sam Herman (g, perc); Richard Davis (b); Mel Lewis (d).

Recorded on February 7*, and March 21**, 1966. Total time: 48:49/77:13

Like a lonely dinosaur, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra has been appearing at the Village Vanguard for just over 50 years now. Basie, Ellington, Herman, and Kenton still roamed the world when it hatched, on the first Monday of February, 1966.

A good chunk of what was heard in the hallowed room that Monday and the one six weeks later is now available on CD, thanks, twice, to Resonance Records: once, because it's the label which has put it out; twice because its chairman, George Klabin, was the 19-year old who recorded the band then and there.

The story of this recordings has a bittersweet taste to it. Radio presenter Alan Grant (the voice in Wes Montgomery's Smokin' at the Half Note), the same man who tasked Klabin with the taping of these two gigs would, years later, do an unauthorized release of some of this music, possibly taken from a copy Klabin gave him way back when. More on that later.

This band was born after the demise of Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band, and a bunch of tunes Basie had commissioned from, and later dismissed, from Thad Jones. That, and the will of a few big band nuts like Jones, Lewis, and Bob Brookmeyer, straw boss of the CJB who would readily admit he made Mulligan have that band.

What made the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis's orchestra different, a turning point in the history of jazz large ensembles was its flexibility and the essential role of its conductor—Jones would shorten, stretch, introduce or delete sections of any given tune on the fly (you can hear him shouting at his older brother, Hank, on his own “Ah, That's Freedom”). His knack for catching the band by surprise showed from the very first, and unexpected, tune they played before an audience: “Back Bone” is a blues in C all right, but they had never played it before. Jerry Dodgion explains in the liner notes how Jones pointed at him and made him get the band started on his own. And this is what happened:

Soloists: the alto sax is Jerry Dodgion; on trombones, Bob Brookmeyer from 4:19, and Garnett Brown from 8:02.

Besides the flexibility and the apparent informality of the proceedings (hear some members of the band chanting behind the leader's solo on “Little Pixie”), the other main aspect is the focus on dynamics, how the band could go from the ensemble at full blast to a bass solo and back at once. In “Once Around”, for instance, Lewis disappears only to be replaced by fingers snapping, while Richard Davis carries on with the rhythm, and after a while the whole band returns. At one point in the same tune, Pepper Adams plays completely solo, with just Jones clapping the beat.

So, there's flexibility, extreme dynamics, supreme musicianship (from co-leader Lewis's brushwork upwards), which is all very good, but on top of that, there's the sheer excitement and fun the musicians enjoyed on the nights. “Once Around” is a good example of this, with a sensational solo by the rarely excitable Hank Jones, here pushed by his brother, Lewis on drums, and the whole band and audience. Also worth attention is Jerome Richardson, a seasoned session man who lets his hair down, like on “Little Pixie”.

Going back to that unauthorized release by Alan Grant (Opening Night, BMG 74321519392; New Zealand, 1997), understandably it hasn't received much publicity in the media, and let alone any sympathy from the musicians involved. However, it does exist and it needs commenting.

Firstly, the sound quality, the mix, is generally better on the Resonance. Except from some tape wear (“Ah, That's Freedom” at 4:23) and a defect on the opening two notes of Thad Jones's solo on “Once Around” (where the sound gets a bit muddy), this is pretty much impeccable for some 50-year old tapes from live gigs recorded by a teenager. The BMG has also some speed/pitch problems that are quite noticeable in some tracks.

There are many reasons, even ethical, why the Resonance is the issue to get, but it must be noted the following bits in the BMG which are missing in the Resonance: the introduction track, a chat between Grant and Mel Lewis (from an Alan Grant broadcast prior to the first gig, possibly from his WABC-FM programme on Friday, January 28th); the spoken introduction to “Mornin' Reverend” which, despite its poor balance, lets us know that it opened one set on the first night, and that the “Reverend” in the title is Father John Gensel, who was present; finally, there are three takes on the BMG which are not on the Resonance: “All My Yesterdays”, “Low Down”, and “Willow Weep for Me”; the latter is the most interesting one: Thad Jones's opening solo is more compelling in the way he gets in and out of the harmonies, and it seems to be missing the trombones' glissando on bar 2 of the arrangement. On the other hand, the Resonance, besides the nine previously unreleased tracks, has longer takes of “Big Dipper” (longer intro) and “Little Pixie” (the fade out comes later in the track).

There's very little to criticize in this lavishly presented edition. The 87-page book adds to the atmosphere, although some editing with the interviews would have made the text more fluid and agile. The sound is excellent, and the music not only marks a turning point in the history of American music, but it also swings like mad and it's a lot of fun.

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