Good Old Good Ones: Davis and Tjader

At a concert, Louis Armstrong almost invariably said, “And now, we’re going to lay one of those good old good ones on you.” He used variations of that introductory line during his entire career. Here’s an example, on video, from 1933. I’m borrowing Pops’s line and applying it to two albums from the mid-1950s. This fits in with Deborah Hendrick’s (she has a last name, after all) request to suggest CDs she can recommend to friends who are neophyte jazz listeners.
Concord, through its Fantasy, Inc. subsidiary, has just released another batch of RVG Remasters, named for Rudy Van Gelder, the gifted engineer who recorded them and has digitally updated his original work. It includes Walkin’: The Miles Davis All-Stars, two sessions from April, 1954 with brilliant playing by Davis, trombonist J.J. Johnson, tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson, alto saxophonist Dave Schildkraut, pianist Horace Silver, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke. Most jazz musicians and many listeners who came up in the fifties and sixties know the album’s solos by heart, particularly those on “Walkin'” and “Blue and Boogie.” The title tune has become a part of the basic repertoire. Davis had yet to make what repeater-pencil jazz writers persist in describing as his “comeback” at the Newport Jazz Festival the following year. He had never been away. He was yet to record the series of Columbia albums that brought him widespread fame, but he was a major figure in jazz. He, Johnson, Thompson and Silver were inspired in their improvisations on the sextet date. Their solos so quickly became ingrained in the minds of jazz musicians everywhere that within weeks of the album’s release, you could hear paraphrases of them in jam sessions and, before long, in other recordings. More than half a century later, they are a part of the lingua franca of jazz.
In the quintet session, the other horn was Schildkraut, whose alto playing so closely resembled Charlie Parker’s that no less a Parker intimate than Charles Mingus thought that he was hearing Parker when Leonard Feather played Schildkraut’s “Solar” solo for him in a blindfold test. Throughout both sessions, the rhythm section demonstrates that perfect accompaniment can be as satisfying as the improvisation it supports. Focusing on Heath’s bass lines alone can bring great rewards. This is a record to go back to time and again for deeper discoveries.
In 1956, Cal Tjader recorded Cal Tjader Quartet, an album that received little critical notice and sold modestly but over the decades has proved one of the most enduring of the vibraharpist’s dozens of recordings. By 1956, Tjader was becoming better known for his role in the development of Afro-Cuban jazz than as the straight-ahead musician who debuted with the Dave Brubeck Octet and later was the drummer and occasional vibist in Brubeck’s trio. In a pickup date while he and his bassist Eugene Wright were in Hollywood, Tjader brought in pianist Gerald Wiggins and drummer Bill Douglass. Everything clicked. They produced a collection notable for its consistent sensitivity and good feeling. Their “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is one of the finest jazz versions of that piece. The album has an engaging balance of swinging peformances with three slower ones that demonstrate Tjader’s seldom-recognized status as one his generation’s most effective players of ballads. His “For All We Know” solo alone proves that, and his playing on Wright’s “Miss Wiggins,” incorporating the “new blues” harmonic changes introduced by Charlie Parker, gives insights into his understanding of the blues.
Wiggins’ comping complements Tjader in quite a different manner than that of the funkier Vince Guaraldi, who was Tjader’s regular pianist at the time. Wiggins’ solos are a delight. He manages to combine harmonic and melodic delicacy with muscular swing. The sturdy, dependable Wright melds with Douglass, one of the great brush artists among drummers, into a mutual surge that floats the entire enterprise. The instrumentation inevitably brings to mind the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was riding high in 1956, but too much has been made of the comparison. This is music with its own flair and personality.
Concord deserves credit for keeping this and other valuable music available in the Fantasy Original Jazz Classics reissue program. But how long the OJC program will last is anybody’s guess. I recommend prompt action if you want to acquire these and other CDs in the OJC series.

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