Medium But Well Done

Rifftides reader Charles Landy wrote:

 Enjoy your blog immensely. Bought 3 Rod Levitt LPs on e-bay recently and found them (especially Insight) just as rewarding as you suggested. Have some Billy Byers and some other perhaps (to many jazz fans of recent vintage) lesser known musicians like Pete Rugolo, Tom Talbert, Ralph Burns, Marty Paich, Frank Capp, Nat Pierce, Carl Fontana, Jimmy Gourley, Don Fagerquist and Bob Florence. But would appreciate it if you could devote a blog day or small series to recommending other somewhat obscure but highly enjoyable artists and arrangers like Levitt.

Levitt.jpgMuch of what makes Levitt interesting, of course, is that there is no one like him. Mr. Landy’s list covers arrangers, leaders and soloists, but I take it that “like Levitt” means he is asking about medium-sized groups. Six to eleven pieces allow arrangers freedom that the conventions and sheer size of sixteen-piece bands tend to limit. Medium-sized groups have been important since the beginnings of jazz. For Charles Landy and anyone else interested, I’ll mention a few recordings from various eras and styles, with brief comments, and links to recordings where possible.

“Go ‘Long, Mule” is a logical place to start in a survey of medium-sized groups, an investigation that could lead into dozens of interesting nooks and crannies. Fletcher Henderson organized the prototype of the big bands of the swing era. He eventually had fourteen pieces, but his first recording in the fall of 1923 was with six.
Henderson 2.jpgEight months passed before he expanded to ten men. They included the young avant garde players Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman and Louis Armstrong. All of them and trombonist Charlie Green solo on Redman’s arrangement of “Go ‘Long, Mule” from October, 1924. To hear it, click here. Remastering is far from perfect in the three-CD box set A Study In Frustration: The Fletcher Henderson Story, but it’s the most Henderson available under one roof.

Red Norvo’s all-star nonet date of 1935 established no arranging landmarks, but it brought together a remarkable collection of players–Norvo, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Chu Berry, Jack Jenney, Teddy Wilson, George Van Eps, Artie Bernstein and Gene Krupa. Among the four pieces from the session is the remarkable “Blues in E-flat” with its masterpiece Norvo xylophone solo and very good choruses from Wilson and Berigan. The Norvo tracks are included in this CD.

In his series of combo recordings for RCA Victor in the late 1930s and early ’40s, Lionel
Hampton.jpgHampton never had fewer than six pieces. He frequently had ten or eleven, and the players were the finest he could attract. Harry James, Dave Matthews, Babe Russin, Jess Stacy and Ziggy Elman–Hampton’s white colleagues from the Benny Goodman band–were likely to team up in the studio with Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Herschel Evans, John Kirby and Billy Kyle.
 Hampton’s goal was to produce the best music possible, and he succeeded in dozens of superior examples of small band swing. In the process, like Goodman and Norvo, he pioneered in bringing black and white musicians together. All of the Hampton Victor sessions are in an indispensable new Mosaic box set.

On a scale of orderliness, recordings by Hampton’s medium-sized groups were a degree or two above jam sessions. Duke Ellington’s were another matter. They were almost always led in name by members of his orchestra but, with few exceptions, Ellington did the “writing,” even if it was last-minute studio inventions for the ensembles.
Ellington.jpgWhether the putative leader was Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams or Rex Stewart, the small group sessions had Ellington’s creative earmarks; plenty of opportunities for the soloists in arrangements notable for Ellington’s genius at tonal organization, even in impromptu situations. A pair of two-CD boxes called The Duke’s Men contains ninety-eight recordings made from 1934 to 1939 by medium-sized Ellington units. Some of them were lightweight, aimed at the pop market, but none is less than enjoyable, and they include classics like “Clouds In My Heart,” “The Jeep Is Jumpin’,” “Dooji Wooji” and “Stompy Jones.”

The first nine tracks on Johnny Hodges: Passion Flower are by a seven-piece Ellington group from 1940 and ’41. They are essential to any reasonably serious jazz collection. The players are
Hodges.jpgHodges, Ellington Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Jimmy Blanton and Sonny Greer. The pieces are triumphs of small-group Ellingtonia: “Day Dream,” “Good Queen Bess,” “That’s The Blues Old Man,” Junior Hop,” Squatty Roo,” “Passion Flower,” “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” and “Going Out The Back Way.” I can sing along with every note of “Going Out The Back Way.” It was the theme of my first radio program, Teen Talent Time, when I was seventeen. The engineer called it Teen Torture Time. But the theme song was terrific.

In 1946, Woody Herman and his Woodchoppers recorded nine tracks that are glories of the medium-sized oeuvre (I’ve always wanted to use that word). The
Herman.jpgWoodchoppers were a ten-piece unit from Herman’s First Herd: Herman, clarinet and alto sax; Sonny Berman and Shorty Rogers, trumpet; Bill Harris, trombone; Flip Phillips, tenor sax; Red Norvo, vibes; Jimmy Rowles, piano; Billy Bauer, guitar; Chubby Jackson, bass; Don Lamond,drums; arrangements by Ralph Burns, Rogers and Bauer. Because of the popularity of Herman’s band, the horn soloists and Norvo were among the most famous in jazz. Their solos are at a high level on the Woodchoppers tracks, the swing and spirit of the band irresistible, the arrangements ingenious, the execution full of harmonic and rhythmic daring. Rowles solos little, but his profoundly individual approach to accompaniment is vital to the success of these recordings.

“Igor,” “Fan It” and “Lost Weekend” are on a two-disc First Herd set called Blowin’ Up A Storm,” but the only CD collection I can find that has all of the studio Woodchoppers tracks is Mosaic’s The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman And His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947). The other pieces are “Steps,” “Four Men On A Horse,” “Nero’s Conception,” “Pam,” “I Surrender Dear” and “Someday Sweetheart.” The Mosaic box includes alternate takes that allow the listener to hear how the pieces developed as the musicians achieved artistic and sonic balance. This is exquisite music. 

In the next installment, we’ll enter the bebop era and, possibly, get through the 1950s.

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  1. says

    Very nice blog you got here. Thanks and just wanted to add a footnote to the Woodchoppers comments. Mosaic’s set is missing at least one track, a take of I Surrender, Dear, which can be heard on the old Columbia 3-LP set “The Thundering Herds” (CJ44108) — sorry, I don’t have a matrix# to back that up, having sold my LP set 20 years ago (but I still have it on cassette). To my ears, the take missing on the Mosaic set came from the last Woodchoppers session of October 12, 1946.
    It was surprising to encounter that kind of goof from Mosaic, and with such a high-profile release with a big label (Columbia) too. The only other explanation I can offer is that the track on the LP was edited together out of other takes, but Mosaic makes no mention of that possibility.