Weekend Extra: Bill Perkins

Bill Perkins (1924-2003) was the archetype of the creative musician incapable of letting his style freeze in place. To borrow the phrase coined by his initial inspiration Lester Young, Perkins refused to be a “repeater pencil.” He was with Stan Getz, Gene Ammons, Zoot Sims, Richie Kamuca, Al Cohn, Don Lanphere and many others in a generation of young tenor saxophonists who developed with Young as their model. His playing under Young’s influence graced the bands of Jerry Wald, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton and dozens of recordings from the 1950s on. It was epitomized in his solos on Grand Encounter, the leaderless 1956 album he shared with John Lewis, Percy Heath, Jim Hall and Chico Hamilton.

When he left the 1950s, Perkins’ restless curiosity and musicianship kept him searching, studying and changing. I know from many conversations with him that he appreciated the enthusiasm of listeners who loved his early work, but he would not deny the compulsion to progress. His solos on Bill Holman’s 1997 big band album of Thelonious Monk tunes are latterday evidence of that. There is more in this video clip of Perkins from a 1993 appearance with Shorty Rogers. (Rogers doesn’t play on “You’ve Changed.”) The rhythm section is Chuck Marohnic, piano; 
Joel DiBartolo, bass; and Dom Moio, drums. For reasons known only to whoever posted this on YouTube, the clip fades to black just as Perk is starting the final 16 bars of his last chorus. In addition, the video is fuzzy and applause wipes out the beginning of Marohnic’s solo. But for Perkins’ reading of the melody and his solo chorus that follows, this glimpse of his playing in his final decade is worth seeing and hearing.

For more video clips from the session, go here.

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  1. says

    This is an odd bit of subliminal serendipity or something supernally similar… I am currently writing, to complete in a week’s time (I hope), a long-promised and ridiculously long-postponed piece on Perkins, this remaining portion to join previous sketches of him and Richie Kamuca side by side, followed by Kamuca on his own. In Perk’s case, the more I looked and listened, the more intriguing but daunting his 50-year career became.

    More than a journeyman but certainly not a “star,” Bill was a post-Bop-in-practice, partner-in-Swing sought by many. The more big bands he graced… the more studio sessions he breezed through (the consummate multi-instrumentalist)… the more albums he was a memorable part of without really leading many… the more angular and oblique his soloing became (as in the video clip), moving further and further away from Pres with the passage of time… well, I finally decided to approach his career differently.

    Doug knew Bill personally, and the changes in his playing much better than I, but maybe my forthcoming, Part 3 post can help push the Doors of Perception–Perkception perhaps?–open a bit wider. (And to that end and for this mention, many thanks to Mr. Ramsey.)

    • Doug Ramsey says

      The current installment of Mr. Leimbacher’s blog, I Witness, is the second part of his treatise on Jack Kerouac, in which he writes:

      Off the Road, busy taking notes, watching the world pass… Happy Jack, Kerouac at his peak… before the long, resentful, sorry slide into soul-Beaten drunkenness and stars-gone-out death. Best to remember Wild Jack criss-crossing America, with and without Dean/Neal…

  2. Jack Wright says

    I attended a college master class with Bill Perkins in 1984 in which he described how his ears had learned to hear certain notes and harmonies anew after many years as a musician. He was inspiringly open minded and searching and the single hour he spoke to and played for us will always stay with me; a remarkable and underrated indidvidual.