Tune: How Long Blues
Recorded: 12 September, 1957 in New York City
- Milt Jackson- Vibraharp, piano
- Ray Charles- Piano, alto sax
- Billy Mitchell- Tenor Sax
- Skeeter Best- Guitar
- Oscar Pettiford- Bass
- Connie Kay- Drums
As the start of classes and all the stress and sleepless nights that go with it draws near, I’ve been feeling the blues. Luckily, this is my final year, but the blues is still there just the same. It was while in this pre-class funk late one night that I put this record on, and the track profiled above knocked me out.
Vibes-player Milt Jackson was paired with quite a few interesting musicians for recording dates during the 1950’s and 60’s, from Miles Davis to John Coltrane. This meeting with Ray Charles in 1957 and 1958 was a rather fascinating and special one, however. Ray Charles, already an established star vocalist and band leader, is purely an instrumentalist on this record. A multi-instrumentalist, in fact. On two tracks, including the track above, he briefly steps away from the piano bench and blows some spectacular alto saxophone. Who knew? Milt Jackson also surprises with his own multi-instrument talents, putting the mallets down to tickle the ivories, and then pluck the strings on the guitar. His guitar-playing only surfaced on record on this album. Everyone else sticks to one instrument on this record date.
The material on this album is all blues, in various tempos and keys. The music has a loose, relaxed feeling to it, like the musicians were playing for themselves first and foremost. On the track above, the playing is particularly impassioned. Ray begins at the piano with a quiet intro that ushers in Milt’s vibes. Billy then sails in on tenor sax, sounding something like a cross between Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins. He takes the groove up a few notches before handing it to Skeeter on guitar, who dives into the gut bucket in his solo. During his solo, Ray yields the piano to Milt, picks up his alto sax, and proceeds to blow the bluest of blues. It is truly a shame that Ray’s sax playing didn’t show up more often on records. The unsung hero on this track, however, is Connie Kay’s groove-inducing brushwork on the drums. Famous for his polite scratchings in the Modern Jazz Quartet, it’s something of a surprise to hear him sound more like a jump band drummer than a chamber music percussionist. All in all, it’s a performance dripping in soul and feeling. I feel it on an almost spiritual level when I think about starting class again next week. Perhaps you do too as you think about going back to work, battling traffic, or whatever’s got you feeling the blues.
It would be solid A if it wasn’t for Milt’s lovely smile. Other than those eye-catching teeth, this is actually a pretty cool cover and a great portrait of these musicians. Milt is front and center in the photo, caught in a gleeful moment, something that would be frowned upon were this a Modern Jazz Quartet album cover. Ray, slightly out of focus and lurking close to the side of Milt, is more pensive. The shades, very stylish in tortoiseshell, add to the hip look of the cover. Shot by Lee Friedlander, the use of light and shadows and the full color photograph make for visually interesting artwork.
I again must admit that I am not familiar with Bill Kandle, but he writes some solid liner notes. He also has some interesting opinions. He says that this is a Charlie Parker memorial album, which if true would make this a late memorial indeed; Parker died in 1955, and this album was released in 1958. He also states that Ray’s alto on the first track sounds like a Charlie Parker/Paul Desmond hybrid. My ears disagree. Charlie Parker? Maybe. Paul Desmond? If he had been raised in Birmingham, mugged on his way to the studio, drank some gin (no chaser), found his horn in the alley behind the studio, and walked in, only to be met with the news that he wouldn’t be paid for the recording session, then yes he’s a dead-wringer for Paul Desmond.
The labels on the vinyl show that this is a second pressing from the 1960’s, as this record would have been pressed on deep-groove wax with an all-black label in 1958. These labels are the classic mono with the white fans, non deep-groove. The vinyl is mostly quiet, with soft crackles here and there. Being in mono, the fidelity is great but the mixing could be better. It sounds like the guys got together in a practice room and set up a single microphone in the middle of the room. Connie’s drums are almost lost in the mix, while the bass is felt more than heard until he steps up to the mic for his solo. Even the piano sounds a bit faint. On more recent reissues on CD, the sound is slightly better and more clear, but everyone still sounds faint. Interestingly, the stereo version of this album had a different song list, swapping out ‘Bag’s Guitar Blues’ with ‘Deed I Do’.
The Place of Acquisition
This is one of the many records I bought while in California this summer. I found it and numerous other great albums at a record store in the Southern Californian city of Redlands at a store named, simply enough, Redlands Vinyl. It took over the building that another record store was previously in, and was (is?) the site of where I bought my first record when I was in high school way way back…in 2010. Time flies when you’re having fun. The records at Redlands Vinyl are rather pricey (for a college student), but they’re in mostly great condition, well worth the $10 (or $20…).