Jazz For Young Moderns // Anthony Ortega (Bethlehem BCP 79)

I know this is supposed to be a Brubeck record in accordance with my series of ‘Better Than ‘Time Out’ Brubeck Albums’, but a recent trip to the local record store yielded some fantastic finds that I have been spinning on the turntable nonstop ever since. Two albums in particular have been in constant rotation for the past few days, which, combined with a level of intrigue and obscurity, warranted a write-up. So enough chit-chat; to the music!


The Music

The Tune: “Tune For Mona”

Recorded: 1956 in New York City

Personnel:

  • Anthony Ortega- Alto Sax
  • Jimmy Cleveland- Trombone
  • Ray Starling- Mellophone
  • John Hafer- Tenor Sax
  • Jay Cameron- Baritone Sax
  • Bob Timmons- Piano
  • Abdul A. Malik- Bass
  • Ed Thigpen- Drums
  • Nat Pierce- Arranger

The Tune: “Cinderella’s Curfew”

Recorded: 1956 in New York City

Personnel:

  • Anthony Ortega- Flute, Alto Sax
  • Dick Wetmore- Violin
  • Art Farmer- Trumpet
  • John Hafer- Bass Clarinet
  • J. Buffington- French Horn
  • R. Tricarico- Bassoon
  • Abdul A. Malik- Bass
  • Bob Zieff- Arranger

The Tune: “I Don’t Stand A Ghost of A Chance With You”

Recorded: Same as above

Personnel: Same as above

Disclaimer- I had an extremely tough time trying to pick what tune to pick to feature. Since writing this, I have gone from one to two to four back to two to three.

First of all, I had no idea who Anthony, or Tony, Ortega was until I found this album. Turns out, Tony Ortega was one of those jazz musicians who was known enough to be included on numerous recording sessions and band lineups but obscure enough to only have a few albums as leader. Born in 1928 in LA, California, Ortega was the first Mexican-American musician to strictly play modern jazz, at least the first of prominence. A legendary figure who is still alive and playing in Southern California, Ortega cut his jazz teeth with Lionel Hampton’s band in the early 50’s. His band mates included notable guys like Clifford Brown, Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce and Art Farmer. Some of his first recordings were made with this group in Paris in 1953. Back in the states, he made music on both coasts throughout the rest of the decade and up to now.

Image result for anthony ortega jazz

One of the few examples of his leadership on a record date is this album. When was it recorded? Who knows! Most discographies say 1958-59, but my ears tell me it was made much earlier. In an interview, Ortega says 1956, which makes more sense. The music itself is riveting. Backed with solid support, Tony Ortega absolutely soars on his alto sax. In his liner notes, he claims to not try and pattern himself after any specific musician but then concedes that Charlie Parker was major influence. It’s readily apparent on this record. That’s not to say that Ortega is yet another Bird imitator. Far from it, he has his own phrasing and style. He also doubles and triples on flute and tenor sax and clarinet, adding color to some of the tracks on the album.

There are two completely different sessions on this album, each in a different mood, flavor, and style. Completely. To quote from Mr. Ortega’s liner notes, “[o]n side A of this album I try to bring to the listener straight-forward Jazz and on side B a form of chamber-music-styled Jazz.” Precisely. The first side features the more driving, forceful aspect of Ortega’s playing, starting off with an absolutely searing rendition of “Just One of Those Things”. The next tune, an original blues, plays on a nickname of Ortega’s and features him quadrupling on alto, tenor, flute, and clarinet in alternating choruses with the different guys in the group. The standout tune in my opinion is the smooth catchiness of “Tune For Mona”, written by Ortega and I assume for his wife, also named Mona. After a fanfare, Ed Thigpen lays down a latin-esque rhythm on the drums while Ortega plays the catchy melody with support from the other horns. It’s the break that leads to his solo that is the highlight of the first side. He plays a slick lick that absolutely drips in bluesy hipness, playing it and inverting it a bit before going about his business. Unfortunately, the guy on mellophone who solos after Ortega drops the ball and kinda just plods right on through his chorus and a half. Bless his heart. With Bobby Timmons (or ‘Bob’, as he’s named on the album) on piano, it’s too bad he didn’t get a chance to solo instead.

If the first side brought the heat, the second side brings cool. Featuring the more introverted music and arrangements of Bob Zieff, the music here is the epitome of the West Coast ‘cool’ jazz sound. The instrumentation alone keys you in on the type of music to be had, with violin, bass clarinet, French horn, and even a bassoon joining together with Ortega to make some stimulating music. Rounding out the ensemble is Art Farmer on trumpet, whose malted, breathy trumpet is a perfect match. On violin is the unfortunately named Dick Wetmore, who was another name that I was unfamiliar with. After listening to the album, however, I quickly looked him and his albums up. The man blows some nice violin.

And while we’re on the subject of obscure jazz heads I’d never heard of until getting this album, I discovered that the arranger of the music has quite the cult following. Long story short, Robert Zieff, along with Mr. Wetmore, was a Boston native and known for his unabashedly unique and modern composing and arranging skills. Most of his underground popularity stems from his work with Chet Baker in the mid-1950’s, but here he is making a characteristically low-key appearance on Ortega’s album. Pretty neat.

Back to the music, the jazz on this side is certainly less-accessible for the average listener, with its odd chord voicings, overt classical chamber music stylings, and the occasional lack of that good ole swing. BUT, if given the chance, the music reveals a weird beauty, a delicate swing, and an abundance of color. The unusual-for-a-jazz-session instruments deliciously blend together with Ortega’s horns and Farmer’s trumpet to create some interesting sounds on Zieff’s originals and fresh interpretations on Zieff’s arrangements of standards. A great example of the former is Zieff’s original tune “Cinderella’s Curfew”. It’s an intriguing, charming, and slightly dark composition that seems to meander around a bit before rather suddenly unfurling into an easy blues. The lack of a drummer emphasizes the bassist’s and the soloist’s statements and lends the tune a gray melancholy mood despite the soloists persistent efforts to brighten things up. Ortega starts and ends the tune on flute but solos on his alto. Farmer has a cup mute firmly in place, while Mr. Wetmore blows the best violin of 1956 (well, at least the best violin on the album) during his solo.

A sterling example of Zieff’s arranging can be found on “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You”. With the bass pedaling on the home key, Ortega states the melody with fluid support from the rest of the ensemble. Ortega proves to be a lyrical and passionate purveyor of ballads. After the first chorus, Zieff double-times the music, in effect lengthening the tune for soloing. The strings and bass clarinet provide a minimalistic background as Ortega solos, followed by Farmer in all of his introspective, un-muted glory. The arrangement slows back down to the regular tempo to close out, and just as you think the tune is going to end on a predictably happy note, Zieff throws an unsettling, almost questioning chord at us instead. One gets the idea that Mr. Zieff was a rather glass-half-empty type of guy.

So obscure is the album that despite being reissued on CD (in Japan), there are no reviews or insights into the album. It makes me wonder how many jazz albums are out there that are just languishing away, suffering not from musical short-comings but whatever it is that makes some albums obscurities. The music on this album is a successful and serves as a fascinating look at what was happening in jazz during the mid-50’s. The album also introduced me to some new jazz musicians, of which Anthony Ortega is the out and out discovery of the year. I’ve been a jazz fanatic for over a decade and have never heard of him, which is a shame considering what a legendary figure he is. These are the reasons why I collect jazz on vinyl! I learn, I discover, and I appreciate.


The Cover

Raggy Waltz Rating: C+

All things considered, this is an ok album cover, especially with a name like ‘Jazz For Young Moderns’. I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘old buzzard’, but context clues helped me figure it out. Actually, with the minimalist-ish printing of the album title, subtitle, artist and song selection, the cover art is rather aesthetically pleasing. The subject is placed right in the middle, but it works. And you can’t go wrong with kids on a jazz album cover. Extra points for finding redheads to put in front of a red background with red in the clothing.


The Back

It’s certainly seen better days. The liner notes, written by Mr. Ortega, are mostly a bio on himself, which I’m sure was as necessary then as it was when I picked it up at the store. Only a small two-sentence “paragraph” pertains to the music at hand. The person in charge of printing the back of the album must’ve been in a rush, as there are numerous mistakes. For instance, who’s playing bass on side 1? Who’s Howard Romsey?

Using the listing of Bethlehem jazz albums, a tentative release date of early 1958 can be pegged for this album, which may explain the 1958-59 ‘recording’ date. Interestingly, the album listing omits this album’s catalog number BCP-79. Bethlehem’s catalog system jumped from BCP-80 to BCP-6000, and I’m willing to bet that indicates the switch from the 10-in LP to the 12-in LP. If so, I’m thinking that while this album was originally supposed to be released around 1956 or so, it was shelved until 1958.


The Vinyl

Adding another layer of intrigue concerning when this record was recorded/released, the labels used on the vinyl are the second edition with the silver box found on later pressings. Later meaning the latter half of the 1950’s. The early Bethlehem records had a more simple (or ornate depending on how you look at it) laurel logo, eventually changing to the version above. The severe deep groove is another good indicator that this album was probably released in the late 1950’s.

Another good indicator that this was a pre-1957 recording? It’s not as hifi as their ‘Micro Cosmic Sound’ would have you believe, and it appears to have only been recorded in mono. Of course, another Bethlehem album that was recorded in the early 60’s was also apparently recorded only in mono… The mastering on this album could have been better, as it sounds rather boxed in and compressed, particularly on the first side. The sound improves somewhat on the second side, which probably has more to do with the previous owner not having played it as much as the first side. These mastering issues were fixed for the CD reissue. Speaking of mastering, who was behind the controls? It doesn’t say, but Rudy Van Gelder was known to master an album or two for Bethlehem. For his sake, I hope RVG didn’t master this one.


The Place of Acquisition

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I found this record at my favorite local record store. I hadn’t been in a while, and much had changed. The owner had added more sections of jazz records, and I gleefully went through the bins. I found quite a few interesting and fantastic records, this one included. The cover art did its job and caught my attention, and the name ‘Anthony Ortega’ intrigued me. Seeing that it looked to be an authentic Bethlehem album, I figured I might as well take a look. The cover looked rough and the record was inside the album jacket without a protective sleeve. I almost put it back, but I decided to see what the vinyl was actually looking like. It was dusty, scratched, stained, and grimy. I gave half-hearted glance at the back to see who the sidemen were, and was surprised to see Bobby Timmons, Ed Thigpen and Art Farmer. For $4, I figured I could afford to take a chance on it. I’m glad I did. After wiping it clean with a wet cloth, I was surprised to hear it play without a skip, almost no surface noise, and with no groove wear. Score.

Speaking of Bethlehem… merry Christmas and happy holidays!

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