There aren’t very many albums that I can listen to nonstop repeatedly day and night for years without needing to shelve it for a while. Even fewer are albums that continue to surprise me with each listen, almost becoming more fresh with each play. This record is one of those rarities.
The Tune: “Jazzabelle”
The Tune: “Sacre Blues”
The Tune: ” You Go To My Head”
Recorded: 14 February, 1956 in San Francisco, CA
- Paul Desmond – Alto Sax
- Don Elliott – Mellophone
- Norman Bates – Bass
- Joe Dodge – Drums
Warning: This post is going to have a lot of superlatives, proclamations, opinion passed as fact. Nobody reads my stuff, though, so it’s ok.
This record may very well be my favorite album of all time. That’s no hyperbole. This album is perfect in every way. For starters, it’s the epitome of the West Coast Jazz sound. You have Paul Desmond’s ultra-cool and ultra-relaxed alto sax, Don Elliott’s equally laid-back and warm mellophone (and trumpet on a couple of tunes), Norman Bates’ simplistic but musically logical bass lines, and Joe Dodge’s non-intrusive but firmly in-the-pocket drumming. What you don’t have is a piano or even a guitar. The result is a light, sometimes breezy but always substantial sound without a piano or guitar limiting the musician’s musical possibilities. And those possibilities are many and endless on this album.
The musical fare on this record is absolutely perfect. A better flow of tunes couldn’t have been done. Clocking in at over forty minutes, this was a hefty album for 1956, full of lengthy tracks and stellar performances. All of the tracks are gems and it’s almost impossible to pick out a favorite. Almost. In my humble opinion, the opening track on the record, “Jazzabelle”, is the best thing on the album by a hair. It’s one of the most cohesive, empathetic performances on the entire album as well as one of the tastiest. The tune begins with Elliott’s horn blowing a two-bar phrase. Desmond soon responds, and the two horns continue to exchange phrases while the bass walks down chromatically and the drummer tastefully clicks his sticks together. Soon enough, the two horns state the melody and the rhythm section is off. Elliott goes first, contributing a logical, warm solo before handing it off to Desmond, who carries the mood.
As great as the solos are, it’s when Desmond wraps up his delicious solo that the magic really begins. The drummer returns to his stick-clicking while the bass uses his brief time in the spotlight to continue his musical walking. Desmond and Elliott then return to the fore for some improvised counterpoint. Desmond often engaged in counterpoint with Dave Brubeck, but where their counterpoint was often full of sparks and emotion, Desmond and Elliott’s counterpoint is more like a warm, relaxed conversation. The two horns play off of and inspire one another, nudged along by the bass and drums, before neatly falling back to the melody and tastily ending the tune.
The rest of the album moves in the same vein, featuring Desmond’s tasty sax and Elliott’s sly, urbane mellophone as they play a set of tunes that were favorites of Desmond’s, like “You Go To My Head”, Gerry Mulligan’s “Line For Lyons”, a few standards (two by Matt Denis and one by Jerome Kern), and an original from Don Elliott thrown in for good measure. The interplay between Desmond and Elliott is spectacular considering the two never worked together professionally. In fact, all indications point to this being the first and last time the two ever played together. It makes me wonder how the two ended up in the studio together. Due to the rhythm section being two-thirds of Brubeck’s 1956 quartet, I’m inclined to think that Desmond reached out to Elliott to do the record date. However it happened, I’m glad it did, as it resulted in one of the most underrated, heaven-made collaborations jazz ever saw.
Speaking of the rhythm section, a quick shoutout to the bassist and drummer on this album, Norman Bates and Joe Dodge on drums. They’re almost never mentioned when great jazz rhythm sections are discussed, and I think that’s a shame since these two men could really swing and make it sound easy. Norman Bates played bass in Brubeck’s groups off and on in the 1940’s and then steadily from 1956-57. He rarely took a bass solo, yet his high skill level was readily apparent in his bass lines. I don’t know how often you focus on the bass player in a jazz group when they’re NOT soloing, but Norman’s lines frequently make me listen closely to what he’s doing. They flow musically and logically in a singing manner, almost like a constant solo under the rest of the music. And boy what a rhythmic bass player he was, using musical patterns to add syncopation and interest. I challenge you to listen specifically to his bass lines when you listen to the tracks above, specifically to his bass work on “Jazzabelle”.
As for the drummer Joe Dodge, I can’t say enough nice things about him. For a while, he was my favorite drummer of all time. Why? His penchant for using a regular drumstick in his right hand while using a wire brush in his left. This made for a more understated, quietly punchy style of drumming that allowed him to add kicks and accents on the snare drum without overpowering the musicians. And by musicians, I mean one Paul Desmond. Dodge joined Brubeck’s quartet in 1953 and stayed until the end of 1956, and in that time he went from a loud, swing-style drummer to an unobtrusive small-group drummer, all to satisfy Desmond’s drummer ideology directly taken from Lester Young: Drummers should just provide a little tinky-boom. Dodge’s drumstick-clicking is particularly suited for the type of jazz on hand on this album.
This being Desmond’s album, his influence is all over the grooves. “Jazzabelle”, Desmond’s original tune that (sadly) appeared only on this album, is a prime example of Desmond’s wit and humor. I go into detail here, but in a nutshell, “Jazzabelle” appears to be loosely based on Pachelbel’s “Canon In D”. Read that feature, then laugh. “Sacre Blues” is yet another Desmond original and another example of Desmond being Desmond. This track was more than likely the first tune recorded for the album, and begins in a minor key as many of Desmond and Brubeck’s blues outings in the 1950’s did. Desmond’s opening phrase is the bassoon solo on Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre Du Printemps”, or “The Rite of Spring”. It’s off the cuff, and it works. Desmond soon sails into the major key and after playing some respectable, urbane blues, he rockets away without warning into outer space with a blues-drenched series that must have startled everyone in the recording studio. From here on, Desmond sits firmly in the blues bucket before handing it over to Elliott, who sounds like he was in the back corner of the studio and had to slowly walk up to the microphone so as not to make any noise. There’s more stick-clicking from Dodge and counterpoint from the two horns before Desmond uses the same bassoon solo phrase from Stravinsky’s piece to close out the blues. All in all, this album is beautiful, moving, stimulating, and honest and it’s a shame it’s not more widely-known.
Well, it’s the end of the section and I still haven’t decided which tune to post. “Jazzabelle” is a given, but do I post “Sacre Blues” for Desmond’s solo and the emotion contained therein, or do I post “You Go To My Head” for the empathy on full display and the near-telepathic playing that takes place between the two horns? Of course, Bates’ bass is marvelous on all of these tracks, particularly “Jazzabelle”…
Raggy Waltz Rating: D+
Unfortunately, this album was released during a time when jazz record labels, especially on the West Coast, were attempting to present jazz as a serious art, which often resulted in random paintings by local artists plastered on album covers. Sometimes, it worked; usually it didn’t. Fantasy Records tried to explain on the back cover:
“This album represents the first serious attempt to fuse primitive art with modern jazz. The painting from which the cover was reproduced is a prime example of the art of Peggy Tolk-Watkins, who has long been the leader of the San Francisco Bay Area’s primitive art school.”
The artwork has nothing to do with the music on the album or the men who made it. Bless Peggy’s heart.
Mort Sahl, the great comic and at the time close friend of Desmond’s, writes the liner notes for the album, which are both fun and interesting yet disappointing and incomplete. Just having Sahl write the notes means there will be shenanigans, and there are a few. There’s some fun behind-the-scenes anecdotes about Desmond and Bird, some period references (“In a year of candidates, here’s mine for best alto”), and other humorous bits and pieces that make the liner notes interesting.
The disappointing and incomplete part comes from the fact that he barely mentions anything about the album itself and there’s no mention of how it came to be that random Don Elliott came to be making an album with Paul Desmond. The most we get is a half-serious explanation on who each of the guys on the record are and a sentence that reveals that Mr. Sahl also found “Jazzabelle” the best thing on the album. Uncharacteristically for a Fantasy album, the tracks are actually listed on the back, complete with timings!
Fun fact: Because Sahl is a comedian and this is a Fantasy Records album, he calls drummer Joe Dodge ‘Joe Chevrolet’. Get it? Because, cars, and… Anyhow, he goes on to make the comically true statement that “many hipsters and no critics will recognize as the stick-clicking drummer with another group.” What was a comical proclamation in 1956 is now a hilariously matter-of-fact statement in 2019. ‘Joe Chevrolet’ still turns up on discographies and CD releases, proving Sahl right that only hip jazz fans would know Chevrolet’s real identity.
Aside from all the Brubeck, Desmond, and Tjader, the nice thing about Fantasy is their groovy colored vinyl. Sure, other record companies occasionally pressed an album or two on colored vinyl, but none did it with such consistency and elan as Fantasy did. This album was originally released in 1956, but my copy is from another pressing from the early 60’s. The inner sleeve advertising albums that came out in 1960 combined with the lighter red color of the vinyl labels and vinyl itself also indicate a pressing from older than 1956. The record has a beautiful deep groove on both sides, on its way out in the early 1960’s.
Fantasy rarely (if ever) mentioned who recorded and mastered their recordings, but the music on this record sounds exceptional compared to much of the studio albums Fantasy was putting out in those pre-1958 days. It’s in mono, and there’s definitely a lo-fi sound to the recording, like it was recorded late at night. I personally rather like it. Interestingly, there’s more surface noise and slight groove wear on the second side of the record. Overall, the record plays just fine to me, with just the right amount of crackle.
Fun Fact: For the CD reissue, the counterpoint at the end of Desmond’s solo on “Let’s Get Away From It All” was edited out. Listening to the CD for the past ten-plus years, I detected an edit but assumed that it was permanently cut for the release. Listening to the vinyl album when I first got it, I was thrilled to discover that the complete take did in fact exist. The portion that got edited out isn’t world-shaking or career-defining, but it’s still nice to get the entire track as they played it in the studio. Reason No.735 why I collect and seek out the original vinyl- complete/alternate takes that don’t make the transition to CD or digital sources!
The Place of Acquisition
I say it all the time, but ever since I started writing about collecting jazz vinyl, I’ve met some fantastic people and had some awesome opportunities pop up. One fantastic person I’ve met this year through this blog is a gentleman who goes by the moniker DJ Pari. I don’t want him to get too full of himself so I’ll just say that he’s funny, nice, and has an excellent taste in jazz in particular and music in general. Most significantly, Pari is a closeted Brubeck fan. A few months ago, he was able to go through a large collection of jazz vinyl, and among the many treasures that he set aside for me was this album. When he showed it to me and asked if I was interested in it, I almost jumped through my phone in glee. I wouldn’t call it rare, but it’s definitely not a common find, in the wild or online either. Getting a physical copy had always been a dream, as I listen to the CD version in my car all the time. I don’t remember how much I paid for it, but I’m sure Pari overcharged me, since I had just dissed his favorite alto saxophonist, Cannonball Adderley. Pari’s Something Else. To be serious, thank you Pari for the record!