The Chico Hamilton Special // Chico Hamilton (Columbia CL 1619)

Marching right along with the special Black History Month celebration, here’s an album that I got early in my record-collecting career and one that shows how musically diverse black Americans could be, even in one style of music like jazz. In other words, here’s an album from a fellow Californian and musical innovator, Chico Hamilton. To the music!


The Music

The Tune: “Don’t Get Lost”

The Tune: “New Rhumba”

Recorded: 28 November, 1960 in Hollywood, CA

Personnel:

  • Chico Hamilton – Drums
  • Nate Gershman – Cello
  • Robert Haynes – Bass
  • Harry Pope – Guitar
  • Charles Lloyd – Alto Sax & Flute

1960

  • President Eisenhower signs the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which is supposed to strengthen and address loopholes in the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Many states and the entire South continue to bar black Americans from voting anyway.
  • In Boynton v. Virginia ,the Supreme Court rules unconstitutional the segregation of bus terminals. This sets up the movement known as the Freedom Riders, a mixed group of Americans that tested this ruling the following year.

That black Americans should be at the forefront of every stylistic permutation of jazz shouldn’t be a surprise, yet when you sit down and think about it, there was a black person involved at each and every turn. Take Chico Hamilton, for example. In spite of West Coast ‘cool’ jazz being known as ‘white’ jazz, Chico was at the epicenter when Gerry Mulligan tapped him to be the drummer in his quartet with Chet Baker in 1952. This piano-less group of course went on to become a national phenomenon and launched the West Coast sound. In fact, Mulligan’s quartet was the first group recorded by an indie record label on the West Coast named Pacific Jazz. Pacific Jazz went on to be a major conduit by which West Coast jazz was released. That album, Pacific Jazz’s first, prominently featured all four of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet’s smiling faces, together and in close proximity (released two years before integration was officially legal).

In 1955, Chico Hamilton formed what would be the most signature West Coast-ish jazz group of all time. Retaining Mulligan’s piano-less idea, Hamilton built a band with a bass, a guitar, a sax (or flute or clarinet depending on the tune), and… a cello. This unorthodox instrumentation (for a jazz group) took the country by storm, and two years later Hamilton’s group was prominently featured in the Tony Curtis/Burt Lancaster movie ‘Sweet Smell of Success’. Chico Hamilton was a big deal and a persistent example of black excellence in a generally anemic chapter of jazz’s history.

When Hamilton first formed his group, it was more of a chamber music type of group, playing heavily arranged dainty charts with limited space for out and out blowing. By 1960, Hamilton was moving in a more progressive, edgy sound. Enter this album.

Recorded in the fall of 1960, this edition of the Chico Hamilton Quintet swings extrovertedly and firmly. Much of this has to do with soon-to-be-famous reedman Charles Lloyd, in addition to streamlined arrangements and increased blowing. Lloyd wails on his alto sax and even on his flute manages to bring some grit to the music. The cello plays a more supportive role on this album, used to full effect to add color and texture to the proceedings. Dig it’s singing lines and elegant accents in “New Rhumba” or it’s hip work in the album opener “Don’t Get Lost”.

The inclusion of “New Rhumba” (written by Ahmad Jamal) and “Lady Bird” (written by Tad Dameron) is largely why I bought this album, but the whole record has moments of excitement. “Don’t Get Lost” is a jaunty minor blues that sounds like something that would play while Perry Mason walked moodily down the streets of Los Angeles at night in the rain. Two-thirds of the tune features Lloyd’s cool then fiery alto sax, followed by laid-back and breezy guitar solo by Harry Pope, complete with rich chords. Hamilton’s drumming is tasty and firm, nudging everything along without being pushy. One of my favorite aspects of his drum style is his tendency to be felt more than heard. Other than a rare drum solo, he largely stays in a supportive role- a rarity in drummer-led groups.

The rest of the music continues to highlight either Pope’s guitar or Lloyd’s sax/flute. “Autumn Leaves” largely features Pope, with some haunting vocal work by Hamilton in tandem with Gershman’s cello, while “Lady Bird” is a succinct, ultra-cool thing featuring the string section. That is, guitar, cello, and bass only.

I own quite a few Chico Hamilton records, and this one is probably my favorite. Caught between his relatively conservative early years on Pacific Jazz and his increasingly avant garde music on Impulse in the 60’s, the music on the grooves of this LP strikes a perfect balance between the two worlds. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the two cuts above and hear for yourself!


The Cover

Raggy Waltz Rating: B

I really don’t have much to say about the artwork. It’s a great shot of Mr. Hamilton in striking black and white. But boy is that a busy front cover. From liner notes to song titles, there’s a lot going on. So much so that…


The Back

I have never read these liner notes in one sitting. In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t believe I’ve ever read them in their entirety. These may be the most copious set of notes ever to appear on a Columbia album, and considering the amount of stuffy prose that has graced their many classical music albums, this is quite an accomplishment. The bits that I have read however point to an interesting and enjoyable hour or so of reading. 4 stars for content, 2.9 stars for amount of content.


The Vinyl

Ah, Columbia’s classic 6-eye labels, at once both delightfully retro yet strikingly modern. This familiar (and oddly comforting) label design graced turntables from the mid-1950’s thru to the early 1960’s. Despite “hi-fi” being plastered on every record cover, very few record labels made records with truly high fidelity sound. Columbia was one of the rare examples of truly hi-fi sound, and in the 1950’s their 6-eye labels were a sign of audiophile listening.

My copy is a delicious first press in Columbia’s punchy mono. If I’m being honest and truly objective, my most life-like records in my collection are on the Columbia label, and if I’m being brutally honest, the best sounding mono records in my collection are on Columbia. Specifically, Columbia’s mono records from the late 1950’s and the entire 60’s are stupendous. Even if they weren’t recorded in their 30th Street Cathedral Studio, like this album, Columbia knew how to record music. With this album in particular, the engineers somehow managed to make it sound like it was recorded late at night. Maybe it’s the intimate closeness of the music (Lloyd’s flute and alto in particular) coupled with the sibilant splashiness of Hamilton’s cymbals, or even the overall haziness of the recording, but I just can’t see this music being made on a hot sunny day.


The Place of Acquisition

When I came back home for the summer of 2015, I headed to the new record store in town, a place named, appropriately enough, Redlands Vinyl. Walking in that rainy day, I discovered this record in the jazz section. I was shocked because I didn’t know Chico Hamilton had recorded for Columbia. Seeing “Lady Bird” and “New Rhumba” on the cover (as well as the amount of liner notes), I grabbed it. The vinyl looked great, the price was great ($10), and since I was in Southern California, it just seemed right to buy a fellow Southern Californian’s record. I’m glad I did.

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