Friday, November 13, 2009

Mulligan Overmatched?

In his mixed salad days, collegiate-looking Gerry Mulligan was happy to arrange for small group, concert band, or big band alike, but he was even happier to blow--to haul out his hefty baritone and jam with whomever was on the stand at the moment. This willingness no doubt helped shape his innovative, counterpoint-rich playing (and polyphonic arrangements) and provided additional opportunities to meet and hang, which may in turn have paved the way for the famous series of casual dual meets issued by Verve and other labels, of Mulligan plus... Johnny Hodges... or Stan Getz... or, at other times, Chet Baker, Bob Brookmeyer, Art Farmer, Dave Brubeck, et al. The Verve LPs were built around reedsmen, but Mulligan worked closely with pianists, trumpeters, and trombonists too.

I'd like to commend to anyone reading this posting three of those albums as particular diamonds among the many Mulligan gems released over a long career: his diverse encounters, up close and personal, with Ben Webster, Paul Desmond, and--wait for it--Thelonious Monk. The Webster is an acknowledged classic; my Desmond choice more arguable maybe but a personal favorite; and Mulligan Meets Monk, condemned originally by some critics as a fascinating failure, still nonetheless worthy of a listen or three, especially as offered on one Eighties reissue.

The Webster seems to have been one of Mulligan's own favorites, Ben and Gerry (hmm... that's got a familiar ring) a better fit than some other dreamed-up meet-cutes. Over the years the album has been issued in at least three different versions--six tracks on the original LP, then expanded by five more selections for the CD reissue (unused numbers, not alternate takes, approved by the always-demanding Mulligan), and finally in a deluxe two-CD set that adds alternate takes, false starts, studio dialogue, and more, chronologically presenting nearly every note from the month-apart sessions. And being a fly on the wall with these guys--the rhythm section swingers are genius accompanist Jimmy Rowles, walk-the-bass master Leroy Vinnegar, and versatile drum-power Mel Lewis--is worth the few bucks extra.

Besides the necessary technical discussion, there's plenty of comradely banter and audible (albeit X-rated) good humor to be heard, the five sounding like working chums rather than a studio pick-up group. In a 1990 interview Mulligan reinforced that notion, explaining that (1) he'd played with Ben on the classic 1957 TV special The Sound of Jazz; (2) Rowles and Webster kept each other musical company frequently; and (3) some or all of the guys had played together at the Monterey Jazz Festival and Hollywood's Renaissance Club during that late-1959 stretch, even backing up resurgent Jimmy Witherspoon on one jazz-blues LP. As Mulligan stated, "Ben and I were a focused, near-functioning little band."

Working with ex-Ellingtonian Ben the Brute also meant a blues-based direction for the tunes, of course, from Duke's "In a Mellow Tone" to the tenor's own cheery "Blues in B-Flat," allowing Gerry to take the laid-back low end and Ben to blow as gently and breathily as he chose. Webster had already shown--recording with flash-fingers Art Tatum--that he just wouldn't be hurried, holding to his own imperturbable pace. So even the upbeat numbers here like "The Cat Walk" (originally titled "Ben There"), "Sunday," and "Fajista" seem to stroll and linger awhile. And impassioned passages fill slower tunes "Chelsea Bridge" and "Tell Me More" so completely (Webster delivering regally unrushed solos, Mulligan in soft support and frequent counterpoint everywhere) that all five finally choose to walk it off a bit with "Go Home." Though the two-CD outtakes and extra bits don't really add much of significance, they do provide a more-complete record of this memorable historical encounter, expanding to a couple of hours the lucky listener's jazzily genial visit with Ben and Gerry.

An earlier dual meet paired fire-and-ice Gerry with martini-toned Paul Desmond. The few times I heard that late-1957 Verve release left me oddly dissatisfied. (To my uneducated ears it still sounds clever and skillful, but too abstract, lacking warmth.) Yet the artists and their record labels decided a sequel was in order and in 1962, Paul and Gerry met for a series of sessions in New York, the best tracks subsequently issued by RCA as Two of a Mind...

Go figure. I loved it at first listen, and it's been one of my desert-island discs ever since!

The two sax greats and their changing rhythm sections (Connie Kay, Joe Benjamin, Mel Lewis among others) caught lightning in a bottle again and again, with the airy alto and bouncing bari bobbing and weaving and bracing each other telepathically. Granted that the tunes selected called for fresh takes on some warhorse standards ("All the Things You Are," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Out of Nowhere"), but I challenge anyone to name more cheerfully compelling versions. Brubeck's "strange meadowlark" Paul here barn-swallows his way around Gerry (lightly lumbering barn-owl), and the two of them feint and parry and pursue each other over the bars and down the dancing lines to every finish.

Shall I offer another anthropomorphic image? Mulligan supplies a tune he calls "Blight of the Fumble Bee" (well, actually, his fiancee Judy Holliday named it) which is a stinger of a fast blues that jigs and zags and will leave you buzzing. (Enough already!) Whereas Paul's line, "Two of a Mind" is a perfect synonymous phrase for the duo's flowing-counterpoint creativity--not to mention a fine follow-up to the haunting version of "Stardust" that has both soloists tiptoeing around the never-stated melody for eight minutes plus. But "Two of a Mind" retains its own mystery too, the chugging chase of it obscuring source tune and changes even more completely than "Stardust."

The silver lining in all of this disguising and rearranging is six bright and breezy tunes that, taken together, exceed even the liner notes hype: "A classic-to-be collaboration by two of the greatest soloists of modern jazz."

Meanwhile, five years earlier, in the midst of recording his first LP with Desmond, Mulligan also shared studio time with the pianist these days considered the very shuffle-and-step-it spirit of post-bop modern jazz--meaning Thelonious Monk. And the two sessions seemed to become partly a lesson in humility for cock-of-the-walk Gerry, all those odd fingerstrikes and stop-and-start moments occasionally leaving his baritone hung out to dry or fly. But should anyone have expected a miraculous mixing of such water and oil? Did some a&r guy really believe that Mulligan's open-eared Mainstream swing would blend easily with Monk's stubbornly angular conception, his stuttering, mutated Harlem stride?

At any rate, the original Riverside LP offered a half dozen tunes, and a couple of those ("Rhythm-a-Ning," maybe "Straight, No Chaser") sounded a bit tentative or, conversely, overly busy as Gerry tried his dab hand and wieldy sax at Monkish squibs and stabs. Then came the Seventies "twofer" issue (Milestone M-47067) adding several more outtakes--plus a special surprise mentioned below--which allowed fans to catch Monk slyly prodding Gerry to get with the program, gentling him along in "I Mean You" and elsewhere by means of spiky interjections and pointed chords rather than words.

Still and all, Mulligan learned fast; a few run-throughs and he was acquitting himself admirably. "Decidedly" is Gerry's own tune revisiting "Undecided," and after several takes both gents manage that quick-swing stance. And finally Mulligan has no trouble bubbling under old standard "Sweet and Lovely," or drifting and dreaming through "'Round Midnight," his baritone sounding rich and planted sure, the mellow complement of Monk's deep tune.

...which brings us to the unheralded highlight of the twofer reissue--a sidelong tape from April 1957 of Monk alone in the studio developing his definitive version of "'Round Midnight." First recorded back in the early Forties by Cootie Williams, who consequently claimed a piece of the copyright, that lovely ballad had become Monk's signature tune and source of royalties, even in the lean years when he wasn't getting many gigs. But working it up in a longer version for the Thelonious Himself solo album gave Monk the opportunity to add and polish and perfect. We hear all of this as he begins, breaks off, restarts, turns and returns, pushes on again and again, smoothing here, reshaping there, playing the tune several times through before he finally signals he's ready to record for real. But clever Orrin Keepnews had been recording all along, and interested fans get the unexpected treat of hearing Monk woodshed, contemplate, toy, and finally triumph...

Just post a sign, "Genius at Work," and shift focus back to the main business--Thelonious monkeying with Mulligan--and give credit to willing jam-sessioner Gerry for his Irish chutzpah and impervious self-confidence. With Webster and Desmond he came, saw and, like some Jazz-us Caesar, swung his own. With Monk on the other hand, he took the blows and stayed upright, swaying, bruised, but never hitting the canvas.

(Several photos copyright the late, great William Claxton--a couple of them borrowed from Take Five, the fine bio of Paul Desmond by Doug Ramsey of Rifftides)


Alan Kurtz said...

Nice roundup of Mulligan Meets highpoints. The Ben & Gerry band, with the same personnel as on their 1959 LP, appeared on The Dinah Shore Show, March 25, 1962, where after being introduced by Miss Shore, they performed two tunes from that album, "Go Home" and "Who's Got Rhythm." There are clips on the Internet of the complete presentation, but video quality is awful. There is, however, a clip of "Who's Got Rhythm" by itself that's quite watchable, considering that videotape back then was still something of a novelty. It's on YouTube: I especially like when Ben & Gerry trade fours with Mel Lewis. Ben quotes from his Ellington feature "Cottontail," and after Mel's 4 bars, Gerry picks up seamlessly with another "Cottontail" quote, much to Ben's delight. The only thing more amazing than all this musical genius on display is the fact that it was telecast nationwide in prime time on NBC-TV. Your reference to Gerry's "mixed salad days" could just as well be applied to the early years of television, where programmers were as green in judgment as Cleopatra during her fling with Caesar (Julius not Sid).

Anonymous said...

Still reading, just at a much slower pace. Glad to see your ink. Hope all is well near the edge of the cliff yonder your way.