Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Of Marty Gras and Martynis

Have Paich-ence, please; don't shoot the messenger or declare Martyal law. I'm just reviving a few puns used for mid-Fifties tune titles recorded by composer-arranger Marty Paich--who would soon become better known for his work with the Dek-Tette (his slightly later redo of Gerry Mulligan's Tentet) assembled for several Mel Torme sessions on Bethlehem and Verve and other labels later.

But before Mel there was Marty's West Coast... er, Martyrdom... toiling in the vineyards with, and for, Shorty Rogers and the All-Stars like Art Pepper, Jimmy Giuffre, and Shelly Manne. Of course, other arrangers lacked Marty's perfect Paich. (Okay, okay, no more egregious puns... only gregious ones, like his album titled Revel Without Pause!)

Marc Myers' long interview with saxman Herb Geller (find it here) introduced a couple of Paich LP jackets I had neither seen nor heard before, so I sent off for copies toot sweet. And what sweet tooting then arrived in the mail... Candidly speaking, you can dig the disc jacket's hipster hype (shades of Ken Nordine!): "Paich is the Picasso of Big-Band Jazz," says Archie. On the Coast, Paich is most. His music makes murals grow in your mind. Paper and pencil are his canvas and brush. Listen: hear colors rush. Archie did. And recorded the engaging arranging Marty Paich.

("Who's this Archie?" you may ask. No album credit namechecks any such person for Paich's release. Well, the trick is this: rather than critic Nat Hentoff's short-lived Candid label--which gets logo credit on the CD--the LP was instead originally issued on Archie Bleyer's Cadence Records.)

Meanwhile the fun was just beginning, because two days later I found a used copy of Nat Pierce's "Ballad of Jazz Street" sessions. These tracks were originally cut in 1961, but only issued 17 years later (and still later reissued on a Hep Jazz CD), waxed by Nat's rehearsal band with Paul Gonsalves, Paul Quinichette, Clark Terry, Eddie Bert, Dick Meldonian, and others. (That temporary group can be seen as the decades-back precursor to Eighties marvel the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut.)

... Big little bands both, these circa-'60 ensembles, but while Pierce then stuck to his guns for decades--filling in at the piano for Count Basie, composing for Basie, Kenton, Herman, and other bands (he had acquired clout by having arranged landmark TV show The Sound of Jazz), doing his part to keep Mainstream Swing vibrant and alive--Paich gradually drifted into arranging for Pop vocalists like Dinah Shore and Peggy Lee, Ray Charles and even Kenny Loggins, as well as conducting the strings whenever Sarah Vaughan went Classical. Paich got the credits and publicity, and the bread, while Pierce gained the cred and private acclaim, and the scuffling.

But back to the two albums. Was Paich truly a Picasso? For the volume and variety of Pablo wouldn't that be, say, Ellington instead? (Or was Duke more accurately the Impressionist among Jazz composers--Monet maybe?) Marty seems more a master of miniatures, quick and clever and controled, maybe more like Degas. By this artfully silly analogy, Pierce (shown at right) would then be Renoir, beefy and colorful and slightly old-fashioned.

I fully expected to find the Paich album superficial and the Pierce one to be more substantial... which should teach me to eschew preconceptions. Because Paich's pieces slink and soar, all but one tune his own originals, while Pierce's program mixes reworkings and his own tunes about equally (and more stolidly). There's a casual lope and lightheartedness to most of Marty, with even the titles straightforwardly simple: "Nice and Easy," "New Soft Shoe," "Tommy's Toon," "Easy Listenin'." He gets the best from his West's best too (Bob Enevoldsen, Pete Candoli, Buddy Childers, Bill Perkins, Herb Geller, Bob Cooper, Jack Sheldon, et al), crack players making for crack sections and solos.

Vince De Rosa's French horn and Enevoldsen's clarinet create a woodwind mournfulness for the ballad "Black Rose"; and Joe Mondragon goes for a bassman's lazy ramble on the bluesy "Walkin' On Home." Drummer Mel Lewis gets his licks in on "Tommy's Toon" (well, everywhere really, and subtly, like pianist Paich); while the only standard, however little-known back then, "What's New," is muted and beautiful, lyrically led by Sheldon's trumpet. As for the punning I mentioned up top, you can check out "Martyni Time," just over three minutes long and as chilled and tasty as that first sip of the evening. (Omit the Desmond "dry.")

So you have Marty's West Coast leanings (arrangements with interacting sections, call-and-response counterpoint, solos cushioned by others, a general lightness and openness) vs. Nat's happy Swing, reaching from Boston to Kansas City, featuring fewer players but "heavier" arrangements and a "thicker" sound. Vague terms, these, and possibly irrelevant distinctions, but one can readily hear the overall difference--Pierce's powerful pre-Bop excitement vs. Paich's cheery post-Bop energy, both approaches lifting the listener and generating movement.

With Basie his mentor, Pierce always went for a hip riffing sound, usually reminiscent of the Count's great comeback band of the early/mid Fifties. And the first two tracks here ("Pretty Little Girl"--purely perfect--and the less-welcome "Melan-choly Baby") sound like those 16 men swinging. But after that, it's a slow slide downhill, from "Black Jack" with Paul Gonsalves doing his patented frenetic blowing, through misguided and misshapen arrangements of Horace Silver tunes "Soulville" and "Sister Sadie"--a great fellow, well-liked by all, Nat still weren't no funky white boy!--right to the original LP's three-section, sidelong title track.

For "Jazz Street" Pierce shucks his Basie boat cap and dons a rakish, Dukish fedora. Nat's piano becomes decidedly stride-like here and there, and his melodies meander quizzically, discovering strange venues along that hipster Street. The presence of both Gonsalves and Clark Terry helps lend the Ellington touch, as do Nat's section writing and non-Ducal soloists Dick Meldonian and Eddie Bert.

All holds well for the first two sections, but everything goes to wrack and ruin in Part Three, which sounds like Basie meets Godzilla, I mean Duke meets Paul Quinichette, and everyone loses--direction, sense, melody, you name it. The "Ballad" ends badly, reduced to sign-off chaos.

So Pierce's resurrected rehearsals sadly don't have a Paich on Marty's arty party. (Now I exit hurriedly, no noose being better than the hemp demanded by irate Mainstream fans everywhere.)

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