Friday, October 22, 2010

Perkins and Kamuca: Two of a Kind

Considering the popular acclaim accorded Stan Kenton's various orchestras during the Forties and Fifties, critics and Jazz historians since then have rather cavalierly dismissed the bulk of his recordings as stodgy or pretentious or brassily shrill. Yet scores of fine Jazz musicians passed through his ranks--and the various herds of Woody Herman too--and these band players regularly built successful small-group careers as well. Maynard Ferguson, the several "Four Brothers" saxophonists (Getz, Giuffre, Chaloff, Cohn, Sims, and others), the Candoli Brothers, Bill Holman, Bud Shank, Mel Lewis, Shorty Rogers, and Art Pepper are just a few obvious names among the many.

I'd like to salute two of the players who never really captured much public attention, but who recorded much of improvisational interest, even occasional greatness--Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca, tenor sax guys predominantly, who proved capable of both hard-bop excitement and Hollywood cool. The two have fascinated me for many years as rarely mentioned working-class heroes of the Left Coast Jazz scene.

Both men began as Prez disciples, but each found his own way to move beyond Lester's light-toned lyricism. They perfected their own versions of the "Four Brothers" sound during a shared stretch in Woody's Third Herd--Richie maybe simpler and more robust, always looking like a happy kid, and Bill the serious one (but called "Perk"), his playing more thoughtful and varied. Both were sort of go-to guys from the Fifties to the mid-Sixties, but good jazz gigs were lacking by the Seventies, so Kamuca spent several years in Merv Griffin's studio orchestra, while Perkins worked as a sound engineer and then joined the Tonight Show ensemble. But rather than turn this into a lengthy bio/critique, I'd prefer just to call attention to a few of their career-highlight recordings.

Kamuca graced both the Kenton and Herman bands, worked some with Rogers and Holman, cut classic albums with Perkins, Al Cohn, the Howard Rumsey Lighthouse gang, Frank Rosolino, and by 1960 was a major man among Shelly's Men. On the way to that career peak (the several Live at the Black Hawk recordings of 1959, and some further work thereafter), he left a trail of solid sideman solos. For example, Richie featured opposite bass trumpeter Cy Touff in the 1955 half-concept album casually known as "Keester Parade" (the opening tune that became an instant classic) but officially titled Cy Touff, His Octet & Quintet--Side One of the original LP arranged for the eight by Johnny Mandel, and the down side offering the core five just winging it.

Eight or five, Kamuca and Touff made happy, hard-swinging, somehow witty music that also demonstrates the Herman and West Coast love for the Basie sound, for Pres, Sweets Edison, Buck and Buddy, simple riffs, carefully placed piano. While the East Coast went for BeBop and then Hard Bop, the cats who migrated West (from Sweets, Lee Young and Wardell Gray, to Gerry Mulligan, Shelly Manne, Okie Chet Baker and Kamuca) and the few natives (Dexter Gordon and Buddy Collette, Holman and Perkins) generally lingered a while in happier Mainstream Swing Jazz, even though they admired and could play either style of Bop and embraced both eventually.

Some evidence along those lines: not too long after Bird and Diz were getting a cool reception in Hollywood (the infamous 1945-46 visit), Basie was in the process of rebuilding his band, back up to 16 men swinging, once again dominating a certain portion of the scene. Also consider the cheery, mid-Fifties riffs-interwoven works of master composer/arrangers like Lennie Niehaus and Shorty Rogers (before their muses faltered); pre-fade, Shorty made his Courts the Count album, and Buddy Rich paid homage on LP too. Then Bob Brookmeyer revisited Basie's Kansas City. And before he cast a wider net, Norman Granz stayed busy signing and recording every Basieite and Mainstream player he could find. Even Brown-Roach, after they'd been playing around Southern California for a couple of years, took a softer, more melodic version of Hard Bop back east with them.

Meanwhile, Kamuca's warm and rhythmic sax also enlivened ensembles assembled by Holman; those tasteful, sometimes impassioned results grace ("en-Rich" might be a better verb) standards and new originals alike on the albums In a Jazz Orbit, Bill Holman's Great Big Band! (Perk shows up too), and especially West Coast Jazz in Hi Fi, for which Richie received special billing and more tailored solo spots (best cut: "Star Eyes"). Then he hooked up with the West's main-man drummer for several years--trading Holman for Shel Manne, you might say--playing and recording up and down the Coast, from the Black Hawk in SF to Shelly's own LA club The Manne Hole.

Not just marking time, Kamuca instead met the challenge; he blows hard to keep pace with the fiery rhythm section (Manne the merciless, smart-swinging Monte Budwig, and Brit vibesman Victor Feldman who proves unexpectedly un-shy at the piano) plus heated, tragically short-lived trumpeter Joe Gordon.

Though Richie holds his own on all five records gleaned from the Black Hawk dates--soloing strong, supporting/counterpointing Gordon from the lower end, trading fours and eights occasionally--he is most memorable on ballad features like "This Is Always," "Whisper Not" and "Summertime," and the up swingers that allow some expressiveness ("Our Delight" and "I Am in Love") and not just hard-driven solos running the changes ("Poinciana" and Manne's set-closer theme, "A Gem from Tiffany"). Gordon locks right in the pocket while Kamuca does more responding to the trio section's fierce push-and-pull, whether blues or waltz, standard or original; and the 18-minute "Black Hawk Blues" is the culmination.

The five albums are a classic highwatermark of, not Hollywood cool, but West Coast Hard Bop! And there's a splendid but scarcely known sixth album too that appeared 30 years later (on Pablo rather than Contemporary), the band recorded live in Europe, touring with JATP a year later. No mere add-on, Yesterdays shows no loss of intensity or beauty, though the performances are briefer and Manne's regular keys-man Russ Freeman had replaced Feldman (no wonder these guys were known as the "Men"). Just take a listen to the walking "Bags' Groove," the chugging "Straight, No Chaser," and Richie's superb feature, robustly yet tenderly swinging through, and marking the end, "Yesterdays."

Then came the leaner years--blowing gigs with Roy Eldridge back in New York, a decade with Merv Griffin on both Coasts, some decent, slightly nondescript leader dates on Concord, but all halted by his unexpected death in 1977 on the day before he turned 47. But I'd rather mark his passing by pointing to the recently issued CD of a previously unknown live date from Donte's, recorded back in 1974, with Kamuca on prowling tenor and Lee cool-as-ever Konitz on alto. (The rhythm section: Dolo Coker, walkin' Leroy Vinnegar, and Jake Hanna.)

The differences between their styles shows just how far Richie had moved on from Pres by then--Lee jittery and dry, close to Paul Desmond; Kamuca calmer, more synched to the rhythm. But Richie too winds up blowing often in the higher parts of his horn, drawn back to the cool side. The choice of tunes is causal (maybe too casual too): Basie's "Baby, Baby All the Time" and a lively "Lester Leaps In," plus Bop stalwarts "Star Eyes" (back to his early days with Holman) and a lengthy and splendid "All the Things You Are," with room for the tenor to ride high and dig deep.

The sound is acceptable rather than pleasing, but worth hearing anyway; this is where Kamuca might have settled if not for the adventurous year-and-some with Shelly. Meanwhile... more to come in Part II of the escalatin' essay when I tackle Bill Perkins' longer, more varied career--including a pair of classic albums with both men squaring off. (It'll be a couple of weeks since I've got lots Perkilatin'!)


Alan Kurtz said...

Beat godfather Jack Kerouac was a notoriously bad speller of musicians' names. On the Road refers to Thelonius [sic] Monk and Willie [sic] "Gator Tail" Jackson. His essay "The Beginning of Bop" misspells the essential names Charley [sic] Parker and Billy [sic] Holliday [sic], among many others.

Thus was I transported to seventh heaven upon discovering, in Kerouac's 1958 novel The Subterraneans, tenor saxophonist "Ricci Comucca." (For album art, click on my hyperlinked name.)

Thanks for your warm write-up on the underappreciated--but not by you and me!--Richie Kamuca.

I Witness said...

Always a treat to hear from In-the-Know Alan, whose obscure facts are always pertinent and usually startling. In this instance... yes, it's true; Jack needed Spellchek(sp? never use it myslef), always in too big a hurry to bother with accuracy. (His prosaic license was revoked very early on.)

But the spelling for Kamuca fascinates me--could this have been the actual original Italian? Did Richie or his forebears change the family name at some point? More likely, was Jack blithely spelling out the name he heard said? Or was he doing his sort-of-pseudonym thing for some unknown, maybe legal reason? Whatever the case, be sure to click on the Kurtz hyperlink for a cool chuckle.