Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Part 3B: Perk Up!

(Delayed yet again, but here at last! A smaller selection of pics this time, with many others still viewable below in the gallery of last week's Part 3A...)

Tenor sax great Bill Perkins was one of those many-hats guys, a genial man of many parts who "played" most of them: leader, co-leader, sideman, band section man and featured soloist with those same bands, from Herman and Kenton to Maynard Ferguson and Terry Gibbs' Dream Band, to later Bill Holman groups and Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show Orchestra, as well as Jazz/Classical orchestras in Germany and the Netherlands. He was a cool West Coaster and a Hardbop-influenced, sometimes abrasive blower (later on). He mastered and routinely recorded on all four saxes plus flute, alto flute, oboe, clarinet, even bass clarinet--not just "doubling," but quadrupling. He earned college degrees in both Electrical Engineering and Music (after WWII service), so he was already 27 when Woody Herman hired him suddenly in 1951 and his real professional career began. He became a first-call player for Hollywood soundtracks and commercial sessions as well as Jazz; yet he also worked on the other side of the glass during the Sixties and early Seventies as a highly regarded studio engineer. He invented and held the patents on a pair of MIDI electronic instruments used by trumpeter Miles Davis and saxman Ernie Andrews, among others. In fact it wouldn't surprise me to learn that this towhead California native son was a surfer dude and an avocado farmer too!

But above all else William Reese Perkins most certainly was a thoughtful, hardworking, quietly polite, shyly diffident, all-around nice guy--who managed to work his musical magic on ballads and up tunes too for over fifty years and... what? maybe 75?... never less than first-rate albums.

Several months ago, trying to get started, I wrote these paragraphs:

I've been slow to post this third portion of the Richie Kamuca-Bill Perkins saga partly because I kept (and keep) discovering other CDs I'd neither heard nor known about, featuring Perk in some way--a few with him and Richie too--that I wanted to absorb before writing more. For example, other tapes from the November 1956, Macumba Club performances (mentioned in Part 2) by the so-called "Bill Holman band," meaning the swing-defined, short-lived version of Kenton's mid-Fifties Orchestra, with great Holman charts bustin' out all over--a pleasure to play yet attuned for those dancers too. That disc, Sounds of Yester Year DSOY814, Swinging in San Francisco 1956, has Richie and Perk side by side and revelling in the groove. And a slightly different ensemble, recorded months earlier on Ground Hog's Day (my 13th birthday, so I had to hear Tantara TCD-1123, Kenton: Cool, Hot & Swingin', too), has features for Perkins certainly worth a listen; see below for one of them.

The major solos that he played in the early Fifties for Herman's "Third Herd" and then for the mid-Fifties Kenton Orchestra made the Jazz world aware that this unassuming fellow might be a tenor to reckon with. His first major assignment for Herman was to replace "Four Brothers" mainstay Stan Getz, and to produce some approximation of Stan's famed "Early Autumn" solo. No problem, Perkins nailed it, night after night. (Composer Ralph Burns then supplied a follow-up, also assigned to Perk, a nice tune called "Misty Morning" that went nowhere.)

He joined Kenton in 1955, and at the July sessions in Chicago, built around new Holman arrangements--Contemporary Concepts was the album name--Perkins pulled out another plum. With no rehearsal, seeing the chart basically for the first time, Bill cut a magnificant, spur-of-the-moment version of "Yesterdays"... which he always grumbled about thereafter, but which left his bandmates gaping. More than one of them, as had happened with "Early Autumn" too, spoke wonderingly in interviews of Perkins' ability to play that tune nightly without ever "coasting," coming up with a new gem of a solo every time.

I'd also like to suggest a third band classic, Perk's solo version of "Out of Nowhere," which appears on Magic DAWE50, another of the "Live at the Macumba" CDs issued by Kenton collectors, this performance dating from November 17. (A February runthrough is included on the Cool, Hot & Swingin' CD.) As was usual, Perkins takes the last solo on Bill Holman's great arrangement for "Stomping at the Savoy," then as the tape continues to roll, we hear Perk himself announce the follow-up/encore... But this particular "Out of Nowhere" comes from the "Somewhere" of inspired improvisation, as Perkins uncorks a magisterial four-minute solo that moves from stomping to romping and back again, and then to a tromp-'em-on-down, all-by-himself cadenza finish. Sadly, only Kenton Band aficionados have ever heard it!

Even at my age, one can still learn by listening and reading. And I have lately learned why I was confused regarding certain solos by Perk and Kamuca. The liner notes to one of the Macumba CDs makes this point: Perkins acknowledged some years later that playing in that for-the-tour temporary sax section with Pepper Adams on baritone, listening to his Hardbop solos and authoritative blowing in general, worked its way into Perk's approach to the tenor. Which means that both of the Lester-light Youngsters were transitioning away from Pres by the end of '56. Kamuca may have started earlier, since he was always fond of the lower register on his horn, but Perk wasn't far behind, working his way downward and blowing more powerfully too. (Eventually he'd become an on-call choice not only for tenor, but down to the bass-ment for baritone sax and baritone clarinet. He modestly compared his playing of that last to "the sound of the Queen Elizabeth coming through the fog," while on flute "I'm known as the barnyard Shank"!)

Meanwhile, Perkins had signed with Pacific Jazz/World Pacific earlier that year, and owner-producer Richard Bock quickly found several ways to present him, starting with the famous date known as Grand Encounter: 2 Degrees East/3 Degrees West, with Left Coast Bill the sole horn amongst Easterners John Lewis and Percy Heath, and the West's Jim Hall and Chico Hamilton--a gently supportive, four-man wrecking crew of Jazz stars who let Perk be the one who shone.

* * * * *
That's where I stalled and stopped, wanting to hear more, understand more, explain more... but tacitly admitting, yes, that the task was beyond my comprehension and comfort zone at the time. I know more now, these several months later, but the real change is I've come to accept my own shortcomings and to recognize the futility of trying to analyze, even summarize, scores of albums and 50 years of creative, evolving musicianship in a few hundred words. So instead this will be one fan's reactions/comments/thoughts, a verbal and visual miscellany rather than an essay.

If any performance of Bill's Getz-smart "Early Autumn" solos has been issued in some manner, I've not found it. My personal Perkins stash begins with Capitol T560, emphatically titled The Woody Herman Band!, which features the tenorist 7/11 (so to speak) and has an intriguing, darkroom-manipulated cover photo (this in 1954). I fancifully read it as Woody grandly singing the praises of his star saxman, bespectacled "Brother" Bill, seated in the lower left corner!

His years with Kenton were grander still, and that burgeoning reputation persuaded Richard Bock to issue several Perkins-centric albums. The fine Degrees sessions produced a quiet, nobody-in-a-hurry set, which many Jazz fans cherish and a few just yawn at. But there is general consensus about Bill's brilliant star-turn on the ballad "Easy Living," possibly the last of his solo features to attain "classic" status for many years. (The quasi-live, in-a-theater, Perk-arranged octet set was another winner, but overshadowed by all the other bob-and-weave, a la mode releases by Mulligan-Baker-Pepper-Niehaus Inc.)

The mid-Fifties were a lavish smorgasbord for players West and East, the following decades more of a soup kitchen. Perkins appeared with umpteen bands, some of them surprisingly well-documented like the half-dozen Gibbs Dream Band albums, and he also cut well-regarded LPs with folks as varied as Bud Shank and Benny Carter, Doc Severinsen and Shorty Rogers, Victor Feldman and James Clay, Akiyoshi-Tabackin and the Lighthouse All-Stars, Niehaus Octets and Pepper Elevenses and Kenton Neophonic extravaganzas. Yet for 20-some years to make a decent living he had to rely on steadier gigs: studio engineer at United Recorders, man-about-multiple-instruments for commercials, and tenor ace on the Tonight Show.

Over all that stretch of time, he kept listening and storing up, so that when he resumed a career away from the studios around 1980, that beautiful "Lestorian" languidness had been Pepper-tempered (both Adams and Art) and Trane-hardened. As Bill told friends and interviewers (one who has written about Bill many times is Doug Ramsey of the much-honored Rifftides blog), he could still reach out for the early romanticism--what Bird called "playing clean and looking for the pretty notes." But he was listening differently, hearing the changes change, absorbing the drums of rock and the heat of global atmospherics--and a gruffer tone and steely timbre were often the result.

Looking over LPs and CDs both, I realized that, mirroring his back-burner career, I neither own nor have heard anything Perk recorded between 1960 and the early Eighties. But from then on, until his death from cancer in 2003, Bill worked in Jazz steadily and the albums reflect his maturity and ability to tune in. First came the date Perk and Shank co-led, Serious Swingers (Contemporary C-14031), announcing with bravura and saxy brass the maverick session-men's classy comeback--highlights: "Don't Explain," a dark beauty requiring no explanation, and an "Out of This World" which is.

Many quartet and quintet releases followed, usually with Frank Strazzeri or Alan Broadbent at the piano. Revisiting the venerated Mullligan-Baker model, Bill cut some no-piano albums too; an example would be V.S.O.P. #80 CD, Two Brothers, by trombonist Herbie Harper and Perkins (who also produced). My verdict... Two brothers? Half the excitement of four; fun for West Coast fans, but a bit flat; competent but a little too cool.

But that album does include a quintet version of another tune that would soon become a Perkins classic. Less than a year later, the tenorman captured Irving Berlin's ballad "Remember" with a tenderly rendered solo floating on the Metropole Orchestra of the Netherlands. That album, I Wished on the Moon (Candid CCD97524), let Perk drift and soar like the Getz-plus-strings of Focus ("The Summer Knows" and conductor Rob Pronk's great original "No More"); swing and sway the Jazz Latin way ("Besame Mucho"); and pursue an exotic "Caravan" out to the Silk Road and beyond. (I also wrote a year ago about Brilliant Corners, Bill Holman's amazing 1997 tribute to the music of Thelonious Monk--the other orchestral band masterwork that featured Perkins around this time.)

Perk's solo career in Jazz more or less began with sessions involving alto great Bud Shank, and the two friends rose to prominence occasionally in tandem thereafter, so it suits the arc of the Perkins Story that Bud figured at the finish too. In the early Nineties Perk played tenor, soprano and more on several nostalgic, keep-'em-flying releases by the "Lighthouse All-Stars" and "West Coast All Stars"; and Shank was there for a couple of them. More bracing and challenging was the less-known 1995 release titled The Bud Shank Sextet Plays Harold Arlen (JIMCO JCD 9502-2), featuring Bud, Bill, Jack Nimitz, and Conte Candoli up front, plus rhyth'men John Clayton, Jr. and Slammin' Sherman Ferguson.

You don't have to be a wizard to know that tunes like "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Blues in the Night," "My Shining Hour," "Out of This World," even "Over the Rainbow," arranged by Bill Holman, Marty Paich, et al, will indeed shine when played by the right musicians. And the Shank six, older pros with scuffed soles--scoured souls too--don't need a yellow brick road to know which way a cyclone blows, not to mention the horns, when shaping a rough-cut gem. Unruly rhythm ballads, bees not asleep but a-buzzin', positive accentuations only when the sun comes out... Shank is elemental and Perk in his post-modest element. (So watch out for stray sparks and still-burning embers!)

The Arlen one-off became the template for Perk, Shank, and Conte, together again and touring, at the turning of the millenium, around the album--and sometimes as the group--named Silver Storm. (Look for Raw Records 067384302010.) The pros are even older but the rogues of rhythm even hotter (Joe LaBarbera drums, Bob Magnusson bass, and Bill Mays, yes, at the piano). The chimneys are snowy but the furnaces still fired up and the tunes meant for blowing the ashes out--"Idol Gossip" to "Yardbird Suite," a raucous reprise of "My Shining Hour" and four of Bud's best originals. But only one need detain us: "Perkolator."

Doug Ramsey's liner notes might have posted a notice here: "CAUTION--Storm Warning. Big Fun a Head. Proceed at Your Own Asterisk!" But Doug's virtuoso sentence is its own reward: "This wild new version summons up a vision of Witold Lutoslawski, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Charlie Parker meeting in a Manhattan free-jazz loft." (What? No martini time with Martinu? gibes for Giacometti? mingling with Brancusi's braintrust? Surely they're just as impertinent.) Joshing aside, "Perkolator" sounds like Abbott and Costello Meet Boyd Raeburn, as Clayton bows, Mays meanders, and LaBarbera cuts up. As for the horns, think rehearsal room hijinx plus some split-second-timed blasts commingling BeBop and the Big Bopper... some fun, kids, and not strictly for the Boyds.

Still, I prefer to give the last word to Perkins himself--that is, to a quintet disc with Bill as producer and sax/flute lead, 1999's splendid release, the unintentional yet suitably valedictory album titled Swing Spring (Candid CCD 79752), featuring Clay Jenkins' trumpet and the rhythm threesome of Perk's longtime piano pal Frank Strazzeri, Tom (the bubbly bustling bass) Warrington, and fiery drummer Bill Berg (his sketch of Perk serves as the CD booklet's cover). First off, portions of the album play like a classic Blue Note set circa 1960--melodic, not quite so soulful but just as straightahead-catchy as early Hank Mobley or Horace Silver.

Yet there's more, a bitchin' brew of '60s Soul, '70s Funk, '80s explorations, '90s neo-Swing--breezes blowing, exotic processions, simmering nights and salt sea spray, Barbadian beaches and love walking... somewhere. The tracks of his years are here, Lester to Richie, Pepper to Coltrane, Art to Bud--and not forgetting some Shorter twists and angles--but they all come a-Perkin' now. Jenkins plays the perfect foil, and Strazzeri is brilliant from main-stem to "Lotus Blossom"--the moody, mercurial tenor statements on the latter ascending to that select list of Bill's best. (And his tenor on the final track, "BeBop Love Song," manages to evoke the great tune by that other Jenkins, and so hint at "Goodbye.")

Tenors, baritones, sopranos, clarinets, flutes; blown tenderly, tenaciously, tempestuously. He didn't go gentle, but he did finally say, Good-night...

I have this afterthought. Maybe the Jazz world should consider bestowing a "Brownie" Award--but only occasionally, when some nominee over a lengthy career in music displays the inherent skills, intermittent genius, quiet wise restraint, and general nice-guyness of the award's namesake, Clifford Brown. Ignoring other deserving candidates, I think it's safe to say that genial, generous, multi-talented, blow-for-broke Perk would be a shoo-in.


Alan Kurtz said...

Great article, Ed. It was worth the long wait. As for that afterthought "Brownie" Award, you refer to "the inherent skills, intermittent genius, quiet wise restraint, and general nice-guyness of the award's namesake, Clifford Brown."

No one can dispute either the inherent skills or general nice-guyness of Clifford Brown. But "intermittent genius" and "quiet wise restraint" are inapt descriptions. There was nothing intermittent about Clifford Brown's genius, nor was his playing "restrained" à la the two best-known trumpeters of his generation: Miles Davis and Chet Baker. Except for his album with strings, Clifford was more Louis than Bix, more Fats Navarro than Shorty Rogers.

And of course the (unintended?) irony is that, given the criterion of "a lengthy career in music," Clifford Brown himself would be ineligible for the award you've named in his honor.

I Witness said...

We-ell, I must quibble a small bit (and don't I always?). Inadequate wording on my part left readers believing I referred to restrained playing when what I meant was his restraint in LIVING--i.e., avoiding drugs, alcohol, screwing around, etc. As for the adjective "intermittent," I admit to not having studied or memorized Brownie's solos, but I am dubious that even he, close to perfect, was able to play at that genius level with every note, every phrase, every solo, every instantaneous intersection with Land or Rollins or Powell. Could he really have never made a single mistake nor had an off night in his improvising? never had to vamp a bit or fall back on a comfortable musical phrase he recalled from having used it before?

Alan Kurtz said...

Ed, when it comes to judging artistic genius, you have impossible standards. "Could he really have never made a single mistake nor had an off night in his improvising?" By that gauge, all jazz geniuses have been intermittent. Leading the pack would be Charlie Parker. Consider, e.g., "Lover Man" and "The Gypsy" from his infamous July 29, 1946 Dial recording session in Hollywood.

You mention Rollins, but he too can be uneven. Longtime followers concede that, over the course of his career, Sonny has had more than a few nights on the bandstand where he was distracted and uninspired.

"Never had to vamp a bit or fall back on a comfortable musical phrase he recalled from having used it before?" That could apply to Louis Armstrong or Art Tatum as well as to Clifford Brown.

Lighten up, Ed. I'm not trying to start another controversy, since I know how much I Witness abhors those. But "intermittent" applied to the genius of Clifford Brown is just plain miserly.

And the unintended consequence is that it leaves us talking about a slighted Brownie, not about the rightly praised Bill Perkins. You would've done better to leave Clifford out of it.

I Witness said...

Right. Ready when you are, C.B.

Alan Kurtz said...

Since nobody else is commenting, please let me actually say something about Bill Perkins. You note his many recordings with mid-'50s Kenton bands, among which I've always liked Rendezvous with Kenton. Scott Yanow at AllMusic.com calls it "one of the less essential Stan Kenton recordings. The 18-piece orchestra is featured playing Joe Coccia's dance arrangements of melodic standards. … No real excitement occurs. The music is pleasant but not up to the fiery level one would expect of the Stan Kenton Orchestra."

It's a reviewer's cliché that, with big bands such as Kenton's, there was an "essential" jazz book and a "throwaway" dance book, and never the twain met in any memorable recordings. Scott Yanow is so captive to this cliché that he misses the point of Rendezvous with Kenton, which frequently showcases "the early romanticism" that you correctly ascribe to Bill Perkins.

It was recorded in Oct. 1957 on location in Balboa, Calif., at the closed Rendezvous Ballroom, whose unpopulated cavernous acoustics were ideal for Kenton's trademark lush, 5-trombone choir and distinctive, wide-open sax section voicings. Sometimes we forget that big bands grew three to five each of trumpets, trombones and saxes simply in order to be heard in those vast ballrooms that dotted the American landscape in the days before sophisticated large-scale sound systems and individually amplified instruments.

Anyhow, neither Kenton nor any of the other perennial big band leaders could've long survived delivering nothing but fiery excitement. Even as late as 1957, couples were still dancing to well packaged melodic standards. And, I might add, falling in love to and with that music.

Enter Bill Perkins with his enchanting, still Lestorian (Young-ian?) tone and warmly expressive ideas. A particular standout is Joe Coccia's original "Two Shades of Autumn," which boasts a gorgeous solo by Perkins and later a haunting improvised duet between Bill and altoist Lennie Niehaus played in pianoless quartet fashion. And, just to give the lie to Scott Yanow, the piece concludes with a typically Kentonesque flourish of fiery excitement from the trumpets.

Perhaps due to Scott Yanow dismissing it as "one of the less essential Stan Kenton recordings," Rendezvous with Kenton has never been issued on CD. However, it is available as an Amazon MP3 Download. Audio quality is sometimes choppy, but listeners who can't get enough of Bill Perkins' "early romanticism" will find this set a steal at $6.99.

I Witness said...

Thanks for schooling us on a forgotten Perkins/Kenton venture (rather than B-rating me more for that misperceived Brownian motion). Perks me up again.