Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Perk 'n' Richie: Part 2

Once a band man always a band man. Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca played next to each other in a mid-Fifties Herman Herd as two among the later "Four Brothers" (lore says that Perk also nailed nightly the Stan Getz solo on "Early Autumn"), worked on Bill Holman projects, held down steady gigs in TV studio orchestras, and--one or the other--interpreted band charts for Lennie Niehaus, Gerry Mulligan, Terry Gibbs (the late-Fifties Dream Band) and, much later, Bill Berry, and the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut. When their side-by-side gigs of the Fifties gave way to individual careers, Kamuca had a couple of decades of ups and downs, then died too young, while Perkins just kept percolatin' along up until 2003 when the cancers he'd battled for a decade finally stopped his sax for good.

The two Brothers did actually record together a few times. It's useful, first, to consider a tune the two solo'ed on separately--"Yesterdays"--played seductively by Richie on tour with Manne in '61 (see Part 1, here), but also a special feature, some years earlier, for Perk fronting the Kenton Orchestra, that one a five-minute gem with Bill riding above the all-powerful brass, demonstrating that there could be strength too in beauty. Yet Bill Holman's chart reaches its climax well over a minute before his arrangement ends, and Perk is left mostly noodling during the long dying fall. (Though the solo helped make his rep, Perkins always pooh-poohed it as ill-prepared and inadequate.)

Still, their solos help define the two tenors' differences, Kamuca swinging robustly but staying lower, plumbing the depths of his horn's range, lagging a bit on the beat--while Perkins starts low and then goes high and light, keeping pace with the rhythm section, shifting from a whisper to a scream. And their recordings together (during the 1955-56 sudden starburst of West Coast Jazz), while varied, do often fall into that pattern.

But recognition becomes rather trickier when the two join Al Cohn for his three tenors set titled The Brothers! (recorded June 1955). The liner notes identify solos on only three or four tunes, but I think the general gist goes... Kamuca down anchoring, Cohn more mid-range and slightly breathy, Perkins solidly up, subtly there where needed--and any two or all three blending beautifully. Richie has lots of fun powering through Berlin's "Blue Skies," and Perkins responds by deftly dancing through both "Pro-Ex" and "Kim's Kapers." Yet the best moments on this merry set are the three tenors together--whether in counterpoint, call-and-response, or full-house blend--for cleverly arranged tunes like "Blixed,"
"Sioux-Zan," or "Three of a Kind."

Recorded a year-and-some later were the sessions originally issued as Tenors Head-On and Just Friends (the latter adding Art Pepper too on a few tracks), recently available combined on a single CD (minus Pepper) retaining the Tenors Head-On title. As I speculated in Part 1, the West's ever-Young tenors often kept a Swing-derived sound even when headed into Bop, and this combined CD is a perfect exemplar. Both sets are more interesting and definitely swing harder than the Cohn sessions did (those danced rather than dug in), but the selections recorded with Pete Jolly, Red Mitchell, and Stan Levey focus more on Swing Era stuff like "Don't Be That Way," "I Want a Little Girl," and "Cotton Tail," while the later date, just three months on, already is more Boppish, thanks in part to the pressuring presence of Modernists Mel Lewis and Hampton Hawes--even when the quintet is tackling old standards like "Just Friends," "All of Me," and "Limehouse Blues."

Richie does Ben Webster proud in his rugged lead and solos for "Cotton Tail," then tames the beast for "Oh! Look at Me Now" and a gorgeous (shared) "Just Friends," while Perk demonstrates his triple-threat capacity, breaking out flute and--get this--baritone clarinet as well as his airy tenor. Though I've brazenly attempted to define the guys' basic approaches to their horns, in reality they do often switch places; and several liner notes writers and Perk himself make much of the impossibility of ever really knowing who's which just from listening. So let's just point out that the bass clarinet lends a mighty low bottom to "Solid de Sylva" and "Sweet and Lovely" (some fillips of flute there as well) and, otherwise, the tracks recorded, the uncanny interweaving, the rival solos, the traded fours... they're all terrific no matter who's on first or what comes up second.

But Abbott 'n' Cos... oops, wrong duo... Neither Kamuca nor Perkins gets much play in the histories of West Coast Jazz, so one further development is seldom acknowledged. Following the 1955-56 recording sessions together, the guys wound up side by side (rather than Head-On) in Stan Kenton's orchestra of late 1956-'57, with Richie's part in the return largely unheralded, even though Kenton once observed that Kamuca could swing at the drop of a hat. (Capitol, or Kenton maybe, didn't always identify the players on those Fifties LPs. I expect they came and went too often.) But there are some recordings from live dates at San Francisco's Macumba/Macumber Club (both spellings have been used) to document that halcyon stretch when Kenton's Concepts band regularly swung the house, courtesy of the Young-turk players and a library full of Holman and Mulligan and Lennie Niehaus and Johnny Richards arrangements. Stan even had his own "Four Brothers" sax section then: Perk, Richie, Niehaus, and Pepper Adams.

Though the featured soloists on Kenton '56: The Concepts Era (Artistry LP 103) are all identified, I believe at least one guess may be in error--specifically during the six-minute live version of Mulligan's great "Swing House" chart. The Kenton experts say sax soloists in the order of "Niehaus, Perkins, Kamuca, Adams," but my untrained ears hear (or want to believe) that Perkins and Kamuca should be reversed. Recognizing Perk's disclaimer about the two hornmen's similarities, still the first tenor solo sounds more like rough-and-ready Rich than sagely swinging Bill. (Maybe they were playing in unusual registers. Maybe they swapped reeds. Maybe I'm just wrong and need my hearing checked.)

Anyway, fine as wine, Perk 'n' Richie blow next to each other on both "King Fish" and "Swing House" and also solo separately on several selections. Richie struts his stuff in Mulligan's "Young Blood" and "Walking Shoes" and lends some class to Holman's jaunty "Royal Blue," while Perkins sets the scene in "What's New?" and adds his own spice to "El Congo Valiente." (Note: At least one other Kenton LP had both tenors present, 1958's Back to Balboa, which I've never heard. Given their track record I'd expect the two to have solo'ed memorably.)

...And that put finis to their work in tandem. More tapes from this particular Kenton band may be out there, but it seems that Kamuca and Perkins went their separate ways from this point on--Richie drifting slowly into eclipse and Perkins shifting wholly into his alternative gigs as recording engineer and Tonight Show band regular (for 25 years!). But Bill came back to his sax full-time in the mid-Eighties, and I'll discuss his multi-decade, split-in-pieces career before and after Kamuca in Part 3 of this epic Tale of Two Tenors.

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