Masters Channels Mingus and Mulligan

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BLUE SKYLIGHT / MINGUS: Monk, Bunk and Vice-Versa.1 So Long, Eric.1 Peggy’s Blue Skylight.1 Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.1 Eclipse.1 MULLIGAN: Out Back of the Barn.2 Wallflower.2 Strayhorn 2.2 Apple Core.2 Birds of a Feather.2 Motel 2 / The Mark Masters Ensemble: Gary Foster, a-sax; 1Ron Stout, tpt; 1Les Benedict, tbn; Jerry Pinter, t-sax/s-sax; 2Gene Cipriano, t-sax; 2Adam Schroeder, bar-sax; Ed Czach, pn; Putter Smith, bs; Kendall Kay, dm / Capri Records (no number)

Although this is my first exposure to jazz arranger-composer Mark Masters, this is scarcely his first project, having already re-imagined Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in a manner entirely different from that of Gil Evans (among others). Yet it does put the focus on two of jazz’s most gifted arrangers, one of whom is undoubtedly the music’s gretaest composer. The one thing that both Gerry Mulligan and Charles Mingus had in common was an arranging style peculiarly their own and a way of voicing that was rooted in low reed instruments (baritone and bass saxes and, in Mingus’ case, the string bass and bass clarinet as well).

Although I am well familiar with every Mingus piece on this album, having written a monograph on Mingus as man, bassist and composer that was killed just before publication 16 years ago, I admit to not knowing any of the Mulligan pieces on this disc except for Apple Core, Motel (the quartet version from 1953) and Birds of a Feather. My knowledge of Mulligan’s scores for groups larger than a quartet are fairly limited to the ones he wrote for Claude Thornhill, Gene Krupa, the Miles Davis Nonet, Stan Kenton and his own 1960 big band, which means that I know his style and working methods but just not these specific tunes.

One thing that struck me about the opening piece, Monk, Bunk and Vice-Versa, is how much the score sounded like the session Mingus did with Lionel Hampton in 1977 (the last time he played bass before ALS crippled and eventually killed him), in which he put aside his own very distinctive scoring habits and instead did a bit of “streamlining.” Here, although the arrangement is colorful, it lacks some of the edge and bite one heard in the version he included in the Epitaph score. This is not a criticism but merely an observation; as it so happens, I actually like the arrangements he did for Hampton of his own pieces. They have a wonderfully fresh, happy, “jumpy” feel about them, as does this performance, and Masters finds a way to dovetail the solos into the composition with fine style.

Interestingly, Masters also changes Mulligan’s normal colors in the arrangements of his material. As a baritone saxist, Gerry always emphasized the low-end saxes and rode the tune on the beat with a certain jovial bounce in the rhythm (his live-in lover, actress Judy Holliday, used to refer to it as a “happy Irish laugh”). Here, Masters focuses more on mid-range reeds, even using a soprano at times in the lead. It’s a different way of looking at the music, just as in the case of his Mingus transcriptions, but oddly enough I kind of missed that “bop-bada-bop-bada-bop-bada-bada-bada” rolling beat that Mulligan used so often and so well.

As it so happens, So Long, Eric was one of the pieces that Mingus rearranged for the Lionel Hampton ensemble in 1977, so I was—I thought—prepared for what Masters would do here. But I was wrong! He has so rewritten the piece that I didn’t even recognize it when it started. It comes across as an entirely different tune, in part because he took the familiar lick that opens and dominates the first 8 bars of the original and cut it down to just a bar or two.

Since I wasn’t familiar with most of these Mulligan pieces, I went to YouTube to hear the original recordings and make comparisons. Wallflower is not one of his more complex pieces, but a ballad which he plays softly himself on the baritone sax with rhythm section. The way Masters has rearranged it, the theme is stated by piano (in the same key—F major—and tempo), with soft sax chording coming in behind and then taking over the theme statement, with variations. I actually liked this better than Mulligan’s original; it had more richness to it. Putter Smith plays a gorgeous bass solo here, followed in turn by Gary Foster on alto. When Czach returns, it is for a chorus of piano trio. The saxes provide a nice cushion again for the rideout.

Peggy’s Blue Skylight is the closest in feel here to Mingus’ original, partly due to the similar tempo and the excellent bass licks and solo by Smith. Following a brief tenor solo by Pinter, the sax section break also sounds somewhat Mingus-esque. The composer would have been quite proud of Smith’s eight-bar solo in the middle, as well as of the way Masters scores the saxes in round-robin fashion, playing a brief canon in support of the theme.

Strayhorn 2, like its predecessor Song for Strayhorn, was another of Mulligan’s ballads, which in this case makes sense because Billy Strayhorn wrote so many of them. Here Masters gives us a sound very close to the original, assigning the theme (and variants) to baritone saxist Schroeder over solo piano. A lonesome sound for a lonesome song.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love was one of Mingus’ favorites of his own compositions, recording it twice in the early 1970s. It’s also atypical of his output in that he purposely aimed for an Ellingtonian rather than a Mingus-ese sound in its melodic structure and scoring. Masters again pares down the ensemble, assigning Pinter the melody over piano trio with occasional interjections and breaks by a small contingent of horns. And once again, Smith’s bass makes its presence felt. Benedict also contributes a very nice, Lawrence Brown-styled trombone solo.

Mulligan apparently recorded Apple Core a few times, including once with Lionel Hampton, but the version I’m familiar with is his Concert Band arrangement of 1960. It’s one of his most driving pieces, a minor-key tune that reminds me of another song that I’m going crazy trying to put my finger on (no, it’s not Charlie Parker’s Scrapple From the Apple). Masters halves the tempo and scores the opening theme in the style of Woody Herman’s Four Brothers. It’s nice, and certainly different, but in this case I liked Mulligan’s original concept better. I was, however, very much taken with Pinter’s tenor solo, one of his best on this record, and Foster contributes another nice turn on alto, as does Smith on bass (who is this guy? He’s great!).

One of the most remarkable creations on this album is Masters’ completely rewritten version of Mingus’ Eclipse. This was a song originally written in the early 1950s for Billie Holiday, who appreciated the gesture but never did ding it because of its difficult key changes in the bridge (Billie was a sweet person but she didn’t have the most subtle ear). An extended introduction that has nothing to do with the piece is played by Pinter; we don’t hear the actual tune until Benedict enters on trombone, playing muted. After another nice but brief solo by Smith on bass, there’s some very nice arranging of the tune’s B theme for the reeds, then Benedict provides the ride-out.

Birds of a Feather was one of the pieces Mulligan wrote for the Gene Krupa orchestra in the late 1940s. Too many jazz fans neglect this period of Krupa’s career or forget just how good his own band was. In this instance, Masters reduces the orchestration (no trumpets or trombones) but increases the tempo. Here we get Gene Cipriano on tenor instead of Pinter, giving us a very nice, quasi-Stan-Getz solo with his own licks. Smith again dominates his solo on bass.

Motel was apparently a tune that Mulligan recorded with a large band that was not a permanent group, like his Concert Jazz Band, but rather a one-shot group of all-stars including Lee Konitz, Hal McKusick, Charlie Rouse, Jerry Lloyd, Bob Brookmeyer, Frank Rehak, Joe Benjamin, etc. Masters’ arrangement, however, harks back to the original Mulligan-Chet Baker quartet version of 1953 (the one I know), with much of it dominated by Schroder’s baritone. He does, however, throw in a few nice ensemble licks…but so short!

All in all, a very nice trip down jazz’s memory lane, refiltered through the mind of another talented arranger. Worth hearing, particularly for the outstanding work of the soloists!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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