IMPRESSIONS OF OUTER SPACE / POCKRISS: Beyond Gravity. Airless Moon. ALBERTINE: Lunar Sleep. Asteroid Ballet. Primordial Matter. Space Intoxication. Purple Planet. LEVINSKY: Gravitational Whirlpool / Larry Elgart Ensemble / Brunswick BL-58054, available for free streaming on YouTube starting here
This has to be one of the strangest and most elusive band albums ever recorded and released. In 1951, alto saxist Larry Elgart, who later spent more than 40 years cranking out “businessman’s bounce” albums of riff jazz either by himself or in conjunction with his brother Les, was playing in the orchestra pit of the popular Broadway hit show Top Banana (which propelled Phil Silvers to stardom) with fellow musician Charles Albertine. They decided to team up—without brother Les at the time—to pursue a big band career, with Albertine writing some very advanced charts.
From a commercial standpoint, the venture was a failure, but artistically they hit the bull’s eye with their first and only album together, Impressions of Outer Space. Using charts by Albertine, Lee Pockriss and Kermit Levinsky, they crafted a little over 16 minutes’ worth of some of the spaciest (in the good sense of the word) Third Stream music ever committed to disc. Brunswick gave it a “sort of” push, hiring famed sci-fi comic book artist Alex Schomburg to design the cover and Samuel Mines, author of The Book of Startling Stories and editor of the popular sci-fi magazines Fantastic Story, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories to write the liner notes, but thought so little of the album’s jazz content (only two solo spots, evidently written out) that they didn’t bother to get the names of the individual musicians. So all we know about the album is that it includes Larry Elgart on alto as one of five saxes, three trombones, and a rhythm section of piano-bass-drums.
But Mines was right when, in the first sentence of his notes, described the music as “exotic stuff.” Lying somewhere in the realm of music between Boyd Raeburn and Stan Kenton, or to be more exact between Raeburn’s key arranger George Handy and Kenton’s Bob Graettinger, the music of Impressions is spacey in the extreme. Only Lee Pockriss’ Beyond Gravity and Space Intoxication use anything resembling a tune, the one in the former briefly resembling Kurt Weill’s Speak Low. Whoever the engineer was, he did a good job, placing the instruments in just enough room reverb to give the music a nice “spacey” quality, and there is no question but that the mostly anonymous musicians play these challenging charts with a wonderful style and outstanding ensemble clarity. As Larry later admitted in his autobiography, The Music Business and the Monkey Business, the album went nowhere but caught the ear of legendary record producer John Hammond, who got them a contract with Columbia Records—which quickly teamed him up with brother Les and turned him into king of Sunday afternoon pop-schlock “businessman’s bounce.”
But back to Impressions…despite a bevy of Larry Elgart and Les & Larry Elgart albums being reissued over the decades, no label, not even Fresh Sound which specializes in obscure jazz albums of the 1950s (and who released several of the other discs), has ever bothered to reissue it, thus it only resides in the grooves of the fairly rare 10” LP and double-45-EP issues form 1953. Partly, this is by design; compared to rare rock albums with pictures of bloody dead people and broken ambulances on them, Impressions isn’t worth very much, but compared to most jazz-art albums of the early ‘50s, copies fetch a pretty penny. The LP usually goes for around $138 on eBay, the double-45 set for $122 or more…and collectors don’t necessarily want their gold mines devalued.
Fortunately, one enterprising collector had the courage to upload the entire album (from the 45s) on YouTube in May of 2017, three and a half months before Larry Elgart died at the ripe old age of 95. There are some ticks and pops here and there, most of which you can remove with a good audio editor, but thankfully the sound quality is very good and none of the records skip. Mines’ descriptions of the different pieces (I’ve uploaded the back cover for your edification) were fanciful and based on his imagery of planets, moons and asteroids. The problem, I think, is that the pieces were generally so short (only Lunar Sleep runs over two and a half minutes, and three pieces are under two minutes) that the average ear simply couldn’t absorb it fast enough. If you listen to them one at a time, however, and pay close attention, you’ll find a world of fascinating textures, extended chord structures and tightly written pieces, all played with great virtuosity by Elgart’s little band of top studio musicians. Not surprisingly, the pieces all use musical “space” as a means of achieving their exotic quality. It’s very creative and well-crafted music, but also very playful. Pockriss, Albertine and Levinsky evidently had a lot of fun putting these pieces together, which makes it the best kind of experimental music.
A verbal description of each piece, then, would be somewhat futile. You need to hear it to understand what I’m talking about, but before the whole album was uploaded only the first piece, Beyond Gravity, was available for streaming. The most impressionistic pieces are Pockriss’ Airless Moon and Albertine’s Primordial Matter and Purple Planet, with their outstanding use of orchestral texture at a very soft volume to create atmosphere, but the whole 16 and a half minutes’ worth is superb. Levinsky’s sole contribution, Gravitational Whirlpool, is one of the most rhythmically complex pieces on the album as well as one demanding a high level of execution. Only Space Intoxication uses a sort of swingy riff, sounding briefly like one of the Les & Larry Elgart band records of the late ‘50s, but it, too, has moments of “outside” chords and strange rhythms.
In short, this is a valuable album of musical impressionism, superbly conceived and executed. Dig it!
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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