ELLINGTON: The Mooche. GILLESPIE: Con Alma (2 tks). Oops-Shoo-Be-Doo-Be. Kush. RONELL: Willow Weep for Me. DUKE-GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started / Dizzy Gillespie, tpt; Leo Wright, a-sax/fl; Lalo Schifrin, pno; Bob Cunningham, bs; Mel Lewis, dm / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-411 (live: Stuttgart, November 27 & Frankfurt, November 29, 1961)
Although he was considered a “living legend” in jazz by 1961 (jazz generations are normally telescoped into five-or six-year segments, not decades), Dizzy Gillespie was pretty much playing under the radar by 1961. Having accomplished so much in the years 1945-1957, playing with Boyd Raeburn, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, forming the first big bebop band, being among the first jazz artists to run his own record label (Dee Gee) and the first bopper to tour overseas with his second big bop band, he had retreated to a quintet by the early 1960s and was, somewhat without fanfare, playing international gigs. Although this splendid quintet certainly received a hearty welcome in Stuttgart, Frankfurt and elsewhere, it was nowhere near as celebrated as the Miles Davis group of 1959-60 which contained John Coltrane or, at home in the United States, the innovative small jazz groups of Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus. They were the “new thing”; to many jazz aficionados, Dizzy was “an old thing.” He even ran for president in 1963 as a promotional stunt, partly, I suppose, to remind people that he was still alive and kicking.
Vital is certainly the word for this splendid quintet. Few if any of his small bands after the late 1940s were s good, overall, as this one. Built from the ground up with the splendid duo of bassist Bob Cunningham and drummer Mel “The Tailor” Lewis, it also featured the vastly underrated Leo Wright on alto sax and flute as well as a young phenom who was getting even more attention from the jazz press than Dizzy himself, Lalo Schifrin. A few years hence, Schifrin would leave jazz for the greater security of writing for TV and movies, his most famous contribution being the jazzy, 5/4 theme music for the hit show Mission: Impossible, but here he is young and vital, playing extraordinary piano solos that led Gillespie to take him under his wing and promote him.
But I mentioned Leo Wright. In an era when so many alto saxists were trying to emulate Bird and not really coming close, Wright was practically a reincarnation of the late, great alto saxist. He sounds so much like Bird in his solo on The Mooche that you’d have a hard time convincing a listener in a blindfold test that it wasn’t Charlie Parker. Of course, this brought criticism raining down on poor Wright’s head, just as it has come raining down on poor Sonny Stitt a decade earlier, despite the fact that Stitt was already playing like Bird before he heard him. (When Parker first heard Stitt in 1943, two years before Bird’s national breakthrough, he said, “Well, I’ll be damned, you sound just like me,” to which Stitt replied, “I can’t help the way I sound. It’s the only way I know how to play.”)
Schifrin’s solo on The Mooche starts out somewhat tentatively, but moves into interesting territory in the second chorus, in which Dizzy interjects some interesting out-of-tonality held notes, and becomes even more energetic in his third chorus. Schifrin wasn’t a stylistic innovator, and his technique wasn’t as dazzling as those of Bud Powell or Horace Silver, but he was a real swinger and had ideas all his own. He had a very percussive style, almost like a jazz drummer or vibes player, and was surprisingly well-versed in the blues, as you can hear.
With Con Alma we move into the kind of Cuban jazz style that Gillespie pioneered in the late 1940s. One of the joys of this particular quintet is their tightness. They had been playing together for several months by the time of these performances, and came to know each other so well that they could anticipate each others’ entrances and styles to complement each other rather than trying to outduel one another. It was a very happy unit. Schifrin is very unbuttoned in his solo on this one, playing aggressively and with a sure grasp of the rhythm. Wright’s superb solo on this track gives us an idea of what it might have been like had Bird been a member of Dizzy’s big band.
Next up is Ann Ronnell’s wonderful Willow Weep for Me, on which the band lays back and turns the entire number over to Wright, here playing flute rather than alto sax. It’s a wonderful and inventive interlude. This is followed by Gillespie’s own Oops-Shoo-Be-Doo-Be, a novelty tune not as well known as Oop-Bop-Sha-Bam or Ool-Ya-Koo (or, for an even shorter title, Ow!). They have fun with the vocal, Wright plays a nice alto break, and Dizzy comes flying in with one of his wonderful and unique solos. Both Dizzy and the band turn more serious in his splendid treatment of I Can’t Get Started, the Bunny Berigan classic that was considered so sacrosanct that even Louis Armstrong refused to play it except for one time. As much as Dizzy respected Bunny, however, he liked the tune’s changes too much to let it sit alone and forlorn on the sidelines of jazz, and his own treatment of it, musically interesting as well as quite witty, is preserved here for us. He is the only soloist on this one.
We then jump from Stuttgart on November 27 to Frankfurt on November 29 for this performance of Kush, a very interesting and unusual piece with a sort of offbeat shuffle rhythm. After Dizzy plays the opening theme muted, Wright comes charging in on his alto sax and the energy level is ramped up, yet it again turns rather quiet for Schifrin’s piano solo. The centerpiece, however, is Gillespie’s extended muted solo, delicate and swinging and not too overly technical. In these recordings his brilliant high range is still evident, as is his exuberance as a player, but by the end of the decade he would become less daring and play nearly all of his solos muted. After a dead stop, Wright comes flying in on alto, upping the volume and intensity level while Cunningham and Lewis cook well behind him. Schifrin smashes a series of chords in his solo but is not particularly inventive.
The CD ends with an alternate version of Con Alma which is a tighter, slightly faster and more exciting performance than the one two days earlier. Both Gillespie and Schifrin are in top form here, playing at their very best, and the rhythm section bashes away happily behind them. Wright, too, is in full Charlie Parker mode with a blistering solo. It’s a great finish to a fun and excellent album of Dizzy Gillespie jazz in this little CD time capsule.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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