Oscar Pettiford Revisited

JAZZ Aktion 08_13

G. & I. GERSHWIN: But Not for Me. 1 ELLINGTON: Sophisticated Lady.3,7 CHRISTIAN-GOODMAN: A Smo-o-o-oth One.2,8 KOLLER: O.P.2,5,8 Anusia.5,8 KÜHN: Minor Plus a Major.2.5,8 HUBBEL-GOLDEN: Poor Butterfly.2,5,8 PETTIFORD: My Little Cello.5,6,8 Blues in the Closet (2 tks).5,6,7,9 CARMICHAEL-WASHINGTON: The Nearness of You.5,6,8 KERN-HARBACH: Yesterdays.5,6,8 KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: All the Things You Are (2 tks).5,6-9* HAMMERSCHMID: Big Hassle.4,5,6,7,9 BRENDT: Atlantic4,5,7,9 / Oscar Pettiford, bs/*cel accompanied by 1Dusko Goykovich, tpt; 2Rolf Kuhn, cl; 3Lucky Thompson, s-sax; 4Rudi Flierl, a-sax; 5Hans Koller, t-sax; 6Attila Zoller, gtr; 7Hans Hammerschmid, pno; 4Helmut Brandt, Helmut Reinhardt, Johnny Feigl, bar-sax; 3Hartwig Bartz, 8Jimmy Pratt, 9Kenny Clarke, dm / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-419

Oscar Pettiford, who died a few weeks shy of his 37th birthday of a virus related to polio, was both the luckiest and unluckiest of the bop pioneers. He managed to outlive Charlie Christian by 18 years, was famous at a much earlier age than Charles Mingus (who later became his friend and mentor) and was the first jazz bassist known to play jazz cello, but a few years after his untimely death he was slowly forgotten as the forward evolution of jazz passed him by. Yet he was never forgotten by jazz bassists, and in recent decades his star has risen once again.

Pettiford 1946

Oscar Pettiford in 1946

The reason Pettiford became so famous at so young an age is that he played with Charlie Barnet and Coleman Hawkins, then in 1945 joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Ellington was a tireless promoter of his sidemen. The reason he became famous as a jazz cello player was that his new friend of the 1950s, Charles Mingus, who himself started out on cello, suggested that they record an album together and, to distinguish between them, Oscar would play the cello while Charles played the bass. But Pettiford was surely one of the great bassists of his day, a pioneer whose work probably influenced Mingus as well as several others simply because he had a national voice through Ellington, and later also played in Norman Granz’ “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts with numerous big-name stars. His neat, compact tone, almost cello-like even when he played the bass, is unmistakable to this day.

These recordings, most of them made in the studio but the last two tracks live, were recorded in 1958 and ’59 after Pettiford had moved to Copenhagen permanently. Like pioneer bop drummer Kenny Clarke, featured here on the two live tracks, and alto saxist Sahib Shihab, he was sick and tired of the racial prejudice he faced in New York and so left the U.S. for good.

These are excellent examples of Pettiford’s art although, to be fair, they are not always as harmonically adventurous as many of his stateside recordings. Nonetheless, there are exceptions such as Hans Koller’s dedicatory piece, O.P. (not to be confused with the tribute piece that Mingus wrote for him nearly a decade later) which also features Rolf Kuhn on clarinet and Jimmy Pratt banging away happily on the drums. Aside from Pettiford, Koller is clearly the star of this track. Rolf Kühn’s Major Plus a Minor is also an outstanding performance, in part because the music itself is quite interesting. Kuhn, an excellent clarinetist but more of a swing stylist, is featured prominently on some of the early tracks in this set. On Poor Butterfly, good though he is, Pettiford plays rings around him. Koller, a tenor saxist obviously influenced by Stan Getz, possessed a style, as Getz did, which lay halfway between swing and bop. He is quite excellent on his own tune, Anusia.

Pettiford’s own composition, My Little Cello, bears a resemblance to some of the tracks he recorded stateside with Mingus, but oddly enough features him on bass. It also features the excellent electric guitar of Attila Zoller, who plays on most of the remaining tracks. The Nearness of You features Koller in an unusually warm, almost Coleman Hawkins-like mood, but it is Pettiford’s solo that steals the show.

This arrangement of Yesterdays, with its quasi-Latin beat (expertly played by Pratt), is a real treat, with Koller and the leader in top form, while All the Things You Are is completely transformed in traditional bop style into something entirely new, never touching the melody proper until the guitar coda at the four-minute mark in this fast-paced rendition.

Big Hassle and Atlantic are unusual in that they feature a quartet of baritone saxists, all playing much like Gerry Mulligan or Serge Chaloff, with the great Kenny Clarke on drums and Hans Hammerschmid back on piano. Although Pettiford gets the short end of the stick on these, relegated to a supporting role, the arrangements are extremely good and the level of playing at a high level throughout. In the latter, the voicing of the baritones reminded me of some of Stan Kenton’s experiments from the 1940s, i.e. Reed Rapture.

The live version of All the Things You Are sticks closer to the melody and isn’t as fast-paced as the studio version, but here Pettiford finally plays the cello and is quite excellent despite the somewhat tubby sound quality, tossing in a quote from Mingus’ contrafact on this tune.

There are two versions here of Blues in the Closet, the first a studio session with Koller, Zoller and the leader in excellent form, the second a live set with Pettiford on cello and more outstanding playing from Koller and Hammerschmid.

Anyone who is ignoring these marvelous releases by SWR Jazzhaus is missing a goldmine. I’ve reviewed several of them, and all have been outstanding even when presenting such well-known figures as Dizzy Gillespie, and this Pettiford CD is yet another valuable addition to their catalog.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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