The Invisible David Angel Emerges

09 - Dave Angel Jazz Ens

2021 winnerOUT ON THE COAST / ANGEL: Out on the Coast. Wig. DIETZ-SCHWARTZ: Alone Together. ANGEL: L’Ilo Vasche. Ah Rite! Wild Strawberries. ELLINGTON: Prelude to a Kiss. MANDEL: Hershey Bar. DAVIS-RAMIREZ-SHERMAN: Lover Man. ANGEL: Between. Leaves. Deep 2. Moonlight. Out on the Coast 3. STRAYHORN: A Flower is a Lovesome Thing. DUKE: Autumn in New York. ARLEN: This Time the Dream’s on Me. ANGEL: Latka Variations. Love Letter to Pythagoras. Waiting for a Train Part 2. Dark Passage. L.A. Mysterioso / The David Angel Jazz Ensemble: Jonathan Dane, Ron Stout, tpt/fl-hn; Scott Whitfield, tb; Jim Self, tuba/bs-tb; Phil Feather, a-sax/s-sax/pic/fl/al-fl; Gene “Cip” Cipriano, a-sax/s-sax/cl; Jim Quam, t-sax.cl; Tom Peterson, t-sax/fl/a-fl; David Angel, t-sax/cond; Bob Carr, bar-sax/bs-cl; Stephanie O’Keefe, Fr-hn; John Chiodini, gtr; Susan Quam, bs; Paul Kreibach, dm / Basset Hound Music BHR102-18

When I first received this album for review, and read about how great and important a musician David Angel is, I was left scratching my head. David Angel? Who is this guy? I’ve been following jazz, casually since 1959 and seriously since 1965, and I’ve never heard of him.

Well, it turns out that this was partly by design. According to Wikipedia, Angel, who was born in 1940, learned to play clarinet, saxophone and flute, and was playing in Latin bands while still in his teens and, believe it or not, traditional jazz with such old-timers as Kid Ory and Johnny St. Cyr (both members of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five back in 1925-26). After going to Westlake College of Music and Los Angeles City College, he began marketing himself in Hollywood as a musician, writer and arranger. David Rose hired him, and he went on to write music for such TV shows as Bonanza, Lassie, The Streets of San Francisco and the comedy programs of Jerry Lewis and Red Skelton as well as that of singer Andy Williams. On the side, he played with Woody Herman and Art Pepper as well as working as a studio arrangement writer, often uncredited. This, he said, was by design, since he “didn’t want to go to meetings or parties or have to schmooze. All I had to do was write music and that was what I wanted.”  In 1967 he was asked by the album’s producer to write arrangements for the rock band Love’s album Forever Changes, now considered a classic of that genre.

From the late 1960s onward, he led regular rehearsals in L.A. for the David Angel Big Band, but mostly for recording sessions; once again, he and they rarely performed in public, even though the band included some big-name musicians. He has continued to maintain a career as a music teacher and lecturer at Los Angeles and Pasadena-based schools, though he also taught for 15 years in Europe, particularly in France and Norway but also in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. He also joined the composition faculty at the Lucerne University of Applied Science and Arts. So he has definitely been around the block, just not in anyone’s spotlight. As Brad Dechter says in a blurb inside the album, “David Angel is quite possibly the best composer you’ve never heard of and most definitely the kindest soul you could ever meet.”

And here he is, again not in public but on a recording, in this case a 3-CD set made in January 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. According to the liner notes, written by album producer Jim Self, “This group is not so much a big band, but a 13-piece jazz chamber ensemble. Every chart has extensive space for jazz solos. I like to describe his stuff as ‘Gil Evans meets J.S. Bach’—let that sink into your mind!…With all 13 instruments playing contrapuntally (much of the time), the music can become intense!”

My impression of the opening selection, Out on the Coast, was not so much that of Gil Evans per se—Evans generally wrote for ensembles to play in creamy blends, not in counterpoint to each other—so much as some of those big or medium-sized band charts written by Gerry Mulligan and Shorty Rogers. As for the contrapuntal/classical side of the music, it put me in mind of the Dave Brubeck Octet of the late 1940s. But since most modern-day jazz lovers have never heard of, let alone heard, the Mulligan and Rogers band charts or the Brubeck Octet, their frame of reference automatically leans towards the one name they do know, Gil Evans.

Incidentally, in addition to the names I’ve just mentioned above, some of this writing also put me in mind of Charles Mingus in the early 1950s, during his “cool school” period, when he was using such musicians as Lee Konitz and was strongly influenced by Lennie Tristano, whose small band recordings also seem to be lost to history. (This is what I mean when I say that latter-day jazz musicians and particularly latter-day jazz critics should actually study the history of their music before making snap judgments on what is “innovative” or “original.” You’d be quite s’prised by all the stuff that’s already been done before.)

But Angel is clearly a lover of cool school arranging, producing blends that are creamy and not screamy. No one is trying to compete with anyone else in this band; it’s an ensemble unit and, yes, the writing can be and is often quite complex, as in the second piece on this album, Wig. Here the polyphony is quite dense, particularly in its first three minutes, and there are some elements of Latin rhythm that creep in here and there. Angel also uses some interesting harmonies in this piece without ever really going too far “outside.”

The solos played within these pieces are fairly conservative, but all of them fit into the surrounding material in such a way that they continue the musical narrative rather than departing too far from it. This, too, put me in mind of the Shorty Rogers charts as well as the early George Russell arrangements for his Smalltet that included a young Bill Evans on piano. In Wig, there’s a nice chase chorus between Jonathan Dane on flugelhorn and Tom Peterson on tenor sax that actually acts as a cods to the piece—a brilliant idea.

Alone Together, a classic pop tune by Jim Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, gives one a good idea of how good Angel is as an arranger. He has so completely rewritten this song that it is only partly recognizable; bitonal chords pit the trumpets against the trombones when they play together. As Self points out in the notes, this song has “a rare 14-bar ‘A’ section—but always feels natural to me.” One of Angel’s great gifts is his ability to make one listen carefully to every bar of the music. There’s something interesting going on all the time, but little if any of it sounds forced or unnatural. L’Ilo Vasche, written about a French cow that monks in the old days used to go to to get their milk and butter. Angel says he used the baritone sax to play the cow’s “theme,” in part because “I identify myself with the baritone sax.”

I should point out that although there is a great deal of counterpoint going on in this music, it is not really as dense structurally as J.S. Bach’s music. There are no two- or three-voiced fugues, merely short four-to-eight-bar passages where the counterpoint becomes somewhat dense, but of course for the majority of jazz listeners this can be quite a challenge to absorb depending on your musical background and how much and what kind of jazz you’ve been exposed to.

Indeed, those jazz listeners who live or die for the jazz solo per se may be disappointed…not because the solos aren’t good (they are, and consistently so) but because they “feed” into the surrounding material. But so what? That’s exactly what Bix Beiderbecke did way back in the 1920s, Lester Young and Benny Goodman did in the 1930s, and most of Duke Ellington’s sidemen did for most of their careers. And perhaps not too surprisingly, Gene Cipriano’s alto sax solo on Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss channels Johnny Hodges, who played on Duke’s original record. Perhaps it is in this tune, a classic that I think every jazz fan knows, where one can appreciate Angel’s arranging skills and how much he pours into a score without seeming ostentatious. If you open your ears, you’ll hear all the complexities in this chart, yet everything flows together and sounds natural. John Chiodini also plays an excellent guitar solo on this one.

Ah Rite! is a rare swinger for this edition of the Angel band, a piece that harks back to pre-bop jazz. As jazz historian Michael Zirpolo has pointed out, most modern jazz has its own sort of beat and it’s NOT a swinging beat, but here is a wonderful exception. The somewhat R&B feel you hear in the repeated staccato sax chords behind Dane’s first trumpet chorus put me in mind of the kind of licks that the old Bunny Berigan and Lionel Hampton big bands played. There’s almost, but not quite, a hint of shuffle rhythm to this one as well, and Scott Whitfield plays a trombone solo that I think is an instant classic. It’s just so imaginative and original. And surprise! Angel himself plays one of the tenor sax solos here (the next-to-last one, and I think he’s also involved in one of the chase choruses). So The Legend emerges as a player, too.

Wild Strawberries qualifies as a ballad, but a very richly composed and texturally complex one, similar to some of Billy Strayhorn’s pieces for the Ellington band. Like Strayhorn’s music, it has a pop music bias but with fluid chords flowing underneath the surface. Hershey Bar opens with a cute contrapuntal figure, not quite a theme, before moving into the melody proper. Oddly, I felt that this piece, despite its counterpoint and Latin-rhythm break, leaned more towards a “Tonight Show band” feel than most of the other pieces, but it’s another well crafted piece, nicely played.

We now move to CD s, which opens with Between. This is a bit less complex than some of the material on CD 1; though well written, the theme is not a strong one and the harmony a bit more conventional. Angel’s arrangement of the classic ballad Lover Man is as rich and innovative as his chart for Alone Together, with strange close harmonies beneath the melody line played by Tom Peterson on tenor. Interestingly, Angel admits that he cribbed a bit of Gil Evans’ arrangement of this song written for the Claude Thornhill orchestra. And an Angel original, Leaves, is a complex jazz waltz that alternates with bars written in 4: sometimes a waltz, and sometimes not, and you’ll have fun counting the beats and figuring out which is which. Strayhorn’s A Flower is a Lovesome Thing shows again Angel’s respect for this great innovator of the early 1940s. Here he juxtaposes a French horn, playing straight, against a bit of growl trumpet and some harmonic touches of his own. Chiodini has another excellent guitar solo on this one, too, and there’s a nice passage for the two flutes.

My cousin, who listened to this CD with me, admitted that the music was well crafted but compared it to top-rate popular music. She evidently wasn’t listening quite as intently as I was, but since she has a bias against jazz orchestras as a rule (to her, even the great Goodman and Andy Kirk bands of the 1930s were “pop music”), I took her comments with a grain of salt. Certainly, I heard very little relating to pop music in Deep 2,with its complex harmonies and allusion to Latin rhythm, and although the principal melody of Moonlight could probably be turned into a pop tune, the harmonic writing works against its being easily absorbed by average listeners, particularly when the tempo picks up at the three-minute mark and a bit of a samba beat is woven in. And again Chiodini contributes an excellent, swinging solo, as does trombonist Scott Whitfield.

The album’s title tune is a catchy, lilting piece in medium swing tempo; this could indeed pass for a pop tune, albeit one dressed to the nines in Angel’s beautifully crafted score. Autumn in New York is yet another evergreen transformed by Angel’s personal style.

CD 2 opens with the Latka Variations, named with tongue in cheek after potato pancakes. It’s another nice, medium-tempo swinger, nothing pretentious albeit with nice voicing and yet another Latin-styled interlude in the middle section. This one belongs to the soloists, Peterson on tenor sax and Jim Self on tuba. Lots of moving parts in this chart, particularly a little after the five-minute mark when they all start moving towards each other, almost in hocket style. It ends on an unresolved chord. This Time the Dream’s on Me is yet another rewrite of an old song, this time instantly recognizable from the first bar. Dane plays an excellent trumpet solo, followed by Whitfield on trombone; later on, they duet for a bit, followed by Jim Quam on tenor.

I could go on about the remaining five tracks on this album, but that would only spoil the experience of discovery for those who acquire this set, and acquire it you should. This is clearly one of the better cool jazz sets of this or any other year.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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