Mulligan’s Stew: The 1960-62 Paris Concerts

13 - Mulligan cover

MULLIGAN: Utter Chaos (2 tks). Band Introduction. Eighteen Carrots for Rabbit. Apple Core. Spring is Sprung. Bweebida Bobbida. RODGERS-HART: You Took Advantage of Me (2 tks). My Funny Valentine. VAN HEUSEN-DeLANGE: Darn That Dream. MANDEL: Black Nightgown. Barbara’s Theme. GREEN-SOUR-HEYMAN: Body and Soul. ARLEN-MERCER: Come Rain or Come Shine. Out of This World. ELLINGTON-LEE: I’m Gonna Go Fishin’. McRAE-WOODE-BYRD: Broadway. WEBSTER: Go Home. FARMER: Blue Port. / Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band: Don Ferrara, Conte Candoli, Nick Travis, tpt; Willie Dennis, Bob Brookmeyer, Alan Ralph, tb; Gene Quill, Bob Donovan, a-sax; Zoot Sims, Jimmy Reider, t-sax; Gerry Mulligan, bar-sax/pno; Gene Allen, bar-sax/bs-cl; Buddy Clark, bs; Mel Lewis, dm. (live: Paris, November 19, 1960) / MULLIGAN: Spring is Sprung. Five Brothers. Subterranean Blues. Utter Chaos. VAN HEUSEN-DeLANGE: Darn That Dream. FARMER: Blue Port / Mulligan, bar-sax/pno; Brookmeyer, v-tb/pno; Bill Crow, bs; Gus Johnson, dm (live: Paris, October 6, 1962) / Fremeaux & Associes FA 5796

Part of the blurb for this release is the claim that Gerry Mulligan was “No doubt the greatest baritone player in jazz history..” but I rather dispute that. Such a claim leaves out Harry Carney, Serge Chaloff and Pepper Adams, each of whom were more than preludes or sidekicks to Mulligan, but I will admit that Gerry was the most versatile baritone saxist in jazz history because he could, and did, play all schools of jazz from Dixieland to modern. In addition, he was one of the finest jazz orchestrators of his time, easily rivaling such master arrangers as Gil Evans, Tadd Dameron, Johnny Richards and Shorty Rogers, if not quite in the same league as Eddie Sauter or Duke Ellington. Thus when you add those talents to his first-rate skills as an improviser, you do come up with a major figure in the jazz world of his time, and his short-lived Concert Jazz Band was surely one of his greatest achievements.

Interestingly, all but the first five tracks on CD 1 have been issued previously on other labels; those tracks, from the afternoon concert in November 1960, were just recently discovered. They don’t really add a lot to our perception of this particular edition of the band, which for some reason included tenor saxist Zoot Sims as a guest which padded the total from 13 to 14 musicians. (The liner notes make a fuss about how this orchestra was a return to the nonet sound that Mulligan worked with in the “Birth of the Cool” recording sessions, but I have a hard time hearing 13 musicians as a nonet, particularly with a six-man brass section.) Nonetheless, the light sound of the orchestra was a breath of fresh air in the early 1960s, a balance to the transparent but much hotter sound of Duke Ellington and the heavy, brass-screaming sound of Stan Kenton. Their sound was rooted in the trombones and low saxes (tenors and baritones), with the reed section passages reminding one of Woody Herman’s Four Brothers band.

There’s a funny (ironic) quote from Mulligan in the booklet that “[Norman] Granz thought it was important to get the band together in this country, where people couldn’t care less, before we took it to Europe where people were waiting.” During the assembling and rehearsal process, Mulligan didn’t have time to contribute any of his own arrangements or compositions to the book. He acted, as he said, as a sort of arrangement supervisor, but by the time of this November 1960 date at the Salle Pleyel, he had indeed inserted some of his own material into the mix, including the band’s “theme song,” Utter Chaos. In this album we also hear other pieces by Mulligan, Apple Core, Spring is Sprung, Bweebida Bobbida and Eighteen Carrots for Rabbit.

When I first heard the band’s Verve recordings in the late 1960s I thought they sounded plenty modern, but that was before I discovered Charles Mingus, George Russell, Rod Levitt or Ornette Coleman’s orchestrated pieces, which were far more advanced harmonically. Nonetheless, Gerry always had his finger in the contemporary jazz pie, thus we hear some strange voicings and rising chromatics in Eighteen Carrots for Rabbit.

It would be nice to say that these live performances are superior to the band’s Verve recordings, but the high level of musicianship that this band had simply did not allow them to “coast” at any time, and as much as I like the live performance here of Blue Port, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Verve recording which featured the chubby tone of Clark Terry’s trumpet in a stunning chase chorus with the leader. I should also point out that the Verve recordings were in stereo while this concert is in mono, albeit very good mono sound. The French were not the Italians; they knew how to record both classical and jazz concerts by this time and achieve an optimal sound quality.

Yet the quality I liked most about the Concert Band’s studio recordings is also present here, and that was that this band had a lot of fun playing together. It was an esprit de corps of tremendous joy and camaraderie; they knew they were good and had nothing to prove, either to each other or their audiences, so there was no grandstanding. Everyone who soloed, including Mulligan, just got up and did their best, and it was always enough. For a guy who led a pianoless quartet for years prior to forming this band, Mulligan was a pretty good improviser on the keyboard, as one can hear in Darn That Dream. And thank God, they didn’t have some goopy-sounding male (or female) vocalist on the stand to please the patrons with any “soulful ballads.” And who needs such drivel when you have playing this good? On Body and Soul, Mulligan literally deconstructs the tune before putting it back together with a few little pieces missing that you, the listener, have to fill in with your own ears. That’s a lot more fun than listening to some idiot sing the lyrics.

Of the two pieces by Johnny Mandel, Barbara’s Theme  is the more interesting, using clarinets in their chalumeau register, unusual chords, and a sort of slow, asymmetrical belly-dance rhythm. And yet, when one is finished listening to a really long track like Spring is Sprung, which goes on for more that 21 minutes, one is left unfulfilled because the trumpet soloists, who take up a lot of space, really aren’t that creative. They play standard jazz licks, just filling space, not really saying anything substantive, and the same is true of Buddy Clark’s bass solo. This was the weakness of this edition of the Concert Jazz Band; some of the soloists, particularly Brookmeyer, Dennis, Quill and Mulligan, were interesting soloists, but several others were not, and Gerry gave them a lot of performance time that should have been curtailed. (I could just see Benny Goodman giving them the “ray” because their solos were so sub-par.) By contrast, the brief but telling trumpet solo on I’m Gonna Go Fishing (a piece in a fast 3) is far better.

The prize track in the second set is clearly one of the other Mulligan originals, Bweebida Bobbida with its asymmetric melody line and fast, chugging beat.

As much as jazz critics and fans liked the Concert Jazz Band, though, it couldn’t last because Mulligan wasn’t rolling in money and that’s what it took to keep an orchestra together. When Norman Granz sold the Verve label to M-G-M in January 1961, the money ran out and the band was dissolved. Mulligan returned to Paris in October 1962 with a new pianoless quartet featuring his “mon ami” Brookmeyer on valve trombone, Bill Crow on bass and Gus Johnson on drums, and this is the group that plays on CD 3. They were more of a swing than a bop group, but they had a tight sound and played well together…and, with Mulligan doubling on piano, they weren’t really piano-less, just perhaps piano-deficient. (Interestingly, this performance of Spring is Sprung put me in mind of Stan Freberg’s three hip little pigs…and if you’ve never seen that cartoon, you should, it’s very funny in addition to being played by Shorty Rogers and his Giants!)

Except for the solos on the band version of Spring is Sprung, then, this is an excellent album, with true and informative liner notes. A real gem for those of us who missed out on the original issues of most of this material.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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