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I admit it. I was born and raised in Newark, New Joisey. The Newarkishnes of my upbringing doesn’t explain most of my strange tastes in music. It does, however account for my near totemic worship of the product of Savoy Records.
My uncle Izzy had a clothing store on Ferry Street in the Ironbound section of Newark. At the time Ironbound was turning the broad corner from Jewish-Eastern European/Irish and Italian –Catholic neighborhood to Black (they were still Negroes then) and Hispanic. Izzy’s store was “high fashion”; meaning lots of brightly colored rayon sold to Latinas and Negritas in stacked heels and gigantic piles of shellacked hair. My job was to unpack dresses and Capri pants, then bust down the boxes in the alley behind the store.
That’s where I discovered the treasure trove that changed my life.
Uncle Izzy shared the alley with Savoy Records. And about the time I started busting boxes, the record company finally admitted that the 78-rpm record was dead. They began throwing them out. Stacks and stacks of heavy plastic discs, all with the beautiful silver SAVOY logo on a Maroon or Black or Blue label poured into 40 gallon steel trash drums, bursting from cardboard boxes or just heaped on warehouse pallets, would appear in the alley waiting to be hauled away.
I was already a record junkie. Every Saturday I’d take the two bucks Uncle Izzy paid me for my long day’s boxbusting and invest it in the “three for a buck” 45’s bin at JoJo’s Soundtown. Until I saw the manna from heaven in Uncle Izzy’s alley, my idea of a great score was copping Bip Bam by the Drifters, Almost Grown by Chuck Berry and Peggy Lee’s version of Fever for one of those precious dollar bills.
Suddenly, I was King Midas. Sifting through, sitting on, rolling in records...records…records. I began hauling away my treasure, on the #48 bus, in Uncle Izzy’s boxes. I got my jewels home, opened the lid of my GE Fliptop Record Player, and started to go through my cache… Here’s one, by a guy named Dizzy… hip name…whoa…this is some wiggy shit …Bopsie’s Blues, Swing Low Sweet Cadillac..dig it…Charlie Parker & Tiny Grimes’ Groovin’ with Grimes … These guys are like frantic…Ike Quebec blowin’ a hole in I.Q. Blues…Slim Gaillard jivin’ about something called an Oxydol Highball.. Brew Moore, Buck Ram, Hot Lips Page… Even their names sounded like music …Illinois Jacquet, DoDo Marmarosa.. … …The stuff had life and energy and big brass balls… high test/high testosterone music…they stumped the chumps… they rebopped the bebop… I felt like the coolest kid in Christendom, or Newarkdom, anyway. That find helped make me the jazz fan I am now (almost forty years later). And after all these years, the magic music that first showed up on the Savoy label is still a great way to get into some good jazz.
Over the intervening decades Savoy was swallowed up by bigger and bigger record companies. It’s latest owner is the Atlantic Records label, which is a subgroup of the Warner/Elektra/Atlantic group, which is a subsidiary of Time-Warner, which as you’ve no doubt heard, is about to become a department at America on Line. Luckily, the folks at Atlantic have been creating thoughtful and interesting packages of the music that made up the Savoy catalogue, so you don’t have to go through the trash like I did to score Savoy sides.
The latest of these is a pair from the period after Savoy gave up on the 78 and started focusing on the long-playing record. They are The Last Savoy Sessions featuring reed and flute player Yusef Lateef and On 52nd Street, the first recordings of pianist Marian McPartland as a leader.
The Last Savoy Sessions (2 CDs)
Oboe Blues Angel Eyes Prayer To The East
The new format liberated musicians to elaborate on their ideas in extended improvisations (78’s were limited to about 3 minutes a side.) and expanded ensemble work. The longer cuts permitted a band to pass a tune around. The flow was freer, more like a club date than an old fashioned record session. Related themes and ideas could be grouped on a record side.
Few took better advantage of the LP’s room to groove than Detroit horn master Yusef Lateef. Lateef had a head bursting with jazz ideas. Unlike most jazz at the time, his creations were woven around extended themes. The tunes on this two-disc set are arranged according to their original positions on the four LP’s they came from. The names of those LP’s were: The Dreamer, The Fabric of Jazz, Jazz and the Sounds of Nature and Prayer to the East. Those names tell you a lot about the themes that unified Lateef’s work: imagination, unity of purpose, humanity’s place in the natural order and his constant musical and spiritual search through Middle-Eastern and Asian cultures and religions for sonic textures and harmonic inspiration.
The five cuts from The Dreamer are typical of Lateef, the sophisticated, fearless experimenter. He was always seeking to expand the language and palette of his music. The set opens with a straight blues played on the oboe. Yeah, the oboe. He adds euphonium and rabat to the band to sprinkle a dash of exotic flavor over the performance. By anchoring his far-out (for 1959, anyway) instrument selection in a straightforward and familiar blues structure, Lateef’s result is way more graceful than most of the self consciously “world” music that plagued the ‘90’s. He follows with a deeply resonant flute interpretation of the ballad Angel Eyes and then picks up his tenor sax for The Dreamer.
Lateef’s tenor style is masculine and melodic with a burnished, heavy-loaded tone that he learned in big band horn sections. His improvisation style straddles the big band era and bebop with hints of the detached coolness pioneered by Stan Getz and Chet Baker and Miles Davis. The Dreamer begins as a distant cousin/homage to Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer that morphs its haunting statement of the old tune into an easy going, linear mid-tempo improvisation. Arjuna, named after the hero of the Hindu religious fable, “Mahabarata”, parlays a forcefull ensemble statement into a wailing bebop workout. The cats from Detroit drag Krishna’s holy warrior downtown for some serious bar-hoppin’.
The five tune section ends with a luscious and lovely embrace of the melodic possibilities of Jerome Kern’s Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man. Here Lateef’s tenor drips honey on long, slow, glowingly articulated lines of flawlessly chosen notes. The playing here is much more reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s vocal arrangement of the tune than other instrumental treatments.
This music is a vivid expression of Lateef’s incessant striving for growth. The new ground he broke was a natural result of his intellectual and musical curiosity. The other fourteen cuts on these discs are equally packed with surprise sources of inspiration and unusual instrumental, harmonic and aesthetic choices served over just plain good playing by very sharp, club hardened musicians. Their clear-eyed playing keeps the music focused so that the gongs, cymbals and other miscellaneous percussion that thicken the Mid-Eastern stew fit easily with the big city blue haze conjured up by the three different bands represented on these cuts.
Keep in mind, Lateef’s bands worked out their kinks and made their livings pleasing the paying customers and moving the booze in the noisy, smokey jazz dens of Detroit. Their first principle was to entertain. These records are not intellectual exercises. They are entertainment. They are smart, stylish entertainment by men who take great pride in imbuing their work with creativity and class.
While Lateef’s men were expanding the boundaries of the big blue groove at jazz joints in Detroit, Marian McPartland was grilling standards at a steakhouse on 52nd St. in Manhattan. The Hickory House was a big, bright, toney restaurant at the high rent end of Jazz Row. Ms. McPartland’s big, bright, toney renditions of the standard jazz repertoire of the ‘50’s fit that room perfectly. So perfectly, in fact that 45+ years later her traveling group still gigs under the name Hickory House Trio.
At this point Ms. McP. was at the very beginning of a career that is still rolling along. She had just divorced her bandleader husband and was striking out on her own. Her style was evolving and having a steady gig in New York’s jazz center put her in a position to study the playing of the best jazz pianists on the planet. The style she displays here is an easy amalgam of their influences. Her chording uses the blocky technique of Milt Buckner, the long stretched strands of melodic right hand improvs are airy echoes of Oscar Peterson. The rhythmic twists and inverted chords show Dave Brubeck’s influence. The final product is an open, accessable sound that McPartland has used to introduce thousands of people to jazz via her constant touring, festival performances and radio shows over the last 45 years.
On 52nd Street
The Lady Is A Tramp Aunt Hagar's Blues
All 17 cuts on this disc were recorded in 1953. The first twelve are live at the Hickory House with the great Joe Morello on drums and Vinnie Burke on bass. The remainder are studio cuts with Morello and bassist Bob Carter. Morello plays with brushes on all 17 cuts. His light-handed tap dance adds a delicate syncopated sizzle to McPartland’s juicy improvisations. While Morello gently twists time, McPartland’s right hand twirls sonorous strings of melodic playfulness. Her left supports them with deft comping and beefy block chords. Hey, you know all these tunes (A Foggy Day, The Lady is a Tramp, Just Squeeze Me, September Song, Embraceable You, I Got the World on a String, Lullaby in Rhythm, A Fine Romance, Laura, Willow Weep for Me, There Will Never Be Another You); or you should. Marian McPartland just dresses them up in style and takes them out for a breezy, romantic night on the town.
Lateef’s searching, experimental and spiritual approach and McPartland’s clear-eyed, mellifluous playing neatly bookend the range of the Savoy label’s releases. Although they are near-perfect aesthetic opposites, the two records share one marvelous attribute: Rudy Van Gelder recorded them. He recorded most great jazz of the era. Mr. Van Gelder was/is the finest practitioner of the recording engineer’s art that the American record industry has produced. The crispness and presence of these recordings, especially the live 1952 club dates on the McPartland disc is beyond compare for the era. In fact, it is better than most of the live recordings made in the ensuing 50 years. The studio recordings Van Gelder made of both these bands thoroughly capture their subtleties and dynamics. The digital mastering of the old analog tapes is impeccable… way better, for sure, than Uncle Izzy’s fashion sense.