Jazz CD Reviews: Jazzhaus Ascendant

We should look forward, eagerly, to hearing more lost, or previously issued music, from Jazzhaus. And be grateful to the European public for supporting these concerts and broadcasts.

Jazzhaus Record Releases discussed in this review:

Dizzy Gillespie Quintet Legends Live, November 29, 1961; Zoot Sims, Lost Tapes: Zoot Sims in Baden-Baden; Albert Mangelsdorff Quintett, Legends Live, June 22, 1964; Duke Ellington Orchestra, Big Bands Live, March 6, 1967; Benny Goodman Orchestra featuring Anita O’Day, Big Bands Live, October 15, 1959).

By Michael Ullman

The European label Jazzhaus Records has found what gleams like a limitless gold mine of jazz: access to the awesome archives of Südwestrundfunk (SDR), a mother lode that includes 1,600 audio recordings of performances in German studios as well as 350 television recordings of jazz greats. The existence of this astonishing archive is a tribute to the seriousness with which Europeans take jazz. (To our disgrace, nothing like it exists in the music’s home country.) Their first issues included beautifully recorded sessions from Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley, the latter with pianist Joe Zawinul, Now they have brought out exciting, new music that many of us never knew existed, kicking it off with big band series that features both Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.

There are intertwining stories behind these sessions. In 1958, Benny Goodman was asked to put together a big band to perform in Brussels’s World’s Fair. The band he assembled included a young Roland Hanna on piano and blues “shouting” vocalist Jimmy Rushing, who broke up the place with an improvised blues and a lively rendition of his classic “Mr. Five by Five.” Goodman himself is in top form here: another hit was the ineffably swinging tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. Evidently Sims stayed on in Europe because his live date Lost Tapes: Zoot Sims in Baden-Baden was made the next month. With versions of tunes like “Tangerine” and an improvised blues, it’s a stirring set from a man who is a favorite tenor for many jazz fans. Sims is heard here battling with a European saxophonist, Hans Koller. It’s also a pleasure to hear relatively rare solos by trombonist Willie Dennis and to have the whole band powered by the great bebop drummer Kenny Clarke, who is (for once) clearly recorded.

Goodman returned to Europe the following fall, this time with a nine piece band that included the wonderful Red Norvo on vibes, Flip Philips on tenor, and Jack Sheldon on trumpet. The group recorded a live date in October at the Stadthalle Freiburg. In truth, the ensemble doesn’t quite coalesce: a nonet demands more compositional forethought than Goodman was willing to give it. Instead of a coherent ensemble sound, the session offers a succession, usually pleasing, of solos. Anita O’Day is the vocal star, with “Honeysuckle Rose” and a medley that proffers “But Not for Me.” She tries to recapture the magic she once made with Roy Eldridge on “Let Me Off Uptown,” but despite his obvious willingness, Sheldon supplies an awkward vocal, and his ensuing solo an unconvincing substitute for Eldridge’s superb original. The session ends with the group delivering a medley of reliable Goodman hits.

The Ellington set comes off as more valuable than the Goodman material, partially because after a perfunctory “Take the A Train,” and despite the inevitable Cootie Williams feature (“Tutti for Cootie”), Ellington plays a line-up of lesser known tunes, all but one composed by himself or Billy Strayhorn. (He performs one piece, “Salome,” by French composer Raymond Fol.)

Ellington introduces “Swamp Goo” via his distinctive piano: the tune is in his “jungle” style, with a slow theme stated by multiple clarinets in their lowest range. As with the other Jazz Haus releases, this is an accurate, clear stereo recording that offers amazing sonic presence and detail: every note of Ellington’s marvelous accompanists is as clear as the leader’s solos. “Swamp Goo” resolves into an easy four/four feature for Russell Prccope’s rich-sounding clarinet. “Knob Hill” is an exotic feature for tenor Paul Gonsalves, with a surprisingly tender piano solo by Ellington embedded in the middle of the tune. It is amusing that Ellington titled one of his pieces “Eggo”: it’s a blues with a jumpy melody. The set ends with a jam on Ellington’s “Kixx.” Put simply, this is one of the best sounding recordings of Ellington’s band in existence.

Dizzy Gillespie’s disc, recorded in two sessions in November 1961, starts off with Ellington’s early composition, “The Mooche.” Gillespie’s version has none of the threatening quality of the original recording. Accompanied by Leo Wright on sax and flute, Lalo Schifrin on piano, bassist Bob Cunningham, and, most notably, the wonderful drummer Mel Lewis, the trumpeter seems in an exuberant mood throughout. I have heard other recordings by this quintet, but this one has increased my appreciating for the playing of Wright and Schifrin. The saxophonist plays Bird-inspired (and perhaps Cannonball-inspired) bebop lines with an attractive edginess and a hint of a growl. Behind Schifrin’s bell-like tones, Wright plays a soulful flute on “Willow Weep For Me.” There’s a long version, with vocal, of Gillespie’s always amusing “Ooh—Shoo-Be-Doo Be” and two takes of his own classic “Con Alma.” Gillespie’s in good form and his band exceeds itself.

Trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, the least known to American audiences of these leaders, became one of Europe’s best known jazz musicians, a virtuoso player comfortable with bebop and free jazz. He is caught here, on June 22, 1964, at a crucial moment in his career: he had just come back from a ground-breaking tour of Asia, a breakthrough for his band. The exposure to the east also refreshed his repertoire: he pays cultural tribute to Asia in compositions such as “Barunghaka” and “Sakura Waltz.” His piano-less group features a Coltrane-esque saxophonist in Heinz Sauer, who is not always convincing at this stage in his career, a second sax in Gunter Kronberg, bassist Gunter Lenz, and drummer Ralf Hubner. Mangelsdorff’s performances on trombone are a wonder: fluid, full-toned, and inventive. We should look forward, eagerly, to hearing more lost, or previously issued music, from Jazzhaus. And be grateful to the European public for supporting these concerts and broadcasts.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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