New Blue Note RVGs: Three Tenors, a Bone, and Sonny
Recently named an NEA Jazz Master, iconic jazz recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder continues to a be a marvel of the jazz industry. Not only has he continued through the years to record new music from his studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, but he also keeps revisiting gems from the jazz pantheon. Now in its eighth year, Blue Note's Rudy Van Gelder series continues to expand, with the engineer going back to the original tapes from the catalog and giving them a sonic dusting. The most recent batch of releases taps some more obscure items, many of them available only in previous transfers that were over a decade old.
As many times as it's been said, it bears repeating. Saxophonist Hank Mobley was unjustly underrated for the majority of his career and it's only been time that has allowed us to thoroughly examine what a truly important talent Mobley was, both as a player and composer. 1958's Peckin' Time proved to be somewhat of a blowing session for the saxophonist, who shared billing with trumpeter Lee Morgan. It also charted the way for a period to come when most of Mobley's albums would primarily feature his own original compositions. His fine writing is represented here by the title number, "High and Flighty," "Stretchin' Out," and "Git-Go Blues." And while these numbers do take familiar paths, it's worth noting how some of Mobley's signature devices are already in place. For example, the melody line of "Stretchin' Out" bears a close resemblance to "Straight, No Filter."
A firebrand at an early age, Morgan sounds inspired here and often verges on stealing the show from the others. Nonetheless, a fine rhythm section distinguishes itself throughout, namely pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Charlie Persip. During a period when many of the small independent labels were focusing primarily on these types of blowing dates, Peckin' Time stands apart from the crowd for its sense of urgency and Mobley's budding skills as a composer.
The partnership of organist Shirley Scott and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine provided for some fine music during a brief period in the early 1960s. Musically, the match worked because Turrentine's incendiary style was finely balanced by the demure and tasteful approach of Scott, one of the few to make the Hammond organ purr rather than roar. This session from 1961 has never been available on CD domestically until now. It's a no thrills trio session with drummer Roy Brooks filling out the ranks.
Standards are the order of the day, although the variety makes for the flow of a well-paced club set. The one original, Turrentine's "Wee Hour Theme" is an aptly titled number that goes for a bluesy mood and it's the perfect forum for the kind of soulful preaching that always marked the saxophonist's best work. The title track struts along at a nice jumping pace and it's then that you realize how this gentleman and lady make it all sound so easy. Of course, it's not that easy to find a personal voice and that's what makes this music still valid some 50 years later.
Dimensions & Extensions
Still one of the music's most valuable artists, saxophonist and flautist Sam Rivers was a late bloomer in terms of the documentation of his music on record. Already into his forties when he connected with Blue Note's Alfred Lion, Rivers wasted no time catching up and in the process left many works that are arguably among the label's shining moments. A somewhat neglected piece from that cannon would be a 1967 session that never saw the light of day until a decade after the fact. Dimensions and Extensions would be Rivers' only record for Blue Note without a pianist in the ensemble. As a result, it is perhaps the freest of his sides for the label.
With trumpeter Donald Byrd, trombonist Julian Priester, and saxophonist and flautist James Spaulding filling out the front line, Rivers makes the most of his larger group by using the horns to develop variegated textures. He also pairs up with Spaulding for the twin flutes that make "Precis" one the best tracks of the date. Although the swing may be looser than the mainstream, drummer Steve Ellington establishes a groove for each piece that keeps a forward momentum possible. It's inexplicable that this music spent many years in the dark, as it continues to be one of Rivers' most mature statements.
Leapin' and Lopin'
While it's a matter open to personal tastes and opinions, many listeners would find it quite easy to determine the top four or five definitive Blue Notes without much pondering. For a good number, Leapin' and Lopin' would have to be on that list. In terms of musicianship, variety, memorable originals, and pacing, it's an album this is simply hard to surpass. Although pianist Sonny Clark had documented much fine music up to this point, one of his final recordings before an untimely death, everything seemed to solidify with this 1961 ringer.
Trumpeter Tommy Turrentine and tenor man Charlie Rouse make for an unusual, but musically satisfying front line partnership. Turrentine is as much melodic as Rouse is blustery and hard blowing. Bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins had already cut a slew of Blue Note dates by this point and their support should not go undervalued when considering the overall success of this album. Everything here clicks, but in terms of memorable tunes what would have had radio-friendly appeal back in the day, it's hard to miss with "Melody for C" and "Voodoo." Husky tenor Ike Quebec also steps in for a melancholy "Deep in a Dream" that serves as the set's ballad trinket. The first time this title appeared on disc was back in the 1980s, so it's a further boon to have it finally get the RVG treatment.
Grachan Moncur III
Somewhat of a forgotten figure, trombonist Grachan Moncur III came up at a time when the bone idols were J.J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller, which didn't leave much room for those exploring a somewhat different path. While Moncur never fully embraced the more chaotic strains of the avant-garde movement, his style definitely pushed past the familiar models of bop and hard bop. He only cut two albums for Blue Note, but each one was a definitive statement documenting a cast of first call musicians.
Prior to cutting this maiden voyage, Moncur had been working with saxophonist Jackie McLean's new group that featured vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and budding drummer Tony Williams. He would then tap these talents for his own date while adding trumpeter Lee Morgan to the mix. The results are splendid and the use of vibes, instead of piano, gives the whole thing an open and appealing sound. The title track is the most radical of four Moncur compositions. It evolves slowly over no regular pulse, textural nuances creating much of the interest. Williams kicks in with "The Coaster," the best known number here, and Morgan is clearly inspired as he lays down some passionate solos. Of those pieces others have written as homage to pianist Thelonious Monk, few are as memorable as Moncur's "Monk in Wonderland." It's a real keeper as is the rest of this disc; one that should be in every collection.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: High and Flighty; Speak Low; Peckin' Time; Stretchin' Out; Git-Go Blues; High and Flighty (alternate); Speak Low (alternate); Stretchin' Out (alternate).
Personnel: Lee Morgan: trumpet; Hank Mobley: tenor sax; Wynton Kelly: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Charlie Persip: drums.
Tracks: Baia; Wee Hour Theme; My Shining Hour; Troubles of the World; Yesterdays; Dearly Beloved; Nothing Ever Changes My Love For You.
Personnel: Stanley Turrentine: tenor sax; Shirley Scott: organ; Roy Brooks: drums.
Dimensions & Extensions
Tracks: Precis; Paean; Effusive Melange; Involution; Afflatus; Helix.
Personnel: Donald Byrd: trumpet; Julian Priester: trombone; James Spaulding: alto sax and flute; Sam Rivers: tenor and soprano sax, flute; Cecil McBee: bass; Steve Ellington: drums.
Leapin' and Lopin'
Tracks: Somethin' Special; Deep in a Dream; Melody for C; Eric Walks; Voodoo; Midnight Mambo; Zellmar's Delight; Melody for C (alternate).
Personnel: Tommy Turrentine: trumpet; Ike Quebec: tenor sax; Charlie Rouse: tenor sax; Sonny Clark: piano; Butch Warren: bass; Billy Higgins: drums.
Tracks: Air Raid; Evolution; The Coaster; Monk in Wonderland.
Personnel: Lee Morgan: trumpet; Grachan Moncur III: trombone; Jackie McLean: alto sax; Bobby Hutcherson: vibes; Bob Cranshaw: bass; Tony Williams: drums.