Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Ballad Artistry of Gene Ammons

THREE tenor saxophone players have become models for the exhibition of the broad-toned brilliance usually referred to in jazz history as the Ammons-Rollins-Webster saxophone tradition.
They have influenced generations of tenor players, including such Nigerians as Peter King and Laitan Adeniji, the Heavywind. And, of these three jazz giants and innovators, Gene Ammons is perhaps the most emotionally expressive and appealing because of his treatment of ballads where the essence and impact of this feeling are more effectively communicated and felt.
Gene Ammons was one of the great jazz ballad players – very capable of conveying strong emotion at slow tempos without sliding over into the syrupy side of things. Under normal circumstances, however, even the best of balladeers must restrict himself to only one or two examples per album, keeping a proper balance between the slow and the swinging, the pretty and the funky. Fortunately for Gene — and for all of us — part of his very long period as a Prestige recording artist coincided with the existence of a specialized label, ‘Moodsville’ — dedicated to albums filled with nothing but ballads. Thus, without having to pick out an anthology involving many different years and varied settings and personnel, we can come up with an impressive and unified view of “gentle” music by Gene Ammons.
The Moodsville premise was a simple one: take a soloist with the right kind of feeling, provide him with a suitable rhythm section, and turn them loose on the Great American Songbook.
This premise fitted smoothly into a basic Prestige concept. From his earliest days in the record business, Bob Weinstock (founder and — until 1971 — head of the company) felt that jazz could be best marketed by providing music of similar characteristics with its own label identity. The first of Bob’s labels (in 1949) was New Jazz; and when Prestige was started shortly thereafter, he attempted to keep their identities separate. New Jazz would be for more experimental sounds, while Prestige would represent the popular jazz mainstream of the day. Ten years later, he revived the idea for LPs, with the two main labels being joined by Swingville, Moodsville, and labels devoted to blues, R&B, gospel, Latin, and ethnic music.
Swingville, intended to be more for jam sessions than anything else, didn’t quite turn out that way. Moodsville, on the other hand, was exactly the jazz mood-music vehicle it was supposed to be. Not counting reissue anthologies, Moodsville produced 32 LPs in less than three and a half years, a respectable output which involved roster artists who also appeared on Prestige, New Jazz, and Swingville. As far as quality is concerned, the series produced — in addition to the two albums reissued here — three certified classics (Coleman Hawkin’s At Ease; Oliver Nelson’s Nocturne; and Yusef Lateef’s Eastern Sounds) and a number of top contenders. But what is of concern here is Gene Ammons and how remarkably well his individual contribution to the series stands up more than three decades after the fact.
Ammons was the ideal choice for the strictly ballad tempo Moodsville setting. He had the equipment in the form of a huge, highly personal tone and a sparsely noted, highly elastic sense of time. He had been playing professionally almost 20 years and had the musical maturity to perform ballads for their melodic content, rather than as an excuse for bravura displays of technique. By this time, he was an acknowledged master of the form.
The rhythm-only accompaniment which appears throughout these sides should receive particular mention. Gene had served with big bands and his own band (small units with or without Sonny Stitt); but from the time of his return to the scene in 1960, he went solo more often than not. There is nothing like a strange rhythm section to get a hornman straightened out quickly. Instead of being a part of an ensemble, the horn is responsible for the melody all by himself. In the two earlier volumes of The Gene Ammons Story (P.24058, The 78 Era; and P.24071, Organ Combos), Gene was in the company of other horns. Here we are exposed to his melodic gifts exclusively.
And certainly “gift” is the proper term.

GENE was blessed with perfect pitch, and his interpretative ability is legendary. Time after time he would see music for the first time at a recording session. Invariably, his reaction was the same. He would study sheet music and toy with changes in deep concentration until he felt he had learned what he needed to know. Then he would simply outline a routine for the accompaniment and play the tune as if he had written it — rarely referring to the printed music.
These recordings were made roughly 15 months apart, and there is a distinct difference between them. For one thing, Gene is clearly more inspired on the second session where he evolves his own little arrangements on several tunes. This may have been a result of more familiarity with the overall ballad-album concept; a greater affinity for an obviously superior rhythm section; or both.
Meredith Wilson’s Till There Was You, from The Music Man, is our opener.
Gene has the melody and a blowing chorus. Richard Wyands has half a chorus and Gene returns on the bridge. Nat Cole had a big hit with Answer me my love in the fifties, and after a 3/4 intro by Wyands, Gene has this one to himself. After the melody chorus, Gene plays a little, returning to the melody for the last strain. He was attracted to Nat Cole songs. Woody Herman and Nat did a cross country tour while Gene was with the band, and he got to know Nat quite well. In the early seventies, he recorded an entire session of Cole tunes.
Willow Weep for Me is one of those melodies that all great musicians get to sooner or later. Gene would record this one again a few months later in a live session with Richard “Grove” Holmes.
Little Girl Blue was a personal favorite of Gene’s. He takes this all the way. Something I Dreamed Last Night is best known in Miles Davis’s 1956 version. After Wyand’s opening, the tempo shifts to medium for Gene’s blowing.
The King and I would seem an unlikely Broadway vehicle to capture Gene’s interest; and indeed, he didn’t particularly want to record Something Wonderful. Producer Esmond Edwards brought the tune in and persuaded Gene to look it over. In retrospect, Edwards was right, since Gene gives it a warm reading.
I Remember You is an enduring standard best known in Charlie Parker’s recording. This performance has a little tempo to it, and Gene responds by tossing off an attractive break and a strong chorus. Wyands has a pleasant half chorus before Gene returns to walk it out, helped by a brief tag.
Someone to Watch Over Me is an unusual choice for Gene in that he disliked playing tunes that “everyone else does.” The melody was a special favorite of Ben Webster, who recorded several different versions.
It shouldn’t detract from this session when we say that the second is better, because it is merely a case of going from the good to the exceptional. Gene’s playing on Sides 3 and 4 is some of the best he has ever committed to record.
The rhythm section is uplifting here. Patti Bown, then a member of Quincy Jones’s band, is a great accompanist, and George Duvivier and Ed Shaughnessy are a perfect team. The session benefits from more medium tempos.
Bown and Gene prepare a little introduction for Two Different Worlds. The change from brushes to sticks for the blowing choruses was probably Gene’s idea and it obviously stimulates him.
Bown’s intro sets up But Beautiful (which has received notable performances by Teddy Edwards, Flip Phillips, and Kenny Dorham among others). Gene has all the blowing space, topped by a coda that is beautiful all by itself.
A flute-like vamp ushers in Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark, a beautiful, classic melody. Gene obviously enjoys this one, and he negotiates the challenging changes in masterful fashion.
Three Little Words is the most aggressive performance on the album. Shaughnessy is on sticks all the way here, and after an arrangement which opens in 2/4 (and repeats for Bown’s outstanding chorus and Gene’s final theme statement), there is some strong wailing by all concerned. The ending is one of the typical tags that Gene and Sonny Stitt used to toss at each other so frequently.
With Street of Dreams, we have an opportunity to compare this performance with the famous version Gene recorded for United (now available on Savoy) almost 10 years prior. Patti Bown uses the same Tweedle Dee vamp that John Houston used on the original behind the blowing chorus. The entire arrangement is essentially the same, as is Gene’s last chorus, setting up the return to the melody. Gene, like many musicians with popular records, tended to incorporate portions of originally recorded solos into. arrangements of — requested favorites.
You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To is given a Latinized introduction before breaking into a strong four. Ed Shaughnessy’s drumming is firm and inventive, exactly like what Gene liked. Patti Bown’s chorus is a fascinating mixture of styles. Gene’s restructuring of emphasis in the melody to suit his own style is remarkable. He was as good as anyone who ever played at this.
Under a Blanket of Blue is a mellow performance, with the rhythm shifting to 2/4 for the blowing. This was an especially popular approach to ballads at the time. Jimmy Dorsey wrote I’m Glad There Is You in 1942, while Gene was still in high school, but Gene makes it his own here. Once again there is a classic Ammons coda, longer than most this time.

GENE Ammons has left two powerful albums worth of material as evidence of his continuing inventiveness and versatility in these Moodsville sides. After hearing them, anyone attempting to dismiss him as an R&B honker or relegate him to the ranks of the pure beboppers would have his case shut down.

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