Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Arranger/composer special pt.1: Johnny Richards, Gigi Gryce, Quincy Jones

In the heyday of swing a lot of the bands had similar repertoire - the tunes the public wanted to hear. What made a band stand out was how they played it. It was not the star soloist that made the band, but the person who put the spotlight on the soloist: the composer and the arranger. Really? - you say, - the arranger? who cares about the arranger? Look at Ellington's orchestra. After going solo, none of his former stars - Johnny Hodges, Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, - ever achieved artistic heights comparable to their work in the Duke's orchestra. Duke's (and Strayhorn's) writing highlighted their special talents and hid their shortcomings.
In the search for the ever-smoother, most commercial sound, a lot of swing music became completely scripted. That prompted the backlash of bop and the following styles that focused more on the improvised, spontaneous communal music creation. The pendulum swung back, and some say it went too far: the music industry found it easy to package and sell the myth of the dissipated genius (Bird), the lonely visionary (Trane), the jazz version of a rock star (Miles) - each image quite fascinating, but still incidental to the music itself. Of course, our celebrity-centered culture swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. The idea of superiority of improvisation over anything and everything else gradually spread from the recording company promos to the listening public to the musicians and jazz educators, and lead to the stagnation of the style. A million young musicians in a hundred thousand jazz classes play the same Real Book tunes in the same head-solo-solo-solo-trade fours-head format as they played forty years ago.

However, there was a time before jazz got run over by the thousand little Coltranes, a time when the pendulum stood just right, a time of bold experiments that fell through the cracks. Fifties were the time when that perfect balance between writing and improvisation was briefly found again. I would like to present today two artifacts from that era, two albums that put the improvising virtuoso's wild flights of fancy within a framework of carefully thought-out, painstakingly constructed arrangements, two collaborations between a writer and an interpreter, each greater than the sum of the parts.

The star soloist on the first one is Art Farmer, one of my favorite trumpet players. While writing this post, I realized that a lot of his best work were collaborations with master writers/arrangers - see his Jazztet LPs with Benny Golson or his Baroque Sketches album (+ +). As the name suggests, here he "Plays the Arrangements and Compositions of Gigi Gryce and Quincy Jones." From liners:
Quincy went on to fame and fortune in Hollywood while Gigi dropped out to anonymity of the Long Island education system before he died in his native Florida in 1983.

Art Farmer Plays the Arrangements and Compositions of Gigi Gryce and Quincy Jones [1954]
With Charlie Rouse, Quincy Jones, Horace Silver, Percy Heath, Art Taylor, and others.
320kbps, 84mb on depositfiles
1. Mau Mau
2. Work of Art
3. The Little Bandmaster
4. Up in Quincy's Room
5. Wildwood
6. Evening in Paris
7. Elephant Walk
8. Tiajuana
9. When Your Lover Has Gone

Another pairing of a brilliant soloist with a great writer is an album of Sonny Stitt playing Johnny Richards, profiled here before. The sound is a bit muddy, but the music is fascinating.

Sonny Stitt Playing Arrangements From The Pen Of Johnny Richards [1953]
With Kai Winding, Horace Silver, Charles Mingus, Jo Jones, Don Elliott, and others.
320kbps, 52mb on depositfiles
1. Sancho Panza
2. Sweet And Lovely
3. If I Could Be With You
4. Hooke's Tours
5. Loose Walk
6. Pink Satin
7. Shine On Harvest Moon
8. Opus 202

PS I am introducing two new tags.
composer+arranger is for albums that either are an original work of a single composer (Mary Lou Williams, Lalo Schifrin, Moacir Santos, Bob Graettinger) or bands focusing on the work of a certain composer (Pixinguinha, AR Rahman, Mancini, Carl Stalling).
I also realized I have Art Farmer on a few of the albums posted here, and a few more are coming up, so there's a label just for him.


  1. thank you! i have found this blog by accident while searching fror shanghai divas, awesome selection of music mate!

    all the best from AUS

  2. Oh my! The Art Farmer record is fantastic. Thank you so much for posting.

  3. You and your site are awesome - thank you. The Gryce & Jones cover art by the way, is by the great Mad cartoonist Don Martin (who also did