Lionel Hampton – The Lionel Hampton Story
Recording Date: 1939 - 1963
Release Date: 1996
Style or Subgenre: Swing, Big Band, Bop, Early R&B
Lionel Hampton is an early jazz pioneer who had a long and distinguished career during which he played a variety of styles and genres, starting with early jazz and progressing through swing, big band, bop, and even into early R&B. This collection provides a solid retrospective of his career and serves not only as an overview of his versatility, but of the evolution of jazz itself.
Part of Hampton's greatness and excellent innovation also includes his instrument choice. He started off as a drummer but switched to the vibraphone less than a decade after its invention. Just as Charlie Christian found his way into Benny Goodman's band with his relatively newfangled amplified guitar, so did Hampton with his vibes. This collection begins with Hampton siding for Goodman but quickly moves to Lionel's own bands and tunes that feature his vibraphone in greater measure.
There are tons of Hampton compilations out there and most are worthwhile introductions, but to truly get the Hampton genius, it's best to get a collection that includes his rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael standard, Stardust; and not just any version as many are truncated, but rather the full 15 minute version. This features solid solos all around, but Hampton's vibraphone solo is a real gem. While a vibraphone has a sustain pedal similar to a piano, it can't really hold a note like a wind instrument, or even carry the same level of expression of a piano as a mallet strike is a point in time while the piano allows a key strike or a key strike and hold. This is especially challenging when soloing over a slow ballad like Stardust. Hampton starts making good use of space and silence, but then dives into filling the space with many notes, but it never sounds rushed or in any way out of sync with the song... and yes, it's technically stunning as well.
From Arwulf Arwulf's Allmusic Review:
What's impressive and very exciting is the way each consecutive volume in this set illustrates the mingled influences of swing, bop, and boogie-woogie which fed the fires of the emerging style known as rhythm & blues. As Disc Two pulls the listener through the early ‘40s by following a trail of Decca records, the music starts to cook more insistently, and most of the material is based in the jump blues and boogie book. The band is bigger and brassier, with squealing trumpet licks by Cat Anderson and gutsy outbursts by saxophonists Illinois Jacquet, Earl Bostic, Al Sears, and Arnett Cobb. Another trumpeter to listen for is Joe Morris, an ambitious individual who in 1946 went directly from his position as arranger for Hamp's band to his own extended gig as leader of the house R&B band for Atlantic records. The plot thickens with the appearance of saxophonist Johnny Griffin and eight valuable sides from November, 1947 featuring bassist and composer Charles Mingus, the most remarkable being Ming's highly advanced opus "Mingus Fingers." A leap to January, 1949 dramatizes Hamp's return to fundamental, boogie-based mayhem with a series of rockers featuring double-fisted pianist Albert Ammons. On a considerably cooler note, Hamp's mellow take on the old Hudson-DeLange ballad "Moonglow" is cushioned with careful comping by 24-year-old guitarist Wes Montgomery. In addition to Hamp himself, vocalists heard on this collection include Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Bing Crosby, Sonny Parker, Joe James, and a group billed as the Hamp-Tones.
Milt Jackson – Wizard of the Vibes
Recording Date: 1948 - 1952
Release Date: 1952
Style or Subgenre: Bop, Hard Bop
Like the aforementioned Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson is a vibraphonist, and a darned good one. He is also a fine composer and leader, who’s career spanned many decades. Like Hampton, and much more famous names like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, Milt evolved his sound and style through many jazz subgenres over his very long and distinguished career. I first heard Milt as a purveyor of soul-jazz in the 1970s and then rediscovered him as a master of hard bop in the 1960s. So now, as I engage in my jazz journey starting earlier, I get to really explore the earliest origins of someone who’s later work I’ve really enjoyed.
I absolutely loved this disc, despite it’s being primitive relative to the Milt I’m familiar with. He is lightning fast with the mallets, but it never sounds like speed for speed sake. What’s more, he’s smooth… real smooooooth. The vibraphone is a relatively staccato instrument, but Milt makes it sing in almost legato style. His technique is magnificent. The songs are very good, and his reading of them is superb. Whether ripping rapid fire chord changes or taking it down a notch with a plaintive ballad, he's got it covered perfectly. It’s not a perfect disc though; in addition to the relative primitiveness, where there are vocals, they are not beneficial, somewhat of a distraction really, and the sax by Lou Donaldson (whose later work I generally love) is rather bland with his improvisation lacking interest and his delivery lacking the energy brought by Milt and the rest of the ensemble.
On the other hand, Milt’s improvisation is positively stellar and his note choice innovative and truly masterful. It’s incredible to hear him breaking out of standard bop and blowing full force into the more innovative, soulful, and technically demanding hard bop well ahead of its time. Of note, this album includes the first recording of Milt's "Bag's Groove," which would become one of the all time most respected and covered jazz standards, although it's not my personal fave from the album.
Of particular interest, half of the album (the earlier 1948 set, whose compositions actually appear in the latter half of the album) comes from an ensemble where Milt is sided by a young Thelonious Monk on piano. Monk’s angular rhythms and dissonant harmonies stand in stark contrast to Milt’s smooth-like-buttah, flowing melodies. On some songs, it can be a bit hard to digest, but on others, they somehow bring the disparate styles together to marvelous effect. Overall, the effect of the album is overwhelmingly positive as a listening experience as well as giving keen insight into the evolution of jazz into hard bop and the origins of some of Jazz’ greatest masters.
Charlie Parker an Dizzy Gillespie – Bird and Diz
Recording Date: 1950
Release Date: 1956
Style or Subgenre: Bop
The 1950 recordings on this 1956 release bring together a critical mass of jazz' greatest, but rather disparate minds. The original godfather of Bebop headlines with the like minded and equally pioneering Dizzy Gillespie, but the rest of the ensemble isn't such an obvious match. The more modern, angular lines of Thelonious Monk wouldn't seem to be a fit for Parker and Gillespie's flowing melody lines. Surprisingly, Monk stays squarely in the back line for the most part and his unique style doesn't clash but rather supports the front line nicely. Even more interesting than the selection of Monk on piano, is tapping Buddy Rich on drums. Parker and Gillespie are boppers through and through and Rich is equally entrenched in swing., which is not only not the best support for this front line, but also another potential clash with Monk. But Rich ends up complimenting the ensemble equally well, as well as meshing with Monk.
But Parker and Gillespie are the ones with their names on top, and they both make great use of that top billing. They are stars and they play like it. Parker demonstrates full command of his instrument both technically and emotionally while laying down some wonderful melody in his improvisations. But the best part of this disc is hearing the two greats together. As they trade licks and solos, you can hear Parker pushing Gillespie; and Dizzy pushes right back, sometimes harder and faster. But at all times they keep it musical. It's something of an early master calls in soloing and sharing, and ends up being a marvelous listening experience in the process.
The CD Reissue includes 4 false starts of "Relaxin' with Lee" and another 10 of "Leap Frog," which are all, of course, completely superfluous. But they provide some insight for hardcore music analysts into the creative process with regard to what gets kept and what gets dumped. For true die hards only.
Stan Kenton – Innovations in Modern Music
Recording Date: 1950
Release Date: 1950
Style or Subgenre: Big Band, Progressive Jazz, Contemporary Instrumental
This is one of the albums I might have never found had I not started this diary. As I looked for new-to-me albums in the pre-hard bop era, there just wasn't much out there beyond yet another compilation of a big name. So when I came across this, it was a no-brainer to slip it into the queue.
And I'm sure glad I did. This is an absolutely fascinating album.
The band is big, even by big band standards, a full 37 pieces, including a string section. The music straddles a number of genres which all can be distinctly heard, but not everyone will hone in on the same ones, and not everyone will even think of this as jazz, although that's how it was marketed. It definitely shows the adaptability of jazz, both it's ability to absorb, and to blend into other genres. It's pretty easy to label it as big band, but it is also very well fused with the contemporary popular orchestral music of the time. The sound along with the structure and phrasing of individual musical ideas gives it a very 20th century classical feel at times. It is also very intellectual for the most part (it was particularly popular on college campuses at the time of its release), and even gives off a primitive math rock type vibe. Much of it also has a very soundtrack vibe to it, evoking scenes of frenzied action in a dark thriller or action movie of the time, or the angst of a tense film noir.
It's very interesting to scout out various reviews... and play it for people I know... and see how everyone seems to have a different reaction, and how differently everyone categorizes it based on what they personally hear. That the music has such chameleon characteristics is, to me, very impressive.
I'm still not sure whether I'd really call it jazz (other than the one cut with "jazz" in the title), but whatever it is I love it. Many will dismiss it as egghead music, regardless of what genre they list it as, which I can see as this is much more left brain type stuff. Nevertheless, it moves me, and I'm quite pleased to have had the exposure.
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