When impresario Norman Granz founded the Pablo label in 1973, fusion, funk and Latin sounds were at the forefront of jazz. Granz, founder of the Verve, Norgran and Clef labels, initially launched Pablo as a platform for his management clients Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass, but soon its roster was filled out with the equally starry likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan. Granz’ new label was an instant success and a safe haven for traditional jazz in this period of rapid musical change. Pablo’s very first LP – Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen’s The Trio – even netted a Grammy Award. To celebrate Pablo’s fortieth anniversary, Concord Music Group has reissued five classic titles from its catalogue. Three albums feature guitarist Pass, two in collaboration with pianist Peterson and one with bassist Pedersen. The fourth and fifth – archival showcases for the legendary Art Tatum and Duke Ellington – were recorded in the 1950s but released on Pablo in the 1970s. Best of all, all titles have been remastered, and all save the Tatum premiere previously unreleased bonus material.
Before Dave Brubeck, before Bill Evans, before Bud Powell, there was Art Tatum. Though inspired by the stride piano style (in which, generally speaking, the left hand plays a four-beat pulse with a single bass note, octave, seventh or tenth interval on the first and third beats, and a chord on the second and fourth beats) of Fats Waller as well as by Earl “Fatha” Hines, Tatum made the instrument his own, and is frequently recognized today as the greatest jazz pianist of all time. There’s ample evidence why on the first volume of Pablo’s Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces (OJC-CD-34620-02).
Almost every one of the sixteen songs on this introductory volume – recorded in 1953 and 1955 – is a standard, but Tatum’s boundless imagination for improvisation renders nothing at all “standard” about them. 69 Solo Masterpieces performances were recorded over two days in 1953; more sessions commenced in April 1954 and concluded in January 1955, yielding a total of 125 masters. On November 5, 1956, Tatum was gone, a victim of kidney failure. The tracks were originally issued on Granz’s Clef label as boxed sets and 13 individual albums. When Pablo was founded in 1973, one order of business was to reissue these seminal recordings. The newly-remastered Volume One combines the first and ninth original Pablo LPs onto one disc.
Tad Hershorn’s new liner notes explore the theory that Tatum may have made it all look too easy, which might explain why he never achieved international stardom during his all-too-short lifetime. Indeed, the notes recount producer Granz bringing Pabst Blue Ribbon and a portable radio tuned to the UCLA basketball game to get Tatum in the mood for the sessions. Though the results sound far from tossed-off, the fact of the matter seems to be that the inventive improvisations heard here did come naturally to Tatum. There’s a bounce and a carefree verve to these tracks - even unlikely ones such as Cole Porter’s 1930 “Love for Sale,” originally a streetwalker’s lament. Tatum puts the soul into “Body and Soul,” lightly swings “My Love Affair,” and embellishes “There’s Only a Paper Moon” with a barrage of zesty notes that enliven Harold Arlen’s sweet melody. Though he transformed the style with elegance, muscularity and musical wit, the stride technique admired by Tatum is still very much present throughout. Tatum even takes on two compositions by another renowned pianist, Duke Ellington (“Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’” and “Sophisticated Lady”) with aplomb.
Though this is very much an exuberant set, Tatum also has a way with a ballad. As he dissects the melody of Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones,” interpreting it in various styles, it’s impossible to say what Rodgers would have thought. Though the famed composer was a notorious stickler for playing the notes as written, Tatum’s virtuosity is undeniable. “Stay as Sweet as You Are” has a romantic feel, while Tatum is surprisingly dark on “Willow Weep for Me.” The title of one of these Solo Masterpieces, “Too Marvelous for Words,” could certainly describe Tatum’s animated instrumental performances!
After the jump, we’ll explore titles from Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Stephane Grappelli, Zoot Sims and others!
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra’s The Ellington Suites (1976) brought together three of the Duke’s multi-part musical compositions: “The Queen’s Suite,” as recorded in 1959, “The Goutelas Suite” from 1971, and “The Uwis Suite” from 1972. Ellington himself had passed away in 1974, but his son Mercer found a sympathetic partner for the music’s release in Norman Granz, who had first worked with Duke in 1958. Pablo eventually released three albums from the famed composer and bandleader.
"The Queen’s Suite," dedicated to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and presented to her on a specially-pressed disc by Ellington himself long before the commercial release on Pablo, is vintage Ellington. The six-part suite was primarily composed by Ellington; Billy Strayhorn wrote one part (“Northern Lights”) and co-wrote one with Ellington (the closing “Apes and Peacocks”). The recording features Duke’s longtime sidemen like Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves and Clark Terry, and each is at the top of his game. The grand, thunderous explosion of “Northern Lights” contrasts beautifully with the intimate “Le Sucrier Velours” and playful “Lightning Bugs and Frogs.” The pensive “Single Petal of a Rose,” with just Ellington on piano and Jimmy Woode on bass, is a relief after the gloriously brassy blasts that have come before, while the closing part “Apes and Peacocks” is filled with dramatic tension and swagger as the insinuating brass faces off against bold percussion and drums.
Ellington was invited to headline the re-opening of a 13th century French chateau in 1966, leading to the composition of "The Goutelas Suite" to inaugurate its salle de musique, or music room. The recording here was made in 1971, days after Ellington brought the piece to New York’s Lincoln Center. As Ellington was always a composer of deeply cinematic music, one can visualize the halls of the chateau while listening. The fanfare and opening “Goutelas” are appropriately majestic and stately; “Get-with-Itness” is, on the other hand, a frenetic piece that could have underscored a chase sequence in a mid-sixties cop show, complete with Ellington’s mischievous musical humor. “Something” is more reflective, with lovely lyrical passages, but things get hot again with “Having It All” before a concluding “Fanfare” brings us full circle.
The third suite – "The Uwis Suite" – has just three parts, but two are longer than any individual part of The Queen’s Suite or The Goutelas Suite. It was so named for the University of Wisconsin (UWIS) where an Ellington Festival was held in 1972, and recorded just months later in New York City. Perhaps because it was written for a celebration of Ellington’s works, it has a captivatingly familiar feel. The opening “Uwis” imaginatively shifts mood, tempi and rhythm with imagination that proves Ellington hadn’t become more musically conservative in his later years. The bluesy “Uwis” gives way to a polka, Ellington-style, via “Klop,” with a hint of Main Street, USA-esque Americana. But Ellington can’t stay in one place for too long. “Loco Madi” gives a brassy, bluesy spin to the unstoppable rhythm of a locomotive. One previously unissued track has been added to the remastered Ellington Suites, the 5+-minute “The Kiss,” recorded at the same session as "The Uwis Suite." The brash, boisterous “Kiss” is well-sequenced following "The Uwis Suite" and particularly, “Loco Madi.”
Italian-American guitarist Joe Pass is the connective tissue of the remaining three Pablo reissues. A leader since the mid-1960s, he rose to jazz superstardom with the late 1973 release of Virtuoso, on Pablo, and was soon accompanying his fellow client of Norman Granz, Ella Fitzgerald, on a series of well-received LPs. Pass joined Oscar Peterson, George Mraz and Grady Tate for Zoot Sims’ 1975 Pablo release Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers (OJC-34623-02). Saxophonist Sims got his start even earlier than Pass, having recorded since the late 1940s on labels including Prestige, Riverside and Impulse. As the title of the album suggests, Zoot and the Gershwin Brothers was a straightforward affair in which the quintet, led by Sims’ tenor, tackled the songbook of George and Ira Gershwin. Peterson brought a considerable history to the album, as well. A disciple of Tatum’s, Peterson absorbed various styles – bebop, boogie woogie, stride, blues – and synthesized them into his own style. He eschewed flashy theatrics in favor of a straightforward, traditional approach...flawlessly played, of course.
George Gershwin’s melodies were and are among the most timeless in popular music, and though he died in 1937, he lived long enough to see his work embraced and transformed by the most influential jazz artists of the era. Each Broadway score he crafted served as delicious fodder for improvisation. These melodies are so familiar that they’re instantly recognizable from just a note or two, making their reinvention all the more surprising. Sims doesn’t dig deep into the catalogue - each of the ten titles is a bona fide standard - but he embellished these classics with respect as well as confidence in what he and his all-star group could bring to the table.
An insouciant and swinging treatment of the ballad “The Man I Love” kicks off the proceedings, with tasty solos from Pass and Peterson. Instant jazz standard “I Got Rhythm” is stretched out by the group as the album’s longest track at 7+ minutes, and like “The Man I Love” and “S’Wonderful,” it’s enlivened by inventive solos from Pass and Peterson – all the while anchored by the ace, not-to-be-underrated rhythm section of Tate on drums and Mraz and bass.
On the other end of the spectrum is a tight, two-minute “How Long Has This Been Going On” is so smoky, you can taste those salty tears in Ira’s lyric. Sims’ improvisation is so subtle that he gives the illusion of adhering to Gershwin’s melody even as he bends and caresses it. A similar late-night vibe is conjured on “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” in which the crush seems truly erotic, and “Embraceable You.” Sims doesn’t enter the latter until nearly a minute has passed, and when he does, he and his ensemble appear to revel in taking the melody in unexpected directions. Just as adventurous is “Summertime,” which doesn’t let up its insinuating, up-tempo groove led by Peterson for five-and-a-half minutes including a bass solo from Mraz. Sims, Peterson, Pass, Mraz and Tate find the emotional truths in these songs, even shorn of their lyrics by Ira Gershwin. “Isn’t It a Pity” is as reflective as “Someone to Watch Over Me” is intimate, and the saucy “Oh, Lady, Be Good!” builds from lightness to a spirited swing.
Three bonus tracks appear here. The previously released outtake “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” is taken not as a brash showcase in the style of, say, Sinatra, but rather as a hip, slow-burning and evocative piece one might hear in a saloon. Alternate versions of “Oh, Lady Be Good!” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You” are just as enjoyable as the takes selected for the completed release.
Cheers! Joe Pass also appears with Oscar Peterson on 1979’s live recording Skol, led by Peterson and violinist Stephane Grappelli (OJC-34617-02). Grappelli’s style is so indelible that he couldn’t possibly be confused with any other violinist, and that distinctive tone gets a beautiful display here. Peterson, Grappelli and Pass were joined by Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass and Mickey Roker on drums for a varied set list recorded at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Concert Hall in summer 1979. It includes another (lovely) rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me” along with Tin Pan Alley and jazz standards, and Peterson’s own “Skol Blues.”
Pass appropriately opens with an understated reading of the melody of guitarist Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages.” It’s a true showcase for all five players as Pass cedes to Grappelli, subtly accompanied by Pedersen and Roker, before Peterson glides into the forefront and Grappelli returns to wrap it all up. On Burton Lane’s sprightly tune “How About You,” Pedersen cooks as Grappelli deliciously bends the melody. Solos from Peterson, Pass and Pedersen keep it bouncy. “Makin’ Whoopee” is another loose performance, with Grappelli particularly freewheeling. In contrast, “Someone to Watch Over Me” is purely lovely, and the dramatic “That’s All” is taken at a relaxed clip. Peterson’s “Skol Blues,” concluding the original LP, is actually quite jaunty despite its title, and there’s palpable delight in the interplay between Peterson and Grappelli.
Three bonus tracks have been added, and all are previously unissued. Peterson kicks off a light “Honeysuckle Rose,” paying homage to its originator, stride piano hero Fats Waller. Ellington’s “Solitude” is subtle and atmospheric. Another Gershwin composition also recorded on Sims’ album, “I Got Rhythm,” rounds out the bonus material.
John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie expanded on the trumpet style of Roy Eldridge while introducing new complexity into jazz, becoming a key figure in the development of bebop. A leader since the 1930s, he was another important addition to the Pablo roster. With Pass, Roker and bassist Ray Brown, “Diz” recorded Dizzy’s Big 4 (OJC-CD-34611-02) over two days in 1974. Switching between muted and open sounds on his horn, Gillespie was playing as vibrantly as ever, bouncing off his cohorts with glee.
Despite name-checking the Mozambique Liberation Front, the opening track “Frelimo” is a rather jaunty piece with a funky underpinning. But it also clues in listeners to expect the unexpected when Roker delivers a martial, slightly unsettling drum break in stark contrast to the music that’s come before. The material is intriguing; the elder statesman Gillespie takes a brief spin through Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song,” a potent rumination on aging, but proves his youth with a mood-shifting, still-hip version of Fats Waller’s 1942 “Jitterbug Waltz.”
Dizzy begins the languid “Hurry Home” on his mute, cedes to a liquid solo from Pass with Brown’s able support, then emerges with his open horn, triumphant. The group tackles Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” quietly, too, but it’s not long before the song turns hot. Dizzy’s dexterity is evident as he unleashes a firestorm of notes, with equally dynamic torrents coming from Pass, Brown and Roker. But nothing could prepare the listener for the fast and furious “Be Bop (Dizzy’s Fingers).” Gillespie and Pass are quite simply, a marvel on this vigorous workout. Gillespie’s classic “Birks Works” swings, too, but has the assured air of a master. At almost nine minutes’ length, it offers room a-plenty for each member of the quartet to stretch out. Brown’s important contribution comes into sharp focus on this track.
Two previously unissued bonus tracks, both alternate takes, enhance one’s appreciation of the entire album and make it easy to wonder how Granz selected the takes he did! There’s a bit of a slinkier Latin feel as the group starts out “Jitterbug Waltz” in its alternate version. “Russian Lullaby” is some 35 seconds shorter than the take selected for the album and also offers sufficient differences from that master to warrant repeated listens. The camaraderie on the cover photograph hardly seems to be a put-on where these four gentlemen were concerned.
All five titles in this wave celebrating Pablo’s 40th year have been sparklingly remastered by Joe Tarantino. Every title, too, boasts the album’s original liner notes plus a new assessment from a noted author such as Ashley Kahn, Tad Herschorn, Willard Jenkins or Doug Ramsey. If there was ever any doubt that traditional jazz was, indeed, alive and well in the 1970s, look no further than these reissues from Concord’s Original Jazz Classics.