Monday, February 18, 2008
Wardell at One O'Clock
The scene is the Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, April of 1948. On the stage are gathered a collection of jazz luminaries; Benny Carter, Howard McGhee, Red Callender and Vic Dickenson to name a few.
The pianist, Arnold Ross, takes an intro and kicks into a medium-up swinging blues, One O'Clock Jump and the Basie-style rhythm sections falls in, a sandy soft-shoe chug-a-chug chug train leaving the station, for the piano's two choruses in the familiar key of F concert....
then, in a surprise shift, there's a turnaround to the key of Db just as the thin-as-a-rail young tenor player, Wardell Gray, steps up to the microphone, signals his entry with a descending diminished triad, lands back up on the Db, and proceeds mow everyone down for 18 choruses of the swingingest jazz tenor solo ever taken.
Throughout the proceedings, on this live recording, a man in the background - I don't know if he's a fan or someone in the band - is clearly heard relentlessly inciting Wardell, like the crackle of kindling fire "Go! Go! Go!". Rather than this being the annoyance that it might be to the hi-fi connoisseur (who is already doubtlessly derailed by the roughness of the recording), I am RIGHT THERE with him, exhorting Gray to let it rip.
This solo is from a peak-time in Wardell's career; fresh from his sessions with Charlie Parker but still swinging in the Lestorian mode and playing with that gorgeous round bell tone that would gradually give way to a slight vibrato-buzz in the 50's before his untimely death in 1955.
This solo on One O'Clock is the longest on record from Wardell (his take on Blue Lou from the same performance, I believe, is another delightfully extended one) and I can only pine for the one's that got away.
An interesting, if brief, interview with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco was conducted by Abraham Ravett for his documentary on Wardell called Forgotten Tenor. Buddy played alongside Wardell in one of his short stints with the smaller version of the Count Basie band in 1949-1950. Here he has some insightful remarks regarding Wardell's playing and the rhythm of the Basie band:
"Wardell's ability to swing musically, maybe even now, I don't know what the younger musicians talk about but we used to talk about swing, whether swing isn't on top of the beat, behind the beat right on the beat, but I think swing has nothing to do with behind the beat, in front of the beat, or on top of the beat or on the beat. I think it has everything to do with the combination of the inherent gut or soul of the musician playing. In other words, I've heard some very intense players and if you analyze for instance, the great John Coltrane, some of his ballads especially, where he would play a million notes across a very slow four, none of the notes would be on the beat or off the beat at any given time. It would be on, off, late, forwards, and yet the pulse, the inherent pulse from the soul of the player was there, of John Coltrane. And Wardell had just a natural way of swinging and he could play, he could fool with the time, he could play behind, or forward or on it and make certain statements but there, the way he made certain statements is the way that made him swing so to speak.
I know so many school bands throughout the United States that say we're going to play like Count Basie, so our ensemble is going to play behind the beat, which is basically how Basie's band operated. The rhythm was steady and the ensemble played behind the beat. However, it's not so much that they played behind the beat, as they inferred that they were behind the beat and that the soul, the feeling was from the depth of the organism. Late, of course, behind, a little bit behind but you couldn't put it into a computer and say here's how far behind the beat Count Basie's band played. You see? There were a lot of times where they played right on the money though, maybe a couple of times they might have gone ahead a little. So sum it up, swing is like feeling, it's like the feeling of Jazz. Swing is the ambiguous mysterious element, it's either there or isn't there. And Wardell had it."
This from Ravett's interview with Jimmy Lewis who played bass behind Wardell and Buddy in the same basie line-up:
"He used to seem to create as he went along, you know?, on his solos. You can always tell when something new pops into his mind while he's playing, because he'd always smile, you can see him smiling while he's playing his horn.
You know I'd like to see him featured in a film, where he could really show off his talent. Really show it off, say, it was just the band playing in the background, and put him out front. I think, when I was with Basie in his big band, and Wardell was featured on a tune, Wardell he gets out and he plays the first chorus, and right in the middle of the thing he says, come on, let's play, let's play now. Now this is right while the recording was going, and he played that thing, he played his heart out man, he just played and it looked, he gave the whole band a lift because he had so much to offer you know? He tried to put everything in his tunes, so Basie would say let him go, he wasn't supposed to have maybe one or two choruses and he ended up playing five or six choruses of the same tune you know?"
At the end of Wardell's solo on One O'Clock, I swear that I can hear our "inciter" saying to him, "Do it again, do it again!"
I highly recommend the website for Abraham Ravett's Forgotten Tenor. Aside from numerous interviews there is an excellent biography, discography, and a wonderful live clip of Wardell taking a chorus on "I Cried For You" with the pared-down Basie Band. Incomparable (except for Prez, of course!)
The above mentioned recording of Wardell on "One O'Clock Jump" can be found on
Wardell Gray on the Giants of Jazz label.