The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions
In addition to his stature as one of the great baritone saxophonists in history, Gerry Mulligan holds a reputation as a composer-arranger of significant influence. His signature sound-an unusual, irresistible blend of intricate counterpoint and open harmonic space-was a key development of the postwar era, finding its earliest outlet on Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool. A little over a decade later, that sound reached its deepest expression through the short-lived but important ensemble captured here.
The opening salvo of this four-disc box, an Al Cohn arrangement of Harry Warren's "Sweet and Slow," clearly evokes the color palette of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. It's a telling touchstone, but hardly indicative of the Concert Band's subsequent path. The remarkable flexibility of this large ensemble, and its blend of lightness and strength, have few precursors. Certainly a luminous arrangement of Django Reinhardt's "Manoir de Mes Reves" underscores Mulligan's affinity with Gil Evans. (Both Mulligan and Evans arranged for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, which provides this band's clearest antecedent.) But Mulligan's crew proves just as comfortable with a muscular shout chorus. Its earliest recording, a version of the Ellington high-stepper "I'm Gonna Go Fishin,'" careens along with manic force, building to a screaming climax.
Mulligan, who had by this time achieved mainstream success with a succession of pianoless quartets, initially shaped his Concert Band around the familiar nucleus of himself, valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and a rhythm section of bassist Bill Takas and drummer Dave Bailey. Brookmeyer's contribution was especially critical. As the former sparring partner in Mulligan's second quartet (Chet Baker was the first), the trombonist was already a kindred soul. Most significant, he deeply understood Mulligan's approach to orchestration-so much so that he was entrusted with much of the arranging, and nearly all of the administration, for the band. In a thoughtful liner essay for this compilation, Bill Kirchner takes special care to document Brookmeyer's role as house arranger, manager and straw boss.
It was Brookmeyer who made the decision to replace Takas and Bailey with bassist Buddy Clark and drummer Mel Lewis in the summer of 1960. The addition of Lewis, in particular, proved fortuitous. A big-band drummer of rare intuition and propulsion, he was just the spark that the ensemble needed. This box provides a fascinating opportunity for contrast, in the form of several previously unreleased early tracks: "Barbara's Theme," "Sweet and Slow" and "Out of This World." Although solid, the initial takes pale in comparison to their later renditions-and Lewis is the crucial difference.
Other individuals shine just as bright. Tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims solos with galvanizing charisma on several sessions. Clark Terry energizes the trumpet section and solos winsomely, especially on a blazing live version of "Blueport." Johnny Mandel, Bill Holman, Gary McFarland and George Russell all contribute arrangements; Russell's "All About Rosie" suite is a landmark. And as for Brookmeyer and Mulligan, their high points are too many to enumerate here.
The above should all be reason enough to consider this an essential set. But one additional thought warrants mention. As a point of convergence for Brookmeyer, Lewis and trumpeter-arranger Thad Jones, this group set the stage for another ensemble: the eminent Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. So although short-lived, the Mulligan Concert Band had its lasting influence. This ceaselessly fascinating collection should ensure that it has lasting documentation as well.