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July/August 2004

Roy Eldridge
The Complete Verve Roy Eldridge Sessions
Mosaic Records

Dan Morganstern makes an excellent point in his liner notes when he laments the tendency to refer to Roy Eldridge as a "link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie." For one thing, Diz eschewed the kind of brilliant trumpet tone that characterized the work of Eldridge and Armstrong. Considered in this light, if one starts with Armstrong's early achievements and then looks for anything like that kind of distilled joy in all the subsequent history of the music, one gets no further than the spectacular sides the man they called "Little Jazz" made for Columbia in January 1937.

There's just no one after that to "link" to, ever.

But Eldridge's overall stature is hard to gauge, because not that much of his output measures up to his greatest work. It's difficult to shake the impression that he never quite recovered from the shock of being considered passe by some of the boppers by the time he was in his early 30s. This has fueled the tendency to compare his later efforts unfavorably with his early accomplishments. This Mosaic collection, drawn from 1951 to 1960, presents us with a body of work that stands admirably on its own and, in passing, an opportunity to reevaluate this severely underappreciated musician.

The earliest session here produced four sides, including two vocals that were obviously aimed to gain radio airplay. It's interesting to compare the leader's vocal and trumpet styles in both cases he produces a lovely clear tone in the higher register and trademark rasp in the lower. The next four tracks featured intelligent string arrangements by George Williams. The backgrounds are generally unobtrusive and Little Jazz plays lots of horn; his sound is especially gorgeous on his own "I Remember Harlem." This is also the first of many sessions to include Oscar Peterson-unfortunately, he's on organ rather than piano, and one gets the distinct impression that Peterson hadn't done much of this kind of thing.

Peterson is much more relaxed on the follow-up session a couple of months later. Morganstern focuses attention here on the burning blues, "Dale's Wail" (of which we get three previously unissued alternates), but really, the leader shines throughout. Still, many listeners will breathe a sigh of relief when Peterson moves to the piano stool for the ensuing dates. Freed from potentially distracting accompaniment, one can really appreciate the mature Eldridge on these sides. You can hear him tip the hat to Armstrong on "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," but the modernists' more measured approach solo development had also left its mark. At the same time, Eldridge felt confident expanding his hot swing approach, as he does on "Feeling a Draft".

It may sound cliched to say that Dizzy Gillespie and Little Jazz brought out the best in each other, but it's so true as to be unavoidable. Diz pulled out all the stops when he teamed with the man who had been his greatest influence. And whatever problems Eldridge may have had with the advent of bop, he got along beautifully with Gillespie, musically and personally. Both men seem just as determined not to be outdone in terms of intelligent solo construction and tender ballad interpretations as in blowing through the roof. The style that came to be called mainstream doesn't get much better than this.

The same can be said of the wonderful pairing with Benny Carter. Morganstern scores again when he questions whether the "urbane" tag that was also hung on Carter has caused listeners to overlook alto statements that would sound almost raw were it not for that ravishing tone. It's edifying to hear Eldridge with Gillespie and then with Carter; similar ideas can and do sound very different when the context changes. The contributions of the virtually unknown pianist Bruce McDonald also deserve mention. Then there's the engaging Dixieland-style outing that foreshadows Eldridge's long stint at Jimmy Ryan's during the '70s. Those who want to dismiss all such efforts out of hand are advised not to take any notice of the leader's sly way of phrasing on chestnuts like "That's A-Plenty." They'll also want to stop their ears when all the horns (trombonist Benny Morton, clarinetist Eddie Barefield) join in for hot out-choruses driven by a fascinating rhythm team (Dick Wellstood, Walter Page, Jo Jones). As with most period Eldridge, the trick is just to listen to what's here and not worry about what one thinks one would prefer.

The later string arrangements are pretty awful, thanks to Russell Garcia's reliance on the most tiresome kinds of washes and swirls. But even here our protagonist's melodic statements are full of jazz feeling. The final session was, for some strange reason, the only one on which Eldridge used his working group of the moment, which was a quartet with Ronnie Ball, Bennie Moten and Eddie Locke. Ball's cool-school voicings blend beautifully with the decidedly old-school bassist and drummer as the leader crafts one delicious solo after another to take us out on a high note (figuratively, that is-Roy certainly isn't in Jazz at the Philharmonic mode here). One observes the growing tendency to let the held notes at the end of phrases fill with vibrato and the sound of breath, very much along the lines of the mature Ben Webster, reminding us that Little Jazz had always been influenced by saxophonists, from his brother to Hawkins and Chu Berry.

The place to begin one's Eldridge collection is with those Columbia sides followed by the late '30s live recordings made under his own name (especially the Arcadia Ballroom broadcasts), and the classic work with Fletcher Henderson, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Artie Shaw, etc. The recordings made in France for Vogue just before the time frame covered in this set are also strong and may even serve as an introduction for listeners who aren't sure about springing for a seven-CD box. But fans who have already gotten this far should strongly consider taking the plunge. They may find it to be like renewing acquaintances with an old friend mistakenly thought to have been lost.

Originally published in July/August 2004
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