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May 2006

Gerry Mulligan
Mosaic Select 21
Mosaic Records

In December of 1957 Gerry Mulligan found himself multitasking big time. Pacific Jazz Records producer Richard Bock had come to New York to supervise a marathon run of sessions, including four prospective Mulligan albums. This edition of the Mosaic Select series captures the fruit of the baritone saxophonist’s labors.

The first of the recording dates yielded Reunion, a get-together with Mulligan’s former partner, trumpeter Chet Baker, with whom he had last with worked in 1953. While modeled after the original pianoless quartet that had led both men to fame, the 1957 foursome has an edgier feel, no doubt related to the more aggressive rhythm section of bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Dave Bailey, and the fact that both horn men had significantly widened their dynamic ranges over the intervening years. An attractively frisky quality pervades the session.

On two of the three recording dates, the quartet was joined by vocalist Annie Ross to cut Annie Ross Sings a Song of Mulligan. Despite the album title, Ross actually avoids songs with the Mulligan signature, opting instead for standards. Working without any traditional harmonic backing, Ross displays remarkable vocal control; she receives solid support from the Mulligan–Baker quartet and, on five subsequent tracks, a 1958 unit with trumpeter Art Farmer.

A nonet session was sandwiched between the quartet dates, placing Mulligan in the heady company of saxophone-playing peers Lee Konitz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Allen Eager. With arrangements by Bill Holman, The Gerry Mulligan Songbook Volume 1 does indeed concentrate on the leader’s witty and durable tunes, including “Disc Jockey Jump,” made famous by the Gene Krupa band, and “Venus de Milo,” a Birth of the Cool landmark here given a glorious remodeling. With Basie guitarist Freddie Green providing unobtrusive propulsion, Holman’s first-rate writing and the contributions of the all-star sax section, Songbook retains all its incandescent sparkle and swing.

Unbelievably, a second session was also squeezed in during one of the Songbook dates, this time hooking Mulligan up with the Vinnie Burke String Quartet, which consisted of Burk’s bass alongside guitar, cello and violin. But string sweetening on a ballad-heavy repertoire was the last thing on anyone’s mind. An interactive ensemble that relied heavily on hornlike pizzicato lines from Calo Scott’s cello, the Burke quartet weaves about Mulligan’s baritone on standards and bop material like “Good Bait,” “The Preacher” and “Bags’ Groove.” On this fascinating session, as on each of the others, Mulligan exhibits the effortless swing and melodic lyricism that made him a jazz icon of the time and a standard of excellence for the present day.

Originally published in May 2006
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