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October 2006

Dizzy Gillespie
The Verve/Philips Small Group Sessions
Mosaic Records

After his bebop and Afro-Cuban innovations redefined jazz in the 1940s, Dizzy Gillespie started the next decade in a slump, economically and to a certain extent artistically. But a few months after the 1953 Jazz at Massey Hall concert (a financially disastrous but musically rewarding event), Gillespie struck an agreement with Norman Granz, who added him to the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour and gave him carte blanche when it came to recording sessions. This set documents the upswing in Gillespie’s career, from 1954 to 1964, culling the small groups that recorded for Granz’s Norgran and Verve imprints and the Philips label that picked him after the impresario retired.

One of the albums originally released from this set bore the title The Ebullient Mr. Gillespie, a description that could epitomize all seven of these discs. Gillespie plays with a high level of inspiration throughout, whether tearing into “Woody ’n’ You,” blues changes or 1920s novelty songs. The first session features a 23-year old Hank Mobley before the tenor saxophonist became the hard-bop middleweight. The material isn’t harmonically adventurous—it includes a remake of “Hey Pete! Let’s Eat More Meat” and the R&B tune “Money Honey” sung by the leader—but the trumpet solos make up for a slow couple of years and the future promise can be heard in Mobley’s bold solos.

After an octet that features strong arrangements and performances by saxophonists Gigi Gryce and Benny Golson, Gillespie hired Cannonball Adderley’s rhythm section of pianist Junior Mance, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Lex Humphries, rounding out the group with Les Spann, who doubled on flute and guitar. This lineup proves malleable on everything from “The Umbrella Man,” again featuring the leader’s charming vocal rasp, to a restructured “St. Louis Blues” and the first appearance of “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac,” the latter complete with the chanting that would appear a few years later on the Impulse! album of the same name. The lineup welcomed Johnny Hodges for “Squatty Roo,” an intense performance hitherto heard only on a Verve Jazz Masters compilation.

Leo Wright played alto sax and flute with Gillespie from 1960 through 1962. Two and a half discs cover their fruitful relationship, which overlaps with Argentinian pianist Lalo Schifrin joining mainstays Chris White (bass) and Rudy Collins (drums) in the rhythm section. The highlights of this group’s tenure include “A Night in Tunisia,” which begins at low energy and starts to burn during the solo passages. Wright seems to channel Jackie McLean or Eric Dolphy, which convinces his boss to up the ante. Four sessions feature some of the earliest documents of bossa nova, some of it either being released for the first time or making its CD debut (like much of this set). Again, Gillespie gives the material its vitality by adding the right combination of precision and humor.

On the other hand, a session with Les Double Six de Paris wasn’t the best idea. This vocal group added words to tunes like “Two Bass Hit” and “Groovin’ High” using arrangements from older recordings as a guide. While Schifrin and leader Mimi Perrin’s precise scores are impressive, the sugary sound predates the insipid Swingle Singles (Ward Swingle is a member of the Six) and Perrin’s “fantasy science fiction” lyrics should give anyone pause. Besides, the voices stomp all over what was otherwise a reunion with expatriates Kenny Clarke (who swings as usual) and Bud Powell (who had an off day).

Also questionable but ultimately rewarding is a set by the Gillespie quintet of movie music. With James Moody now in the saxophone seat and 18-year-old Kenny Barron at the piano, the group plays a dozen short tracks like “Moon River” and “More,” which leave little room for blowing after stating the theme. Better is the Mal Waldron-penned soundtrack to The Cool World—another set of brief tracks that include a lot of noirish, bent blues licks from the horns—the perfect thing to accompany screen images.

Originally published in October 2006
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