01/07/07

Dizzy Reece: Return of a Legend

Although Dizzy Reece has been living in New York since 1959, he has worked so infrequently in recent years that many jazz fans thought he had passed away. Friday, January 5, 2007 was the trumpet legend’s 76th birthday and he marked the occasion by making a rare appearance at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan.

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Francis Wolff

Dizzy Reece

Reece, who was born in Jamaica in 1931, moved to London in 1948 and quickly became a star on the emerging British modern jazz scene. His early recordings in England already showed him to be an original voice on his instrument, as well as an emerging composer and arranger of note. While firmly rooted in the bebop tradition, Reece cultivated a big, brassy sound that harkened back to an earlier era, evoking the work of early idols Louis Armstrong and Buck Clayton. He soon caught the ear of American musicians like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and was signed by Blue Note Records. His first release for the label, Blues in Trinity, was recorded in 1958 while the trumpeter was still living in London. Reece’s move to New York in 1959 was greeted with fanfare, and he recorded in quick succession two more critically acclaimed albums for Blue Note (Star Bright and Soundin’ Off) and one for Prestige (Asia Minor). (All of Reece’s classic Blue Note work has been assembled in a Mosaic Select box set.)

But, inexplicably, by the mid-1960s, a career that seemed destined for stardom gradually dissolved into a series of sporadic appearances—often as a sideman—and intermittent recordings, often made under less than ideal conditions. By the 1990s, Reece had almost disappeared. There are several possible explanations for this vanishing act. First, Reece is extremely honest and forthright—some have called him stubborn—and refused to compromise his ideals whether musical, social or political. In short, he probably alienated some important people. In addition, he is a man of varied interests, including writing, painting and Eastern culture, so music was not the only outlet for his creativity.

His reemergence at the Rubin Museum was something of an event, drawing a large complement of jazz press and cognoscenti. Reece looks remarkably fit, with ramrod straight posture and, considering the fact that the time between his gigs can be measured in years, he showed tremendous endurance, turning in extended solos over two long sets. His playing retains many of the hallmarks that first caught the attention of musicians and critics some 50 years ago. First and foremost, the sound is still there. The brightness and beauty of Reece’s tone, particularly in the lower and middle register, was best showcased on ballads like “’Round Midnight” and “I Can’t Get Started.” As the trumpeter puts it, “Your sound is your character.” On the more convoluted bebop lines Reece refused to take the easy way out in terms of tempo or duration of solos. His penchant for unusual intervals (present on his early work but now even more exaggerated), as well as his unorthodox approach to harmony, is at once unsettling and intriguing; he does not play “free” but certainly departs from conventional contours and forms at times.

Accompanying the trumpeter is a challenge, and Reece’s quartet of longtime associate Mike Longo on piano, Lee Hudson on bass and Jimmy Wormworth on drums turned in a valiant effort. Reece is demanding of his sidemen and clearly shows his displeasure if he is not hearing what he wants. Conversely, his face will light up when the proper groove is attained. The audience saw both reactions on Friday night. In an era when so many musicians are indistinguishable from each other, Dizzy Reece remains a true original. He is still searching, and sharing his quest is always a rewarding experience.

NOTE: The “Harlem in the Himalayas” series is curated by Loren Schoenberg, Executive Director of The Jazz Museum in Harlem and Tim McHenry, Director of Programming of the Rubin Museum of Art. It presents some of the most eclectic and intriguing programs in New York in the Rubin’s acoustically perfect auditorium. For schedule and location: http://jazzmuseuminharlem.org/rubin.html

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