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An Unsung Cat: The Life and Music of Warne Marsh by Safford Chamberlain

Lennie Tristano ranks among the greatest and most original jazz musicians, a system creator who founded a school of modern jazz that was an alternative to bop. The Tristano school attracted few ardent followers because of its uniqueness. Even some of his earliest disciples, including guitarist Billy Bauer, went back to playing like mainstream stylists in the 1950s. Arguably Tristano’s strongest influence was exerted through one of the pianists he marked, Bill Evans, but very few jazz fans are aware of Tristano’s impact on Evans. Today, Tristano has been virtually forgotten. If that is the case, given his enormous achievements, how much of a chance is there to revive the reputation of one of his most brilliant students, tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh?

Safford Chamberlain, a college English teacher and one time student of Marsh, has certainly given it a good shot in his biography of Marsh, An Unsung Cat. And, happily, a companion CD has been issued on Storyville with the same name.

Both the book and CD are arranged in chronological order. Marsh was born in 1927 to a well-to-do Los Angeles family. Warne’s father, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, was a professional musician in his teens, playing with the Hollywood Canteen Kids and Hoagy Carmichael’s Teenagers. On the CD Marsh is heard playing with the Teenagers in late 1945 or early 1946, taking an assured Ben Webster/Flip Phillips-style solo on “Apple Honey.” While stationed in the Army in New Jersey he began studying with Tristano in 1947. Tristano almost immediately had a profound effect on him, not only influencing his musical vocabulary but also instilling in him an “art for art’s sake” philosophy. Marsh remained an uncompromising musician throughout his career.

We next hear Marsh in 1949 on “Marshmallow” and “Tautology,” and already he’s a superb musician. His spot on “Tautology” is one of the greatest tenor-sax solos ever recorded, as a matter of fact; listen to the momentum he builds during the first eight bars of his second chorus: he nearly tears your head off. At this time Marsh’s relationship to Tristano was like Bud Powell’s or Milt Jackson’s to Charlie Parker. His vocabulary was rooted in Tristano’s.

Marsh’s choice of intervals, use of substitute chords, rhythmic displacement and triplet-oriented rhythmic conception were all influenced by Tristano. He accented very unpredictably and frequently ignored bar-line barriers. Lester Young also influenced him rhythmically, which is fairly obvious when Marsh plays spare, laid-back solos, and his light, pretty tone has a Young-like or even, at times, a Stan Getz-like quality, as on “Broadway,” cut in 1956 with Ted Brown’s band. In 1949 Marsh’s tone was fairly broad and consistent, but after 1955 he began using more timbral variety, sometimes producing nasal sonorities; he used the extreme upper register of the tenor sax effectively. At this time his work also became more angular.

Throughout his career Marsh moved back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. He found New York musically more stimulating, partly because Tristano was there, but life was more secure in L.A., where his mother lived. There were long periods of time when he did not record, and even some of the material he did cut was not, apparently, available to Storyville, because we have nothing between 1957 and 1975 on the companion CD, although Marsh did make impressive appearances on live and studio dates in that period. From 1972 to 1977, however, he was a member of Supersax, and this apparently helped revive interest in him, particularly in Europe, where he recorded relatively frequently, appearing with Chet Baker, Hank Jones, Kenny Drew and Red Mitchell, as well as top European musicians such as the great bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.

Nine of the 16 tracks on this CD were cut from 1975 to 1987. This does not make for the most balanced portrait of Marsh’s development, but the individual choices here are excellent. Three are from private sources, including a wonderful, idea-rich solo of Marsh playing along with a Jamey Aebersold accompaniment record of “How High the Moon?”

There’s a lot of variety in his 1975 to 1987 works. His ability to improvise lovely, songlike lines can be heard on a 1980 version of “Body and Soul” and the 1975 “Easy” with Toshiko Akiyoshi. Another ballad, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” features his inventive double-timing. The rhythmic complexity of Marsh’s work and his ability to swing infectiously can be heard on “Confirmation.”

Chamberlain’s biography of Marsh is one of the best ever written about a jazz musician. He realizes that the most important thing about the tenorman is his musical accomplishments, and that’s what he emphasizes, providing a career-long description of the evolution of his playing, citing his major characteristics, providing transcriptions and analyses of his work and talking about his interaction with other musicians. In the process he provides an interesting overview of the Tristano school.

There is plenty of stuff in the book as well about Marsh’s personal life. He was a complex man, who has been described as shy and was obsequious to Tristano, but could also be nasty and inconsiderate. He had a serious drug habit, which may have caused his fatal heart attack. Chamberlain also deals at some length with Marsh’s relationship with his mother, who doted on him but kept him on a short leash.

The author’s research has been painstaking. He interviewed 220 people for this project and pored over many old publications. His text is rich in factual material; he backs up what he says and he provides a good discography, though his book, amazingly, lacks an index.

Bringing to the attention of the general public a superior and original musician like Marsh certainly deserves praise. Pianist Connie Crothers is quoted here as saying that it is “inevitable” that Marsh will achieve the recognition due him. But truth crushed to earth does not always rise. Someone has to make it happen. I hope Chamberlain’s outstanding effort to do so bears fruit.

Originally Published