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Gerry Mulligan and the Paul Desmond Quartet: Blues in Time

The premium reissue of Verve recordings by the Mobile Fidelity company-which boasts expanded range and heightened detailing on their trademarked Ultradiscs-continues with these newly mastered reissues: two undeniable classics and two near-misses.

Ella and Louis Again provides the showpiece: two CDs brimming with music that needs no label and never loses its charm. Fitzgerald and Armstrong recorded this 1957 double-album as a sequel to their highly successful first collaboration for Verve the previous year. It’s more of the same, 19 great standards spread out over two discs; and actually, when compared to the first album, this one does have a slight feeling of recapitulation. Then again, upon hearing these two old friends continue their public musical love affair, who’d seriously complain?

As on the earlier date, Fitzgerald defers to Armstrong, in much the way that even the most gifted pupil still nods toward her teacher. For instance, she takes only a couple actual scat solos. (Louis, of course, first popularized the scat-singing idiom which Ella subsequently made her own.) And on their duo tracks, Armstrong typically takes the first vocal chorus – gravelly, sunny, swinging-before turning to his trumpet; when Fitzgerald floats in, the contrast seems to give her voice even greater purity and clarity than usual. Their occasional unisons exploit the contrast further, giving the twined vocal work the rangy depth of a church organ. A little slice of jazz history, served warm.

Another 1957 date reprises another previous meeting: Blues In Time was recorded a few years after baritone saxist Gerry Mulligan sat in during a Carnegie Hall concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which starred altoist Paul Desmond. Both saxists employed a clean light tone and unruffled phrasing that made them exemplars of the “west coast sound,” and made this album a noteworthy tete-a-tete. (A decade later, after the Brubeck Quartet broke up, Mulligan often collaborated with the pianist’s trio, slipping easily into “the saxophone chair” once occupied by Desmond, and playing with the same affinity for baroque melodicism.)

Another “west coast” hallmark was the pianoless quartet used here, which Mulligan had introduced earlier in the decade. But it couldn’t have come as a complete shock to Desmond: in the Brubeck Quartet, the leader occasionally reduced the piano texture to single-note lines, achieving the same heady counterpoint that the two saxophonists do here. The album emphasizes the busy, tricky lines that both players ate up with relish: for example, Mulligan’s “Line For Lyons” or “Battle Hymn Of The Republicans,” Desmond’s witty take on “Tea For Two.” But the ballad “Body And Soul” also proves noteworthy for its cool vulnerability.

Count Basie never had a bigger hit than April In Paris, and this album-starring the polished arrangements of Thad Jones and Neal Hefti-remains his best-known to this day. In fact, it has become an iconic summation of the Basie Sound. The famous arrangement of the title tune, with its opening brass fanfare and the lush statement of the theme by the saxophone section, sums up the Basie Sound in just a few seconds of music. Much of the music long ago achieved “indelible” status: no one who has heard “Corner Pocket” can imagine it without the trumpet solo quote of “Cherry Blossom Time”; similarly, after you’ve heard Jones open his “April In Paris” solo with “Pop Goes The Weasel,” any other version just sounds dull. (Because of those tunes, and Frank Foster’s classic “Shiny Stockings,” you could almost forget that this album also includes the sparkling flagwaver “Midgets,” as well as Mario Bauza’s sexy “Mambo Inn.”).

Billie Holiday’s Body And Soul opens with Lady Day singing the first few words of the title track without accompaniment: just the words “My days have grown so lonely,” before guitarist Barney Kessel picks up the beat. Since she recorded this album in 1957-toward the end of her association with Verve, and two-and-a-half years before her death-the line has extra drama. “Body And Soul,” “Moonlight In Vermont” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” offer the quintessence of Holiday’s honey-and-spice vocal quality and utterly naturalistic phrasing. Some people feel that her voice had lost too much of its allure by this point; others can appreciate the depth she brings to these lyrics in spite of (or perhaps thanks to) the ravages of time, and for them, this album confirms the Lady’s claims to jazz royalty.

The Mobile Fidelity folks occasionally outsmart themselves. In case you needed assurance as to the “premium” status of these albums, they come in jewel boxes that “hand” you the disc via a fragile plastic construction that results in even more breakage than the normal CD cases. The booklet covers compress the original LP art into a box smaller than a CD page: you completely lose the magic of the April In Paris cover photo, which shows Basie, in a beret, buying flowers from an elderly Parisian peddler. And while I applaud the choice to reproduce the LP liner notes on high-quality paper, one might also wish to read a modern perspective side-by-side with the original essay-especially when the original is as uninformative and incomplete as the notes for Body And Soul. (Recording date? Instrumentation? Not here.)

All of these discs remain available on considerably less expensive Verve pressings, which themselves sound terrific. Still, even a non-audiophile (such as myself) can hear the difference in the Ultradiscs, which use gold in place of aluminum for the CDs. By removing even the tiniest rough edges in the digital mastering process, Mobile Fidelity has completely captured the warmth of analog recording. And on the flip side, only a few LP systems could hope to produce the full-range resonance and at times startling power of the Ultradiscs. Billie Holiday sounds absolutely lustrous (perhaps even MORE lustrous than she did in person during the ’50s); the Basie band practically jumps into your living room; and you can explore the fathomless nooks and crannies of Armstrong’s voice as never before. The decision about whether to spend the extra bucks on the Ultradisc pressings comes down to the difference between flying first class or economy. Both get you to the same place; the choice depends on the level of elegance you require.

Originally Published