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Varous Artists: Columbia Small Group Swing Sessions 1953-62

In an ambitious display of musical archeology, Mosaic dug through the Columbia, Epic and Philips vaults and sorted out quite a cross-section of small-group jazz from 1953 to 1962. What the label found reveals musicians still clinging to the comforts of Dixieland, some representing the fading swing-band era and some trying to make the transition to bop. The joys of acoustic jazz are spread out over these eight CDs, and many of the tracks are either previously unreleased versions or alternate takes that offer insight into just how original these players were.

First up: Ruby Braff, an unabashed Louis Armstrong disciple. Listen to Braff’s “Star Dust” and you’ll hear the same strong high notes, lip flexibility and rich low tones produced by his mentor. There’s no bass on the opening set; Braff was pleased with the full accompaniment by guitarist Steve Jordan and pianist Dave McKenna. On the second session guitarist Freddie Green shows up with tenorist Coleman Hawkins, trombonist Lawrence Brown and baritonist Ernie Caceres for some clever head arrangements and slightly harder swing.

The musically eccentric clarinetist Pee Wee Russell always looked constipated and often sounded the same. He heard great ideas but seldom managed to execute them cleanly. He excelled in the bonhomie of Dixieland, which is heard here at the end of “Keep Young and Beautiful.” Russell also provides a gem as he gradually closes “Oh, Lady Be Good” with a mournful low D.

There’s nothing mournful about Buck Clayton’s dates except the trumpeter’s backing: The relatively unknown organist Marlowe Morris overwhelms everyone with his skating-rink sound and constant, inaccurate humming. Clayton, by contrast, had a clear open sound and warm cup-mute technique that made him a mainstay in the Count Basie band for many years. His best moments on this set are a muted chorus on “‘S Wonderful” and a reunion with a few Basie alumni, including trumpeter Emmett Berry, trombonists Dicky Wells and Vic Dickenson, drummer Jo Jones and vocalist Jimmy Rushing. Dickenson is the scene-stealer with his sly, witty bent tones and growls on “Makin’ Whoopee.” Another Clayton session features a “Cat Meets Chick” novelty with a simple premise: Jimmy Rushing tries and fails to make out with Ada Moore. It’s a good idea (both have strong voices, and Moore proves to be the Ethel Merman of jazz), but they merely juxtapose songs-like “Any Place I Hang My Hat,” “Pretty Little Baby,” “If I Could Be With You,” “You’re My Thrill”-instead of interacting in the style of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

Marlowe Morris returns, this time as leader of various groups, and the results are no less dismal than before. “On the Trail,” from the Grand Canyon Suite is a long, long trail unwinding with a metronome marking of “dirge.” Even trombonist Matthew Gee and tenorist Buddy Tate can’t save it. Marlowe eventually has a couple shining moments with “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Jitterbug Waltz,” but Jo Jones’ surprisingly annoying snare drumming nearly ruins the latter. The other half of the disc comprises a lively combination of straightahead and bop-flavored swingers fronted by Illinois Jacquet on tenor and alto. It’s on alto that Jacquet steals the show with a sizzling “Indiana.” Illinois hits a nice comfortable groove with “Satin Doll.” No honking or squealing, just a refreshingly straight Jacquet.

Kenny Burrell’s sessions consist of seven originals by the guitarist plus “Mood Indigo.” Combinations that include Burrell, Jacquet, pianist Hank Jones, bassists Major Holley and George Duvivier and drummers Jimmy Crawford and Osie Johnson prove to be great. Seems everyone was up for the sessions. The two versions of Burrell’s “The Switch” are fantastic swingers, and the guitarist gets down and dirty on “The Squeeze.” Burrell’s best contribution here is “How Could You?” with Hank Jones’ cleanly executed block chords. Still, the highlight of the Burrell and Jacquet collaboration is Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” thanks to the lush chords Burrell provides for Jacquet’s tenor and Duvivier’s firm walking line.

Another memorable collaboration is the quintet co-led by Coleman Hawkins and Clark Terry, backed by pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Major Holley and drummer Dave Bailey. They take a harmonically novel approach to Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me (But Don’t Tease Me)” by letting Holley bow and hum the lead, with Clark below him and Hawkins above in a modal-flavored journey into triad land, hinted at by Flanagan’s intro. Everyone except Hawkins was up for this 1962 date. According to Richard Sudhalter’s encyclopedic notes in an accompanying booklet, the producer admitted that the saxophonist “was drinking a lot.” Ironically, his worst effort comes on “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Contrastingly, another trumpet and tenor front line provides the best example of combo swing. “Sweets” Edison and Ben Webster exude a level of comfort that results in laid-back, meaningful solo statements and tight heads over very slick support from Hank Jones, George Duvivier and drummer Clarence Johnson. The finest moments come when Edison makes love to “Embraceable You” and Webster asks “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Jones lovingly guides them the whole way through.

Finally, the three 1962 sessions fronted by guitarist Herb Ellis are somewhat disappointing. Few sparks fly, except during “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” Those tracks show Ellis’ best chordal and single-string moments, plus his ability to goose instrumentalists. “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is a fine showcase for trumpeter Roy Eldridge and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” reveals surprising versatility from forgotten trumpeter Frank Assunto. The unison timbre of Assunto and saxophonist Buddy Tate is perfect on “I Won’t Love You.” As for chemistry, check Ellis and pianist Ray Bryant on “Willow Weep for Me.”

Originally Published