Philadelphia tenor and bass saxophonist Charlie Ventura was a hot dog. Along with possessing a great honk, he tried to make bop into a national pastime (his showy big band of 1948-49 featuring vocalists Jackie Cain and Roy Kral was called Bop for the People); played for his rival in boastfulness, drummer Gene Krupa (Ventura also led a band, the Big Four, with Buddy Rich, so he must have been a glutton for punishment); owned nightclubs; and generally showed up and showed off. But in the end, bop wasn’t really his thing, that flashy honk was more often than not a round and deeply soulful klaxon, and over the past half-century or so Ventura has been largely forgotten.
Great Britain’s Jasmine label, however, is seeing that Ventura’s finest moments don’t forever fall on deaf ears by pulling together two sessions—barely issued upon release, hardly heard for more than 60 years—that show the saxophonist at the height of his prowess: a near-bootleg 1953 album on Boris Rose’s Ozone label, The Gene Krupa Jazz Trio Live at the Bandbox, and 1957’s King release Adventure with Charlie.
The tracks with Krupa, Ventura, and pianist Teddy Napoleon (mistakenly listed as his brother Marty Napoleon on the Bandbox LP’s original cover) were recorded in a clattering NYC club setting and play off the crowd’s boozy vibe. The best example of this is the trio’s self-written “Fine’s Idea,” a bluesy, woozily sped-up cut that Ventura’s reeds prance across like a pony on ice skates. On Jesse Stone’s “Idaho” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” a frill-filled Krupa and a no-nonsense Napoleon pack a mean punch, leaving Ventura to fill in the dots with clever asides, deep-dippy solos, and swinging melody lines.
A motley crew of then-young Philly players (guitarist Billy Bean, pianist Johnny Coates, Jr., drummer Tony DeNicola, bassist Gus Nemeth) nestles comfortably behind a fatherly, swinging Ventura on Adventure. Front-and-center, adding alto and baritone sax to his retinue of reeds along with Prima-style scatting, Ventura turns Noël Coward’s chilly “Mad About the Boy” into something toasty and piquant, and shows off what late-period, seriously fun swing could sound like in the hands of new composers such as DeNicola (“Pocahontas”) and old masters like himself (“In Oblivion”).
Before he passed in 1992, Ventura had a brief time in the sun, earning critical attention as well as some love for his early times in the lounges of Las Vegas. Here’s hoping these (and other?) Jasmine re-releases shed more much-needed light on this swinging tenor man.