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National Jazz Ensemble Featuring Gerry Mulligan: National Jazz Ensemble Featuring Gerry Mulligan

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Wherever Gerry Mulligan went, he seemed to have a little spring in his step. Think of the classic moment in the 1957 CBS TV show The Sound of Jazz when he was one of an all-star crew backing up Billie Holiday on her slow blues “Fine and Mellow.” To be more accurate, it’s a slow blues until Mulligan’s baritone sax enters the picture; as soon as his solo starts, the rhythm section goes into double-time. That could have been a pre-rehearsed move, but I’ve always preferred to think it was a spontaneous reaction to the innate bounciness in his playing.

Twenty years later, when this live date was recorded at the New School in New York, Mulligan was still bouncing. As he barrels his way through the opening cut, “Back at the Barn,” one marvels anew at how an instrument pitched so low can instantly lift a listener’s spirit so high. His best moments come on minor-key tunes like “Israel” and “Idle Gossip,” when he can tug against the more sour tonality with effervescent lines, creating a sound that’s the definition of suave.

As great as Mulligan’s playing is, the band behind him-Chuck Israels’ National Jazz Ensemble, in its third and penultimate year of existence-is better represented on the three tracks toward the middle of the disc where the bari man sits down. “Bird Tapestry,” a rollicking medley of Charlie Parker tunes complete with mock-bird calls, is a special standout. Trumpeter David Berger points out in the liner notes that a repertory jazz ensemble was a novel concept in the ’70s, and the NJE played a major role in pushing that concept forward. It’s both valuable and fun to hear this direct antecedent of Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra captured in such fine form.

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