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Tony Fruscella: A Night at the Open Door

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Not only did trumpeters Tony Fruscella and Chet Baker play similarly, they died as a result of drug abuse after leading tragic lives. Fruscella, who was born in a New Jersey orphanage, died in 1969, at forty-two. He’d developed his lyrical style, in which he featured the middle and lower registers, by 1948 (i.e., before Baker). With Charlie Parker in 1952, Baker had not developed the style he employed with Gerry Mulligan; he was more boppish. Not that Baker was influenced by the little known Fruscella. Their similarities were probably caused by both being influenced by Lester Young, with whom Fruscella played, and Miles Davis, and both having poor upper registers. Baker’s articulation was cleaner than Fruscella’s and his tone firmer, while Fruscella had a unique breathy timbre and improvised more daringly. Baker was based in L.A. and Fruscella in New York, but both worked with Mulligan and Stan Getz. Baker recorded far more often. Fruscella cut only a couple of studio tracks with Getz, his own Atlantic album and a 1955 live quartet piece with Hank Jones that appeared on a Coral LP, “East Coast Scene.” The rest of the material on these discs was released posthumously.

These CDs are not arranged chronologically. A Night at the Open Door contains 1953 jam session tracks by Fruscella, pianist Bill Triglia, bassist Teddy Kotick and drummer Art Mardigan. They’re joined on five tracks by tenorman Brew Moore. Pernod has studio and live tracks by Getz’s quintet with Fruscella and pianist John Williams (1955) and a 1948 group including Fruscella, altoist Chick Maures, Triglia and bassist Red Mitchell. Tony’s Blues contains the Coral track with Jones, Triglia septet selections (1952) with Fruscella, altoist Herb Geller, tenorman Phil Urso and baritonist Gene Allen, plus a 1955 high school performance with Triglia, Fruscella and altoman Phil Woods.

Rudy Van Gelder, doing some early experimenting, recorded the ’48 tracks. Fruscella’s solos here are melodically fresh and well formed. He opens both takes of “Out of Nowhere,” but instead of playing the theme improvises lovely counter melodies on its chord progression. Maures, a little, hunchbacked guy who died in 1954, had pulmonary difficulties which caused him problems when he tried to play long lines, but his work was melodically pretty and well constructed and he had an attractive, delicate Lee Konitz-like tone. The under appreciated Triglia, a great friend of Fruscella, sounds terrific. A good technician, he swings in a relaxed, effortless manner and gets into the heart of the chords to play some very pretty lines. An admirer of Bud Powell, he reminds me more of Joe Albany here. In 1948 Red Mitchell was already a splendid bassist, one of the best soloists on his instrument at that time.

The 1952 septet session, also recorded by Van Gelder, yielded four selections with excellent arrangements influenced by the writing for Miles Davis’s nonet. There are brief but sensitive solos by Triglia and Fruscella and an excellent, atypical solo by Geller (in that it’s Konitz-influenced) on “Tangerine.”

The Open Door CD is the most uneven of the three. The recording quality is so-so at best; Triglia’s fine solo on “Donna” sounds like it was recorded from another room. Some of the solos have a loose, meandering quality, although brilliant stretches also occur. The high school concert is again uneven and poorly recorded but contains some substantive work. Note the contrast between Woods’ fiery, technically precise but somewhat mechanical playing and Fruscella’s laid back but sloppy soloing; he often had problems on fast tempoed selections. The studio (“Blue Bells,” “Roundup Time,” both by Phil Sunkel) and live tracks with Getz find him and Fruscella in excellent form; their playing has a touching, plaintive quality.

No recording by Fruscella after 1955 has been issued, making these CDs particularly valuable. Lacking Baker’s notoriety, he went downhill for fourteen years with most jazz fans unaware of him, and when he passed away was virtually unknown.