Tuesday, November 08, 2011

CD Review: Gigi Gryce - Doin' the Gigi

Gigi Gryce
Doin' the Gigi

In the final, live portion of this CD, announcer MC Hugh Downs (yes, that Hugh Downs) describes Gigi Gryce's set as the music that "musicians have good reason to believe will outlast rock and roll music or any other kind of fad music that comes and goes. Maybe everybody thinks that except teenagers." That probably seemed believable in those days pre-Beatles days of 1957, yet it sounds terribly ironic when considering both the stature of that rock and roll music in the 21st century, and the stature of alto saxophonist/composer/publisher Gigi Gryce in the history of jazz. Most hard bop fans know his tunes like "Minority" and "Nica's Tempo," which have both been covered by musicians with discriminating tastes for years. He also played an active role on albums by no less than Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown for Blue Note.

But in his lifetime, Gryce was one the extremely talented but struggling musicians that fell through the cracks. He had lofty goals to run a publishing company that would get musicians the royalties they deserved, and to start his own record label. His good intentions burned him out and by the early '60s he kissed the jazz life goodbye and became a school teacher.

Doin' the Gigi uncovers some valuable radio broadcasts and unreleased sessions that offer some glimpses into the world of this alto saxophonist, who managed to hold a band together, get them tight and play music that was both innovative and accessible enough to gain fans. A close parallel can be seen with his friends Benny Golson and Art Farmer, who both played with Gryce before they started their Jazztet, which stressed the melodic swing over the frenzy of bebop.

The set moves in reverse chronological order, starting with a 1961 radio broadcast from Birdland, for better or worse with Symphony Sid announcing some of the four tracks. Richard Williams (trumpet), Eddie Costa (vibes), Richard Wyands (piano), Julian Euell (bass) and Mickey Roker (drums) join the saxophonist for a solid set that exceeds expectations of such a frontline. The original "A Premonition of You (aka Baby G)" has a structure similar to "Lover Man," although the closing phrase doesn't have the chord shift that gives the latter its hook. For "A Night In Tunisia," Gryce has Costa play the theme over a 6/4 rhythm, switching to the standard 4/4 to end the phrase. If that wasn't unique enough, the tag at the end of the chorus is taken in 7/4, clipping off a beat while adding to the urgency. Gryce has a tone like Charlie Parker, although he was less interested in drawing on bebop licks than establishing his own personality. The same group appears in two studio tracks for what seems to be plans for a self-released single. "Blues in Bloom," which lasted 11 minutes at Birdland, is limited to three here but still sounds tight.

Another session, found on a demo disc dated 1960, has Gryce, Williams, Wyands and an unknown rhythm section in an odd selection of tunes. Curtis Fuller's "Down Home," (another inclusion from the Birdland set) appears with "Stompin' at the Savoy," and "Take the A Train." All of them, especially the Strayhorn perennial, sound contemporary, by '50s standards, thanks to Gryce's arranging skills.

Back in 1957, Gryce was involved with the short-lived Signal label. Among his contributions was a quartet session with Thelonious Monk which included the pianist's rarely played tunes "Shuffle Boil" and "Gallop's Gallop." (Why the otherwise detailed booklet reduces that session to a passing phrase seems odd.) In June of that year, the label held a release party that was broadcast on tv, and is released here. This time the band includes Cecil Payne (baritone sax), Duke Jordan (piano), Wendell Marshall (bass) and Art Taylor (drums). Five tracks range from "All the Things You Are" to the Jordan-Payne "Man of Moods" (which sounds a lot like Charlie Parker's "Segment") and "Blues Walk," another much-contested melody that had been recorded by Clifford Brown, but is said to have originated with saxophonist Chris Woods.

All of these tracks last less than three minutes and commentary from Downs and Al "Jazzbo" Collins seem a little quaint all these years later. And while the liners make the argument that the brevity didn't give the quintet enough time to make an impression - thus contributing to Gryce's fate - it overlooks the fact that a lot of jazz back then was probably in the single format. So we jazz fans might dig an 11-minute workout more, but John Q. Public might get hitched on songs that come in short spurts on his television screen.

Taken together, it provides a nice profile on Gryce and makes me want to dig out the albums he did with Lee Morgan or hunt down the Prestige albums done under his own leadership.

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