Wednesday, October 26, 2016

CD Review: Blue Mitchell & Sonny Red - Baltimore 1966

Blue Mitchell & Sonny Red
Baltimore 1966

The New Thing might have been happening all over New York City in 1966, but 180 miles away in Baltimore, the Left Bank Jazz Society kept things straight and hard swinging. History shows that John Coltrane would make his final public performance with the Society a little more than a year later, but by and large the Society hosted groups like the quintet fronted by trumpeter Blue Mitchell and alto saxophonist Sonny Red.

Mitchell played with a bright tone that took inspiration from Clifford Brown. Not quite as fiery as Freddie Hubbard or groundbreaking a soloist or composer as Lee Morgan, perhaps, he still blew with a good deal of power. After playing with Horace Silver's quintet on albums like Song for My Father, Mitchell released several albums for Blue Note during this time that fit in firmly with the label's post-Sidewinder sound.

Sonny Red, born Sylvester Kyner in Detroit, also recorded one album for Blue Note and a few for Jazzland, but never achieved even mid-level notoriety beyond the jazz connoisseurs. (My first exposure to him came with a questionable live CD by Bobby Timmons in the '90s.) It's a shame because, as this performance shows, Red was clearly coming out of the Charlie Parker mold but working beyond that template, putting on an exciting performance as he went.

With John Hicks (piano), Gene Taylor (bass, also of the same Silver group as Mitchell) and Joe Chambers (drums) in the rhythm section, this quintet was clearly having a good time on March 20 of that year. Only one of the five tracks lasts less than 10 minutes, with two surpassing fourteen. In Jimmy Heath's "All Members," Mitchell still sounds like he's warming up, staying largely in the mid-range of his horn. Hicks, who would go on to play with people like David Murray, sticks to chords in the left hand here and throughout the night, feeding Powell-esque ideas to his right hand. But Red's slashing lines pump this up and Chambers plays several machine gun drum rolls and makes his crash cymbal ring like a bell. Everyone must have inspired Mitchell because a song later, in his calypso "Fungii Mama," he plays some squirts and explores some choice riffs. His energy keeps increasing with each track too.

Red's alto has a beefy tone, with a thickness similar to Cannonball Adderley. Throughout the evening, he throws some outlandish quotes into his solos. In "All Members" he references Raymond Scott's "The Toy Trumpet," while he borrows from Horace Silver in "Fungii Mama." "I Can't Get Started," the altoist's solo piece, includes snatches of  "I Get Along Without You Very Well" (twice), "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "Irish Washerwoman" which seemed to be a staple of hard boppers. While excessive quotes can get bothersome, it should be noted that Red is adding these to a lengthy solo, which he shifts into double-time, as something of a bridge between his own ideas, so they don't quite come off sounding hokey.

The disc ends with another ballad, with Mitchell getting featured on Nat "King" Cole's "Portrait of Jennie" (spelled "Jenny" here). Chambers sits this one out, but Taylor adds bounce to it and keeps it flowing, inspiring some more bright Blue lines, including a half-valve squawk. While live sets usually conclude with a rousing piece designed to bring the audience to their feet, Baltimore 1966 does the complete opposite, ending gently. But we're left feeling that this band of seemingly diverse players (if you look at the directions in which they all went) created something greater than the sum of their parts, so a big ending is not necessary. Uptown has continually unearthed "lost" performances where on any random night. as tapes were rolling, a band might have been simply working a gig, or they might have really lifted the bandstand. This one belongs in the latter category.

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