Saturday, April 21, 2018

I'm On A Bud Shank Kick

It's hard to say exactly what inspired it, but I've been on a bit of a kick for Bud Shank, the late alto saxophonist. The year did start out with me being on a Charlie Parker kick, which has continued through a few other alto players. But the current feeling could also be a byproduct of reading about the push away from CDs back to vinyl, which had me thinking more about hearing this music in the format in which it originally appeared. 

Back also in February, I picked up two albums on Pacific Jazz, one by bass trumpeter Cy Touff and the other a meeting of Chico Hamilton, Jim Hall, John Lewis, Percy Heath and Bill Perkins called 2° East 3° West. Maybe that's why I started wandering around Discogs and started looking at Shank albums. Or maybe it was the write-up about the long out-of-print Mosaic box that compiled all of Bud's early Pacific Jazz albums. It could be all of that, combined with the idea of communing a little with my dad, the person (along with my mom, of course) who first placed Bud in my world. 

Whatever the reason, I pulled out Jazz at Cal-Tech (a live album with saxophonist Bob Cooper which includes an especially rambunctious Chuck Flores on drums) and wanted to hear more of his early stuff. Some of it might be available for streaming, but my idea of new musical discovery doesn't include being strapped to a chair in front of a computer while listening. Purchasing a copy of the Mosaic box seemed a little cost prohibitive. I started trying to figure out how many albums from the set that I already had and tried to do the math and figure out what else would complete it. (The set doesn't have much in the way of alternate takes so it wouldn't be as if I"m missing out on rarities.)

While thinking about this post, I almost forgot that I've already written appreciations of Bud around the time that he died. Here is one of them, which references another one that I had written a few days before. So there's the context. Musically, it starts with these two 10" records, borrowed from my folks collection. 

The quintet session is a pretty good set, with six tunes penned by Shorty Rogers. One impressive thing about these early albums is that Shank didn't rely heavily on the typical mix of blues, ballads and standards. (More on that later.) Rogers' writing also attempts to move beyond the standard harmonic changes. "Shanks Pranks" and "Casa De Luz" might not be standards-in-waiting, but they do stick in your head after. The horns play unison melodies on several of them, which avoids a thin alto/trumpet blend in favor of a sort of thick sound, thanks to Rogers' use of a fluegelhorn. This session was later reissued on Pacific Jazz on a 12" album with another quintet date with saxophonist Bill Perkins. I bought a copy of it off of eBay that was pretty beat up (one song gets stuck in the groove!), which made me wary of albums rated G+ after that. When this Shank kick started rolling, I found a replacement copy locally for cheap that was in much better shape.

Somewhere in my house, I had a cassette dub of Bud Shank and Three Trombones but I was determined to hear the vinyl again, which led to a search through my mom's house. (It took a while but I finally uncovered it.) Bob Cooper doesn't play on it, but he handled the arrangements, and penned most of the tunes. The 'bones are played by Stu Williamson, Bob Enevoldson and Maynard "What Happened to My Trumpet" Ferguson. It's also an upbeat session, full of that West Coast/Birth of the Cool-inspired sororities. The version of "You Don't Know What Love Is" has a really mysterious, dark feel to it. Pity that the folks' record gets stuck during that song too!

It was good to hear those records again but I wanted more. One copy of Bud Shank Plays Tenor had been sitting on Discogs awhile, for $17. A review on called it a nice album, but no great shakes. I frequently went onto Discogs to see it if was still there, and imagined owning it someday. But a few weeks ago, having a nice paycheck from a new job - and seeing a copy in similar condition fetch $90 in an auction - I took the plunge. The record and cover were in great shape, a little worn but in a way that added character to it rather than distracting from it.

This time around, Bud pulled out the standards book, playing classics like "All The Things You Are," "Thou Swell" and "Body and Soul." His regular quartet of Flores, Claude Williamson (piano) and Dave Prell (bass) back him up. Shank's approach to tenor draws on the same type of sprightly melodic attack that can be heard in his alto playing at that time. It's sort of a cool Lester Young-based approach, maybe like Stan Getz without the smoky quality.

On "Body and Soul," a song already done umpteen times prior to this session (1960), he begins by embellishing the melody instead of stating it plainly. By the final section of the chorus, he's stated enough theme to improvise off of it. Williamson's solo has some lounge-y glissandos, but he balances that with some heavy chord articulations too. Around this time, Shank was making albums with Bob Cooper where both put down their saxophones in favor of flute and English horn, respectively, which came to epitomize the lightness of West Coast jazz. (Though having heard some of those albums, they aren't half-bad in retrospect.) Plays Tenor might not be heavy but the melodic swath of Shank's playing isn't lightweight either.

Bud Shank Quartet represents a pinnacle in both the Shank PJ catalog and in the collection overall. The above picture shows how William Claxton's photo of Shank laying on the Sunday comics was used on the original album and how it was re-appropriated (bastardized, perhaps) on a reissue years later. (For a personal story about the latter album, see one of the previous posts linked above.) In some ways, the cover shows how beautifully visual and musical art were coming together in the late 1950s as long playing records were becoming the standard in jazz music.

The album actually came out prior to the Tenor album but my copy just arrived this week, following the other album. It showed a few more surprises that the quartet was taking. Shank played flute on the 10" session with Shorty Rogers, but here he opens the album with flute version of "A Night In Tunisia" which really shows off his chops on the instrument. On a few tracks he plays both flute and alto, demonstrating his ear for sonic shifts within the music. Further, Williamson's "Tertia" is a three-part suite with a slow beginning, a walking blues and a rapid closing. "All Of You" begins slow for the theme, only to cut into an upbeat tempo. Ravel's "Lamp is Low" begins perhaps esoterically with the flute bringing out its classical origins, but it moves into a blowing section with the alto back in place, ready for action. While there are only two originals out of eight tracks (both by Williamson), the approach to the music continues to show fresh approaches that Shank was taking with his material.

Shank of course had a very long and varied career. When he had a crossover hit (with Chet Baker) of the Beatles' "Michelle," it started him on a more commercial path that led to things like California Dreaming, an album I lifted from my parents but still haven't had the guts to play. Along with that came Magical Mystery (which I owned briefly) and A Spoonful of Jazz (yes, Lovin' Spoonful songs, which has been described as being only for the diehard Shank completist). During the '80s, after several albums with the L.A.4, which Shank and Ray Brown admittedly formed to play more accessible (aka lighter) jazz, Shank stopped playing flute altogether and came back as a bopper, with more weight to his sound than he had shown in the early days.

There are still a few other Shank albums on PJ from that late '50s/early /60s period that I'm hunting for. Another quartet session with essentially the same name (with a drawing of Bud on the cover) has been seen on a few sites in various conditions, for somewhat decent prices.  About half of that appears on I Hear Music, but when you hear it in the original form, the way it was meant to be heard, it can heighten your perspective on the session.

New Groove, on which trumpeter Carmell Jones (who later played on Horace Silver's Song for My Father), seems to be the most coveted Shank album from that era, with copies few and far between. Plus there's also a 10" that Shank did with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and a string section. That could go either way and it later appeared on the Mosaic Select box, along with the Shank/Bob Cooper sessions. If I really want to hear it again, I could just check it out of the library.

But there's always the lure of the affordable Pacific Jazz originals, which can take me back to those early days of West Coast jazz. When I get hold of an original, part of the tactile experience is knowing that I'm holding an album that was once heard by someone right after it came out, when all of this music was new.

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