It is often said that planned parties never quite attain the enthusiasm, informality, and genuine feeling that spur of the moment get togethers among friends can generate. The party whose good conversational results you will find recorded on this disc falls somewhere in between the premeditated and the spontaneous, for all the men heard herein were indeed asked to attend. But the idea of making in one evening's time an entire jazz instrumental album was the furthest from anyone's intentions; the group was in fact assembled with the purpose of providing a jazz backing for a Les McCann vocal album.
Suffice it to say that during a "pre-game" warm-up session the glowing inspirational fire that is Ben Webster and the resultant melding of the musical feeling and intent of the other guests demanded a slight postponement of the formal proceedings. It was McCann who was most vociferous in proclaiming the necessity of getting the unexpectedly good things down on tape. And so a formally conceived party became spontaneously a very warm and, I think, rather poignant session.
"Groove," the simple title of this recording not only classifies the musical results of the session succinctly but is the nickname of one RICHARD HOLMES, an organist, the introduction of whom is the main formal purpose of the recording. Thirty year old "Groove" is a native of Camden, New Jersey, but grew up chronologically as well as musically in Philadelphia. Holmes is without any formal musical training, he tells me, and ironically enough, although that used to be considered a part of the public's definition of a jazzman, it is rather of uncommon occurrence these days. Especially would it seem unlikely to be the case with an organist--not a pianist who plays the keyboards of an organ, but a musician who operates on the several aspects of that instrument's expressional spectrum. Impressive is "Groove's" use of the pedals with superb touch and his musical knowledge of just what a bass line is supposed to provide to a jazz group. Most untrained organists tend to "take over" with the pedals, losing control of the gigantic strength of the organ and effectively drowning the other musicians in a shuddering mass of low frequency rumbling. Not "Groove": he comes close to providing a bass pedal line that could put even a good string bassist out of business. Then too, I have noted a tendency among jazz organists to sooner or later become involved in showing us "just what this big one is capable of," which is usually an immane feeling of preciosity and exaggerated tonal impurity. But whether it is due to the influence of his fello0w musicians here or to his own wise conservatism, "Groove" avoids nearly all the pitfalls of novelty inherent in the organ and plays sparely with straightforwardness.
Richard Holmes was discovered playing in Pittsburgh by Les McCann on the latter's recent excursion in the east. Les was so impressed by Holmes that he indicated to him that his services would be appreciated at Pacific Jazz. He also expressed his feelings to Dick Bock, Pacific prexy, who invited "Groove" to Los Angeles where he is currently seeing club action at "The Bit" and "The Black Orchid" and causing much talk among fellow musicians.
This introduction by LES McCANN of new talent Holmes contains an abundance of other talent, both old and new, not the least of which is Les's own piano. To this writer Les has never before sounded so beautifully relaxed and warmly swinging a jazzman as he does here. His lines remain clean, his conception free and direct, and he contributes a good tune, "That Healin' Feelin'!"
The album for me represents something more than a swinging session and an introduction for Richard Holmes. It is perhaps more importantly, in the overall picture, a beautiful recording of a giant jazzman--BEN WEBSTER. What do we imply by the word giant, in jazz?--what does it mean?--certainly much more than technical excellence, more than originality or even inventiveness. Two characteristics of nearly all giants in jazz that tenor saxophonist Webster beautifully reveals are a high level consistency of performance (or maturity, really) and an ability to pick up his fellow jazzmen and transform their talents into bigger than life representations of themselves. It was as you might suspect one of the longtime ambitions of Les McCann to record with Ben Webster, while Ben himself has longed to link his tenor with the sound of an organ in the way you will hear it here. As usual Ben is specially moving and logical on the ballad, Deep Purple. How perfectly simple and beautiful is his statement there! And how unbelievably frank and earthy can he be elsewhere without the use of one, not one, current or past cliché of soul.
As for the other three performers: LAWRENCE "TRICKY" LOFTON, is a native of Houston, Texas, where he was born May 28, 1930. "Tricky," who gets his nickname not from musical characteristics but from his caginess on the basketball court (pun intended), began playing trombone in high school and has operated musically until now largely in rhythm and blues company such as that of Joe Liggins, Bill doggett, Joe Turner, and T-Bone Walker. After coming to Los Angeles in 1946, he saw army service and resettled here in 1953. Though he informs me he has listened most to J. J. Johnson, whose speed and facility he findsespecially inspiring, he also admires the work of Jimmy Cleveland, Curtis Fuller, and Bill Harris. It is to the playing of the latter that I would personally liken that of Lofton. "Tricky," as you will discover, deals not in suavity and gentle beguiling speed on the trombone but speaks his message in a large dark-toned sound that has strangely not found favor among many other modern tramists--who often behave as if someone were forcing them to play the admittedly clumsy horn and they were going to do their damnedest to make it a lightly flowing albeit brass bound counterpart of a saxophone. It is because of his Harris-qualities that "Tricky's" playing harks even further back into the past of jazz, when such men as Roy Palmer, Kid Ory and others would have no more thought of obtunding the gruff stirring qualities of the horn than they would have thought of playing in an emotional fashion that covered their true feelings. Incidentally, both "Groove" Holmes and Mr. Lofton are due for further exposure on Pacific Jazz in the near future.
The sextet is rounded out by the solid rhythmic support of RON JEFFERSON, Les McCann Ltd.'s drummer, and guitarist GEORGE FREEMAN (brother of drummer Bruz Freeman) who contributes a romping bluesy solo on Healin' that I found stimulating.
Because of a lack of pre-planning for this session, the tunes as the critics say (and will say) are mostly slight lines serving only to launch the blowing. That this is nor necessarily a bad quality at all will be evident. As a matter of fact, in the spirit of simplicity and honesty with which this session is imbued more complicated charts might have gotten in the way. Ray Charles' Them That's Got is a favorite of McCann's who suggested its performance. Les's That Healin' Feelin' is perfectly representative of the esthetic philosophy embodied in his jazz conception (maybe I've got things backwards but the tune also reminds me much of the things Mose Allison does so successfully). Besides the little done standard "Deep Purple" where Webster's playing is worth the price of the record, there is an original line by "Groove" that, as intended, effectively propel the men into a deeply swinging performance--hear "Tricky's" "let's not waste notes" pronouncements on Good Groove.
As I write these last few words on a coolish April afternoon, I'm on my seventh listening of the album and I just heard Ben Webster do something on Deep Purple that I don't remember the first six times. And I suspect that sort of thing will continue to happen through at least a couple of dozen playings. It just gets better and better, as all good jazz performances and all good things do.
-- John William Hardy