GERRY MULLIGAN AND BEN WEBSTER Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (Speakers Corner)
This 1959 recording captures the duelling saxophones of Mulligan and Webster. If the sleevenotes and my ears are aligned correctly, Ben's tenor is responsible for the smoky sound coming from the right channel that almost sounds like he's gently exhaling his musical ideas into the listener's head. However, for all the pleasant, gentle sounds the duo fashion, is it really the cleverest idea to begin an album with a tune ("Chelsea Bridge") that makes you settle down and sit back? It's mid-paced, it's inoffensive, it's a little too close to bland for my liking. Second track "The Cat Walk" does nothing to ameliorate this impression.
Proceedings perk up somewhat with "Sunday", but Ben's still breathy and the rhythm section might as well be in the next room. "Who's Got Rhythm" maintains the perkiness, but by this point it becomes impossible to dispense with the notion that the sequencing of this album is seriously screwy, the pace starting slowly and speeding up, as much as it ever does, towards the centre. "Tell Me When" cools things down again, and maybe suggests that there might be something inherently soporific about a two sax frontline, at least when the instruments are played by these gentlemen.
No matter what charges might be levelled against the music. this is another cracking good Speakers Corner reissue, with sumptuously authentic packaging and fine-sounding vinyl.
GERRY MULLIGAN AND THE CONCERT JAZZ BAND At The Village Vanguard (Speakers Corner)
Having been somewhat underwhelmed by the soporific sounds of Gerry Mulligan in combination with Ben Webster, I'm pleased to report that this live recording is an entirely different animal altogether.
Taped during a productive Sunday afternoon at the titular venue during December 1960, it's positively jumping from the first. Album opener "Blueport" is the highlight for me: almost shockingly punchy in places, it's edge-of-the-seat thrilling throughout. The 13-piece band sound a bit like one of Mingus' similarly-sized ensembles, and if they lack the latter's ragged, experimental age their music is still loaded with quicksilver, fleet-footed exchanges and interplay. "Body And Soul" is almost a living, breathing thing in the way it rises and falls; "Black Nightgown" has a "Pink Panther"-theme perkiness. "Lady Chatterley's Mother" reminds me, initially at least, of festive perennial "Sleigh Ride", and whilst its glitzy, blaring arrangement wouldn't normally be my sort of thing here it's witty, nimble and charming, in its way.
Speakers Corner have, with boring predictability, turned in another well-pressed, well-packaged, fine-sounding and not heinously expensive vinyl reissue here.
THE GERRY MULLIGAN QUARTET What Is There To Say? (Wax Time)
The kind of slow, breathy sensuality with which I associate Gerry Mulligan’s saxophone playing is apparent from the opening moments of “What Is There To Say?”, both song and album. His swaying musicianship finds perfect foils in Art Farmer’s similarly husky trumpetry and Dave Bailey’s brushed drums. There’s nothing jarring or unsettling about the album’s gentle perambulations around the standards “Just In Time” and “My Funny Valentine”, but “News From Blueport” offers more in the way of brass blazing, snare-rustling attack. If the quartet’s “Blueport” lacks the bottled lightning kinetic electricity of the version found on “Gerry Mulligan And The Concert Jazz Band At The Village Vanguard”, it’s perhaps excusable given that they’re nine musicians down. “Utter Chaos”, though, is something of a misnomer, being a bluesy amble that, to my ears, sneaks in a quote from “Sweet And Lovely”, rather than the acrid free jazz jam shred that might be anticipated from its title.This reissue cleverly combines two things that I’m wary about when buying vinyl. Firstly, there’s that generic black and gold 180 gram “The Nicest Thing You Can Do For Your Stylus And Your Ears” sticker on the shrinkwrap. When Sundazed seemed to be the only company using it back of the day it was a trademark of quality, but since seemingly being appropriated by numerous purveyors of shabby slabs of vinyl it’s become more of a warning sign. Secondly, WaxTime’s catalogue appears to be formed entirely from recordings more than 50 years old, which, combined with the lack of contact details or comprehensive copyright information in the packaging, suggests a company exploiting public domain material taken from undisclosed sources. It might be legal, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s moral. The quality of such releases seems to vary so wildly that they can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis: Doxy’s “Here’s Little Richard”, for example, might be the most atrocious-sounding record I own, seemingly mastered down a telephone, yet their “Brilliant Corners” is, if not quite brilliant, certainly pretty good. WaxTime have done a reasonable job with “What Is There To Say?” The pressing is clean, flat and quiet – with the exception of adding an extra one between Mulligan’s spoken introduction to the bonus live version of the title track and the music itself, my hard drive recorder put all the track marks in the right places when I was needledropping it, which is usually a sign of a decent pressing. A logo on the back cover boasts of the use of DMM and an “Original George Neumann Cutting System”, but there’s no indication of where it was pressed. (You’d think any plant capable of producing vinyl as competently as this would want to advertise the fact.) There’s a little surface noise and some pre-echo, but neither are distracting. The music sounds alright too, but no better. I’ve got some of Speakers Corner’s Mulligan reissues, which are adept at creating the illusion of real musicians playing music – the aforementioned “Live At The Village Vanguard” in particular has some phenomenal moments. WaxTime’s “What Is There To Say?”, however, seems to present a series of animated cardboard cutouts rather than actual musicians. If there were a Speakers Corner or Pure Pleasure issue of “What Is There To Say?” I have no hesitation in suggesting it would stomp the sonics out of the article currently under consideration. But there isn’t, and that’s what value these public domain labels have, if any; they’re filling gaps in the market for those of us who must have factory-fresh pressings of this material. In that context, on this showing, Wax Time’s work is better than many in this field.