Booker Ervin and other “underrated” saxophonists

April 28th, 2015


I got caught up into listening to Booker Ervin this morning, and was reminded about my first experience listening to him as a leader — on a big band session he led called Booker ‘n’ Brass,  a 1967 Pacific Jazz recording that has found its way to my turntable for the first time in probably 25 years.   Forty-eight years since its recording,  Ervin’s crisp attack over the top of the stalwart Teddy Edwards-led band on songs like “St. Louis Blues,” “Baltimore Oriole,” and “Harlem Nocturne” sounds as good as it did when I first discovered this record in a Portland used record shop for $2.99 , c. 1980.

Getting into Ervin again reminds me of a conversation I hosted in January, 2004, with the most eminent jazz critic of his era, Gary Giddins, who shared his thoughts with me in a three part series regarding the jazz musicians he deemed as being “underrated.”  Here is the part where he talks about underrated saxophonists, which includes Ervin:

JJM Shall we move on to the saxophone?

GG Good heavens, where do you start? Since I mentioned Charlie Rouse in my column, we may as well begin with him. The thing with Rouse, Paul Gonsalves and George Coleman — three tenor players I have always admired and who were very much criticized in the sixties — is that they all had the same career problem, which is that they came into a famous band replacing a legendary figure. Rouse joined Thelonious Monk’s band after Coltrane left, and he was sort of dismissed for not having the impact or excitement that Coltrane generated. But Rouse brought something else to Monk’s band — an incredibly sonorous empathy with the sound of Monk’s piano. I love the way the tenor blends in with the keyboard, in a way Monk never quite accomplished with Coltrane or Sonny Rollins. And Rouse’s cautious, step-by-step way of evolving a solo fits in perfectly with the structure of Monk’s compositions. I think that people are going back to Monk’s Columbia recordings, now that they are being reissued, and marveling at what a good player Rouse is.

When I was in high school, I was trying to convince a friend who would only listen to Dave Brubeck to check out Monk. Finally, he went out and bought a Columbia album called Monk. It was an album with a gray and black cover and a picture of Monk’s face with just the word “Monk.” It’s a quartet record, but there was no personnel listening. So if you bought it cold you wouldn’t know who was on it or who played what. He called me up that night and said, “You know, you were right. That it is an incredible, fantastic album. And I also think the piano player is great!” He just assumed the leader was the saxophonist. Rouse is such an appealing player and I loved when he cropped up as a sideman on various sessions in the late fifties and sixties on Blue Note or Epic. Whatever label or context, his sound is distinctive.

The same thing happened with George Coleman. While Miles Davis tried out many tenors — including Jimmy Heath and Sam Rivers — ultimately Coleman got the job. And he wasn’t as provocative as Tony Williams, nor did he possess the virtuosity of Ron Carter or Herbie Hancock. His solos were a bit long and compared to Miles especially, they lacked pith. When Wayne Shorter came in after Coleman, everybody said now the band is great, and Shorter was regaled for good reason. It was a great decision on Miles’s part because Shorter changed the whole sound of the band with his compositions and his approach on tenor. But go back to the 1964 album My Funny Valentine, which is one of my favorite Miles Davis recordings. Coleman’s playing on it is stunning. He is superb, completely “in the pocket.” The other great record that, mysteriously, Columbia hasn’t reissued, is Miles in Europe, which was the first Miles record I ever bought. It came out in 1963, the first quintet album with the trio of Herbie, Ron and Tony. Williams plays an unbelievable solo on “Walkin’,” one of his great moments on record, and one that really kicked off his career. Yet the LP was never reissued in this country, and I am pretty sure it has never been on CD.

JJM How would you characterize Coleman’s solo career?

GG Coleman has had an interesting career following his work with Miles. He put together an octet at a place called Boomers, an unusual thing to do in the seventies. This was before David Murray put together his octet, and it wasn’t common for a saxophonist to walk away from the usual quartet or quintet setting to favor headier voicings. He created a tremendous relationship with another very underrated musician, the pianist Harold Mabern. They both came from Memphis and are now New York mainstays. There are years when it seems like not a month goes by when you can’t find Coleman or Mabern or the two together playing at a club in New York. I think that when that happens, people tend to take them for granted. Johnny Griffin — another neglected tenor saxophonist — once remarked that the reason he continued to live in Europe following his comeback was because in the United States, they are glad to see you come down the street every six months; in Europe, they are glad to see you every day. And that’s the way it works on the club circuit. You are lucky to work in a major New York club twice a year. Art Blakey used to play one week uptown and the next week downtown — he was always working — and after a while he was bringing in tourists and kids on dates who viewed his playing as background music. Eventually the ardent enthusiasts began to take even Blakey for granted.

JJM And the third saxophonist, Paul Gonsalves……

GG Gonsalves was in the Ellington band and basically took over a seat that had been established by Ben Webster, the first tenor that Ellington ever hired full time. There had been a couple of others — Al Sears, for one — but they didn’t make much of an impression. Gonsalves became hugely famous at Newport in 1956 with his twenty-six or twenty-seven chorus solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” and ever after, Ellington introduced him as the “Hero of the Newport Jazz Festival.” But Paul was a very easy going guy, and a drinker, and he wasn’t somebody who was going to go out and make his way as a leader. He had no interest in that. While he made some very pleasant records as a leader — especially with Ray Nance, with whom he was close — his key work is with Ellington, same as Johnny Hodges, only more so. Listen to the way he plays through the theme on the first track of Far East Suite, “A Tourist’s Point of View,” or in the adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, his sound, his concept, the notes he chooses, the sustained bravura are remarkable. Coiled yet mellow, like blue smoke. Ellington had him completely nailed and he used him in a way that allowed Paul complete freedom, so that you feel nobody else could play the role quite like him. He was marvelous. The pianist Brooks Kerr introduced us one night during the seventies, and I had the pleasure of having a drink with Paul. He could really put it away, but it just kept him mellow, a really lovely man. I had such a great time hanging out with him for a couple of hours. I love his music. When David Murray started talking about him, people began to pay more attention, but he never got his due when he was alive.

Now if you really want to get into the underrated underrated, consider a player who to my knowledge has never made an album under his own name — and most people who are reading this will not know who I’m talking about — Kenny Hing, who has been with the Count Basie band for many years. He started during the last ten or so years of Basie’s life and just kept with it. He is a short little guy who plays in the Paul Gonsalves manner, and I have always liked his work. For a while Jimmy Forrest was there at the same time, and was the star tenor. He got all the solos and the applause, and he earned them. But every time Hing stands up, it’s a gas because you’re hearing a guy who hasn’t forgotten nuance and color.

And we haven’t talked about the Kenny Dorham of the tenor, Hank Mobley, a player’s player who shone with Miles, Silver, Blakey, and made so many splendid albums on his own — The Turnaround, No Room for Squares, Workout, A Caddy for Daddy — calmly swinging, inventive gems, filled with his own very clever tunes. Soul Station, though, is the one I return to most often, just Mobley and the ideal rhythm section, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Blakey. No matter how familiar the material, ballads and especially blues, he gives it is fresh turn of phrase. “This I Dig of You” – man! I never got to see him live, a big regret.

Another tenor player I think is terrific, who is on the scene now and is better known among musicians than the public, is Ralph Lalama. Every time he stands up you are really hear something. He’s an old-fashioned, dig-in-your-heels-and-play kind of musician. I remember him one night at the Vanguard when I thought he cut Joe Lovano pretty good. Clifford Jordan is another player who never got the attention he deserved, even when he started his own big band. He had a very distinctive style and tone. And I think I mentioned Dave Liebman earlier. My problem with him is that I prefer him on tenor, whereas he obviously prefers himself on soprano. I have a similar thing about Donald Harrison, who moves me on tenor in a way he rarely does on alto, his preferred instrument. When Liebman first came along, he was in Coltrane’s shadow, but he has pushed himself out as if by an act of will. I think park of the thing is that he has never denied Coltrane’s impact. I mean, one of the most exciting performances I ever heard by him was a few years ago when he played A Love Supreme. For a while he was into pastoral themes that put me to sleep, but his recent work is just fraught with compositional ambition — you feel like you’re hearing someone uncover strengths he didn’t know he had. I don’t know what the quintessential Liebman album would be, if there is one, there’s so much out there, but digging through a oeuvre like that is precisely what makes jazz criticism such a stimulating field.

JJM You told a story earlier about turning a buddy onto a Monk album, and how he came away thinking that the sax player — Charlie Rouse — was the leader. I admit to having that experience as a young fan of jazz with Charles Mingus. While I had heard of Mingus, I didn’t know much about him, and after listening to a record of his, I was under the impression that the saxophonist, Booker Ervin, was the leader of the group.

GG Yes, I have to say that Booker Ervin is one of my absolute favorite players of all time. I love his playing. I love the fact that you know it’s him after two notes. There is no more distinctive player than Booker Ervin. I wouldn’t say he is more distinctive than Coltrane or Rollins or Lester Young or Hawkins, but he is every bit as distinctive. Nor would I say that he is as great as them, and I wouldn’t say that in his overall conception he is as original, and yet he is completely himself. He began as a trombonist, and I often get the feeling he’s playing trombone on a tenor sax. He comes as close to that echoey, sliding, engulfing sound as you can get on tenor, and his vitality is relentless. I like everything he did, but if I had to pick one album it would be The Space Book. “Number Two” makes he laugh out loud as the sheer relentlessness. It is not avant-garde jazz — he’s playing changes — yet it has the kind of freedom and velocity you might associate with Coltrane’s “Chasin’ the Trane,” though Booker didn’t sound anything like Trane. He was one of the few tenors of his generation who didn’t. Then he wraps himself around “I Can’t Get Started” with an ardor that’s almost palpable — it’s a swooning performance. After George Tucker, the bassist on the Jaki Byard Live at Lennie’s albums, died, Booker delivered himself of a twenty minute rant called “The Trance,” a sustained cri de couer. But he outdid even that in 1965 at a festival in Berlin with a piece, nearly half an hour long, issued after his death on Lament for Booker Ervin. Someone told me that the stage manager at the Berlin concert became abusive trying to get him to stop, but the audience loved it. Booker’s stuff with Mingus is wonderful, and he recorded beautifully with Ted Curson, Booker Little, and others, but I think his best collaboration was with Jaki Byard on the Prestige albums conceived by Don Schlitten as the “Book” series. It was strictly a studio concept. Like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, the quartet never played in a club. Alan Dawson, who was Tony Williams’s teacher and another “musicians’ musician,” was the drummer, plus Richard Davis, who Stravinsky once called his favorite bass player, and the incomparable Byard.

JJM I loved his Booker ‘n Brass album on Pacific Jazz. Do you remember that?

GG That is the one where he does the Peggy Lee thing, I Left My Heart in Salt Lake City. Oh yes, that’s a wild album, an attempt to make him commercial. But the choice of tunes is so far out. I think Teddy Edwards wrote the charts, didn’t he?

JJM Boy, I don’t recall. I bet it has been twenty years since I played it.

GG It’s been a while since I played that too.

JJM That album not only got me more into Booker Ervin’s music, but more into jazz as well.

GG How interesting that of all people to get you deeper into jazz it was Booker Ervin, because he was so underrated in the sixties. The last time I can remember him playing in New York was when he was working as a sideman in Ted Curson’s quintet at a little mob-controlled joint in the Lincoln Center district called La Boheme. Everybody was talking about Coltrane and Shorter and Rollins and the big guns, and Ervin was really something of a cult figure. Those Prestige records were hardly best sellers. He made a record with Curson called Urge, a quartet album that is a collector’s item because you can’t find it. I don’t think it has ever even been on CD, but it’s a helluva thing. He died in 1970 —not yet forty.

JJM Jackie McLean strikes me as someone who may be termed underrated……

GG Well, I’ve actually written a lot about Jackie. He’s another of my favorites and I covered his return to New York, after he has been teaching for several years in New England. He came back to play at the reconverted Five Spot, which existed for a couple of years in the early to middle seventies. At the time, he was staying at his mother’s place, a sunny upper West Side apartment overlooking the Hudson River. I went there to interview him and I remember that every surface had a reed hanging over the edge. He was choosing the right one for his opening. That night I arrived toward the end of the first set and he waved me over and, while the pianist was soloing, told me that he wanted to show me something unbelievable. So when the set ended, he came over and said, “Look at this!” He showed me the mouthpiece of his alto, and the reed had a gash with a good quarter of an inch of wood missing. Most people would have a hard time getting any sound out of a reed instrument with that much reed gone. And he had just played an entire solo without even realizing it — he was glowing about it.

He was one of bop’s “Young Turks,” started recording in his teens, like Sonny Rollins, who was a couple of years older. They came up around the same time in Harlem, chasing after Bird, learning the music and making it a part of themselves. And the beauty of it is that they weren’t imitating anybody. Jackie, from the time he came on the scene, was playing like Jackie. Sonny, from the time he started recording at nineteen, was playing like Sonny. Even Stan Getz started out sounding like Dexter Gordon, but not these guys. To me, that is one of the great generations in jazz. I love Jackie’s playing with Mingus, but for me he really hits his stride with the Blue Note records he did with Grachan Moncur, Destination Out, and the quartet album Let Freedom Ring. Almost everything he did in that period is exceptional, as is much that followed.

Another great alto player was Sonny Criss, a cult figure of sorts who ended up a suicide. I don’t know why he never got the attention, but I suppose it is because he made his comeback recording for Prestige in the late sixties, a time when jazz itself was not getting attention. All of the albums he made for Prestige are worth looking for, but the masterpiece is Up Up and Away, which includes “Willow Weep For Me” and a surprisingly dulcet duet with Cedar Walton on “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. He originally recorded “Willow” for Vee Jay or one of the smaller labels, with Barney Kessel on guitar, and it was a fair performance — there are better things on that album. But when he re-did it on Prestige, he knocked it out of the park, a deeply felt, perfectly gauged performance, with a magnificent flourishing cadenza at the end, parsed with blues notes top to bottom.




Gary Giddins



Read the entire interview, and search for “Gary Giddins” for many more of my “Conversations with Gary Giddins”

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4 comments on “Booker Ervin and other “underrated” saxophonists”

  1. This is the conversation we should be enjoying since the the music is being relegated to the music dustbin.Sad.Love real jazz like no other art form.The greatest era was during the late 1940’s thru mid 1970’s in my humble opinion.Thank you providing this platform.

  2. This is the conversation we should be enjoying since the the music is being relegated to the music dustbin.Sad.Love real jazz like no other art form.The greatest era was during the late 1940’s thru mid 1970’s in my humble opinion.Thank you providing this platform.

    1. Thanks, Charles…Be on the lookout for an interview with Gary Giddins on his new biography of Bing Crosby, “Swinging on a Star.” Should be published on Jerry Jazz Musician November 1, which is also when the book is published. Cheers!

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