Dizzy Gillespie had one of the greatest careers in jazz. And of those storied careers, his was maybe the longest. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were active from the 1920s through the 1970s, but Gillespie started just ten years later and kept playing for 20 more, giving him almost 60 years in a business not known for longevity.
In all that amazing work, Gillespie made too few terrific albums, solid recordings that we remember for their concept or their coherence. Maybe this was because he was such a passionately committed live performer, or maybe this was because his working bands from the mid-1960s onward were not as stellar as his earlier bands.
But he had a productive relationship with Norman Granz’s Pablo Records in the 1970s that put him in the studio with some superb peers, and 1974 found him recording a truly wonderful one-off with guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Ray Brown, and Mickey Roker on drums. Dubbed Dizzy’s Big 4 this band fit the 57 year-old master like a glove. Diz himself was still playing beautifully at the time, sly and quick and with harmonic adventure, and this recording has stuck around as one of his mid-career classics.
The current reissue of Dizzy’s Big 4 adds two alternate takes to the seven original tracks, and it’s great to have this music back for the ears to enjoy.
Dizzy’s Big 4 is so much fun because it presents Gillespie in a new context: a piano-less small band that matched him against a virtuoso guitarist who approached the date with subtlety. Joe Pass, who could be a show-off of a bebop player when he wanted to be, is not just quiet but also sly here. He plays jaunty and constantly shifting accompaniment throughout, giving the trumpeter just enough material to work against but also allowing Brown and Roker room to be heard. As a result, Gillespie is given a dancing but minimal bed on which to bounce. In essence, Dizzy’s Big 4 lets the Diz play in the most playful way. And that’s great.
The opener, Dizzy’s “Frelimo”, has the leader playing the head with a tight Harmon mute, which leads to a solo that sounds like charcoal etched on paper – crisp and clear but also shaded. After the rhythm section takes a turn soloing, Diz comes back on the open horn, bust just briefly before playing the muted melody again. Pass barely solos at all, but his playing is fresh and inventive still, filling just enough of the cracks around the trumpet work.
The center of the record is a pair of Gillespie classics that let this band cook. They play “Bebop” at a tempo that really shouldn’t be possible. Pass, with just the bass and drums beneath him, sounds gloriously swinging, tearing off runs that are not academic or overly practiced. When the trumpet takes over, things get even better, as Pass can comment on Dizzy’s high-wire act as it happens, and this seems to inspire Roker to stir the pot even more. The fact that there is no piano hemming things in more seems to give Gillespie more command and control. The next tune is “Birk’s Works”, a sly mid-tempo blues named for the composer’s middle moniker, and the loping walk of Ray Brown here is impossible to resist. Again, the guitar as accompanying instrument feels so comfortable and sassy at the same time, and Gillespie plays a muted solo that combines dazzling double-time sections with declamatory high notes. Pass’s solo is a relaxed statement that even generates a bit of buzzing as he digs into the blues phrasing. And, again, Dizzy comes back for a second serving of improvising on his open horn—choosing more than once to play notes that are technically outside the harmony as if he’d had the chance to hear a little Ornette Coleman and wasn’t afraid of that stuff either. Woo, yeah.
If there is a favorite performance here, it is probably the closing song, a relaxed reading of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” that finds the whole quartet moving freely in time, syncopating the proceedings with amazing coordination. Dizzy takes outlines the melody by cutting notes, almost just gesturing at it in certain places, with Pass and Brown filling in the gaps with a true sense of dance. Dizzy’s solo is fresh across multiple choruses, with Brown hinting here or there at quarter note swing but never committing fully. As Pass begins, Brown starts strolling and things take off more fully. The band shifts back to loping three for a short bit, but then Gillespie returns and everyone starts double-timing a walking accompaniment so that there is no room for error. And, of course, no one makes one. The alternate take of this song is proof that these guys could deliver the goods with invention every time.
The other tracks on this date show the band as a capable ballad unit too. Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” begins as a duet for Brown and Diz, gentle as can be, before Roker lights a fire and everyone plays it as a swinging bop number. “Hurry Home” is prettier and stays a ballad throughout, and it is highlighted by a fantastic example of why Ray Brown was a premiere jazz player for so many decades. Even better is the group’s take on the Kurt Weill classic, “September Song”. The whole performance is a straight reading of the melody, with the band trading back a forth little moments where Pass or Brown is suddenly in the foreground. Without so much as a real solo, the track proves why jazz is always a conversation.
It’s lovely that this fairly modest session, nothing really monumental or epochal in jazz, is so full of pleasures. One of jazz’s true greats was capable of conversation and relaxation as much as revolution. Music needs it all. And Dizzy always delivered.