Chico Hamilton Turns 85
Chico Hamilton is one of the major jazz drummers, in a line he honours by mentioning among his influences Sid Catlett and Sonny Greer. Nothing heavy or metronomic about either of them—Duke Ellington could never replace the latter, lost to the bottle—and there’s nothing lacking in Hamilton for all the mention of a “shimmer”. It’s all about hitting the right accents at the right time, no deadening thump. He rocks like waves rock boats—he can stir up a storm and he can do things like lapping the shore gently.
He has also had a very considerable career as a bandleader, sometimes arranger, but mostly organising teamwork to achieve what he has wanted. There’s no room here to say much about his early bands, begun after his time in Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet. He featured saxophone doubling flute, guitar, cello, and bass. Then he went on to something else, and when customers got too fickle and too few and there was no point in not earning a living, he took on the challenges of studio work.
Subsequent to that, he’s perhaps been telling people how it feels to lead an imaginative, individual, very accomplished band again by giving that band the name Euphoria.
Over the past three years or so, already in his eighties, with Jeffrey Andrew Caddick as his manager, Hamilton’s been laying down the recordings of decidedly new music that have gradually emerged as a tetralogy of CDs, the fourth and last of which is called Heritage and has an issue date days before the 85th birthday the set will help him celebrate —while celebrating what (and by way of what) he’s consistently been doing this long while.
The music is new, with even a faint trendiness in rhythmic approach. Throughout these sets there’s a consistent reference to early influences and to this, that, and the other element throughout Hamilton’s musical, pre-bandleading, and even pre-career life. He’s not looking backward, he’s finding inspiration for the music he now wants to make. He never falls into a crevasse opening up between now and then.
His music profits in one way from finding the moving melancholy of remembering the Hungarian guitarist/sometime sideman Gabor Szabo. Another resource from earlier days remains George Bohannon, himself charged with proving Hamilton right that Bohannon is a severely neglected musician and a hugely gifted trombonist. Here he has almost a concerto, with Jimmy Cheatham as a second trombonist (though Cheatham’s horn is a bass trombone, the two horns work much in the same register, one with darker timbre and extension downward, Bohannon with at least everything else).
The basis of personnel for most performances is Hamilton’s current stable band, without a ringer, satellite, functionary, or zombie in earshot. When a sometime famous veteran turns up with musicians either young or unknown outside his band, you could wonder. If you’ve never heard of Cary DeNigris other than as Hamilton’s current guitarist, or Paul Ramsey as other than his Fender bass player (the instrument is crucial to the current Hamilton band conception), here’s your chance to hear their worth, and that of Evan Schwam as saxophonist-flautist, in addition to some other people who’ve not been that far from the Hamilton band of late. Playing like theirs isn’t something which ever recurs to the point of tedium.
Juniflip is said to have been an old nickname of the man who was then as now “Mr. Hamilton”, which is also the name of the Schwam composition which opens the first of the CDs with some very good mainstream tenor from the composer. Both trombonists are on this one, and Karolina Strassmeyer’s here on one of the numbers with two reed-persons: their arranged ensembles do commend this first CD. There’s drum shimmer and flute opening the second number, “A Little Bit of This, a Little Bit of That”, and Hamilton and his guitarist do nice things supporting an ensemble with a suggestion of the Oriental, which seems more definite after the Fender bass solo has begun. The title could well be a casual reference to what happens in many the Hamilton performance, with first an almost salad of hors d’oeuvres, then a performance which switches gear maybe halfway through, and resumes with a difference, for instance in rhythmic profile. Performances comprised of successive sections with that sort of difference between them are a Hamilton speciality: most notably, of course, in the twelve-minute “You Name It”, Bohannon’s concerto.
The band numbers are interspersed with four vocals, two by the veteran Bill Henderson, two by Arthur Lee, whose rock band alternated on some long ago gigs with Hamilton. The songs are from his teens, have Jimmie Lunceford band connections, and seem to represent a desire to deliver a recognisably modern or at least non-period-flavoured vocal style. There’s an amazing wash of cymbals around Henderson’s “Ain’t She Sweet”.
On “Yeh, Yeh” and “Cary’s Footsteps”, the guitarist can drive into the mode that might make sense of the former performance being dedicated to Carlos Santana: a big Chico Hamilton fan. DeNigris can also play like a mainstream master, guitar equivalent of what Schwam does on the opener, and Schwam can boot R&B and even spin some Tranean phrases when he’s not playing flute, and when the music isn’t heavily and individually atmospheric, as indeed it sometimes certainly is. Andrew Hadro turns up here and there as a distinguished baritone saxophonist, and on Hamilton’s “How’s Your Feelings” there’s more soloing on bass guitar and a chamber feel. By the end of this set, Hamilton has also done some thunderous crashing against the beach, and if I’m not personally drawn to a bonus track which presumably represents something of what goes on in the complete CD Hamilton has recorded with the funk band Mudd (who guest on this last track), there’s no denying his spirit and interest.
Believe, the second CD, has Fontella Bass for her stylistic overlap with early Sarah Vaughan, and the gospel element represented by a song or hymn composed by Hamilton. I like her hoarse “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home”. Nothing retro about Hamilton, there’s simply a lot he thinks it wrong to forget. On “Evan’s-Ville”, he remembers the advantages that such a direct start as Schwam’s “Mr. Hamilton” gave the first CD. The smoky flute has some nice interplay with trombone, before the composer’s tenor gets booting, Jeremy Carlstedt is on percussion, and with DeNigris and Hamilton and surges from Ramsay, the cross-currents behind the horns really get interesting. Hamilton’s “My Brother Don” has an intro in several sections that could be called a masterpiece of creative false starts. The horns accompanying Schwam’s tenor are really mini-big band, before—with a false start from DeNigris (as if he was about to solo, then doesn’t)—the rhythm shifts and Bohannon seriously encourages reference to a trombonist who has everything. The band work is a very creative handling of fragmentary material. I don’t know who “Christina” is, but she gets some flamenco Fender bass before DeNigris gets in on the Hispanic act, and after some two-saxophone unison, Ramsay solos at some length.
“My Brother Bernie” is, on the other hand, plaintive, with more fine Arabian harmonies, Bohannon in ensemble with Schwam showing he can be rough-toned-tender before the switch to a lilting rhythm, and the trombonist tempting the reviewer into becoming a Bohannon bore. There’s a lot to be said for Schwam and DeNigris too on this one. And for Andrew Hadro, when he crops up on “Alive” and is encouraged onto the warpath by an eerie chanting band, “Andrewmatic” gets brazenly raspy. I’ll not mention the tune from the Who, since everybody else will. There’s a lot more here that there’s no room to discuss, though “Ballad for Mallets” features Hamilton padding nicely while guitar and baritone conjure atmosphere. Grandpa plays along on the final track, with “Rhythmic samples conceptualised, sampled, et cetera” by Joey Davis.
6th Avenue Express is presumably meant to be the most fun item, like late 1940s proto-R&B, as played by excellent jazzmen before they ran out of work altogether, but here enhanced with the reverb blues guitar and Fender bass of a later day. Then comes “Topsy”, composed by Eddie Durham, performed by the DeNigris-Ramsay-Hamilton trio with an aplomb I’ve pined for when hearing whole albums by people who normally perform with that identical instrumentation. DeNigris is a fount of invention, and the bassist and drummer accommodate to his shifts of emphasis. Can this be the next Hamilton project, please?
Other highlights are an “Elevation” with what might be either soprano or alto saxophone, dark bass figures, thudding emphasis; and Shuggie Otis on “Strollin’ With Bone” demonstrating what a guitarist he is and what lengthy mileage there still is in the music devised by T-Bone Walker when Chico Hamilton was a lad in California. “Thunderwalk” is more West Coast R&B, and “Take the A-Train” made me want to check whether on a celebrated album led by Mercer Ellington it was Jon Faddis who did the solo trumpet work on that one. Ellington, as composed by Billy Strayhorn and voiced by the great trumpeter Ray Nance, who also sang. On this one Hamilton sings, and there’s more singing and lots and lots of the sort of music major jazzmen were making for money but not without fun fifty-five years back. It was Hamilton’s thirtieth year to Heaven, Rhythm and Blues in the Pacific Air!
Heritage got me thinking it was maybe the standout CD of the four, but I suppose it couldn’t be that much better than the first two? Geoffrey Countryman is the second reeds player on most of the tracks, and on Hamilton’s “One for Lennie” he follows up yet another of the A1 introductions I’ve tried not to go on about too much with a baritone solo—Jeremy Carlstedt’s percussion to the fore—which ends with the baritonist’s provision of quiet little supporting phrases for Bohannon, whose own solo is followed by a finale for trombone, baritone, and cymbals which is quite out of the ordinary. “Lu Tu” opens amid a spate of swishings from Hamilton, with a marvellously arranged and racing ensemble theme before the switch into another rhythm, a walking bass positively stamped out, rambunctious tenor solo, the ensemble sounding far bigger than it is, and ultimately, even by Hamilton’s standards of giving performances unusual shapes, a novel conformation hardly to be expected.
I shan’t gloss the names, and I don’t need to gloss “Mulligan Stew” or name yet again the yet again standout trombonist, who has a mute in on “Tirado”, one of three Gerald Wilson numbers included. Just to emphasise unpredictability, “Yard Dog Mazurka”, one of my favourites, is delivered here with an excited coarseness, rough stuff far from the exquisite beginning of the two-part “One for Hale”, or the “One for Gabor” mentioned at the beginning of this review.
This is a whale of a lot of music, not presented in a way that makes it easy to sum up even just in thinking about it. I should maybe say that if, as reported, Marya Lawrence’s performance of “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues” and its accompaniment derive from a Gerald Wilson recording, then Wilson certainly knew his Jack Teagarden. That trombonist made that song his own, and you may find it easy to believe that he is not disgraced by what is done on the sort of horn he played, as obbligato to Ms. Lawrence. “Chicano Heritage” is the first track, and I’d not have thought it so much Mexican as Spanish: which probably represents the limits of my experience of things Mexican. It’s also worth thinking back to the more Oriental, or maybe even Arab, echoes of some of the music on the first two CDs, and asking where that comes from.
These CDs have not been the tidiest reviewing experience, but I can hardly claim to have finished listening to them enough for comprehensiveness. Many Happy Returns, Mr. Hamilton.
6th Avenue Romp
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