I feel I must open this review with a confession of prior ignorance of Tadd Dameron.
I am not a complete alien to the world of jazz, but nor would I describe myself as by any stretch of the imagination as an expert. In that case, some of you jazz purists may be wondering what I’m doing reviewing this collection. Shouldn’t the assignment have gone to someone more knowledgeable in the field? Well, arguably, you’d be correct to wonder that. But of course, one could argue in response that it’s worthwhile to find out how the greats sound separated from a prior knowledge of their history. No knowledge of a musicians life ever made a band hit harder or softer.
I listened in anticipation of having my breath taken away by my ears, as I do to all review items only to have the dice roll for or against me, and try to find out what I could about the artist.
Tadd Dameron has been called “The definitive arranger/composer of the bop era.” He spent the swing era writing charts for the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and others and appearing sporadically as a pianist. He did not commonly record under his own name, doing so only relatively briefly and occasionally, from the late ‘40s to early ‘50s. This CD is part of Classics’ Chronological series, which, as you might guess, presents an artists complete recordings in multiple volumes, this being the first for Dameron.
How does this over-half-a-century-old music hold up? The answer is, pretty damned well. Fittingly, it’s the arrangements and compositions that command attention here, not a showboating soloist. Although certainly, the soloists have much to showboat about—this collection features Terry Gibbs, Fats Navarro, Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis. But this is a kind of jazz that is in service to the songs, and the songs are worth it—it’s difficult to think of many things lovelier than Dameron’s arrangements for songs like “That Someone Must Be You.”
That song and five other of the 22 tracks here feature a vocal by Kay Penton, about whom I can find little information, but she sure does have a charming voice. The first track on which she sings, “I Think I’ll Go Away,” appears twice on the album. The first, which opens the album, is a V-Disc session recorded with Dameron’s group including Gibbs on vibes. The second version was recorded just over a year later with journeyman singer Kenny Hagood fronting a septet featuring bongo player Pozo. Penton’s vocal is infinitely preferable to me—Hagood has an unfortunate tendency to croon. The last vocalist featured, one Rae Pearl, contributes a wordless vocal to “Casbah,” with Dameron’s orchestra. The remaining tracks are instrumentals. As a pianist, Dameron is percussive and rhythmic, rather than particularly expressive, but as noted his playing did not stake his claim to history. Of his compositions and/or arrangements, besides those already mentioned, I was most taken with “Jahbero,” co-written and featuring trumpet by Navarro and especially the incredibly melodic “Lady Bird.” In contrast to the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band’s Merryteria, which I previously reviewed for PopMatters, and whose lengthy tracks are both a blessing and a curse, few songs here are much more than two to three minutes long. This means that none of them come close to wearing out their welcome, and proves the truth of the old saying about always leaving them wanting more.
So why the hell didn’t somebody tell me about Tadd Dameron before?