In late 1949, jazz titans Coleman Hawkins—who among his many accolades is credited with no less a distinction than virtually inventing the tenor saxophone as a legitimate jazz instrument—and Kenny Clarke—one of the founding percussionists of bebop—toured France and Switzerland with a pick-up band of European players. Lausanne 1949, Volume 13 in the Montreux Jazz Label’s Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series, is a flawed, but nevertheless fascinating, and occasionally brilliant, artifact from one of these trans-Atlantic musical meetings.
This show, recorded (ham-fistedly, but more about that later) on December 3, 1949, at the Maison du Peuple (House of the People), Lausanne, Switzerland, comes at about the mid-point of Coleman Hawkins’ remarkably long and fruitful career.
By the late 1940s Hawkins had already been discovered by Mamie Smith as a teen prodigy in Kansas City, starred with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in the 1920s and 1930s, and barnstormed through pre-war Europe, where he matched riffs and wits with guitar demigod Django Reinhardt on several recordings. Even after scoring an international critical and popular hit in 1939 with his epic improvisations on the Tin Pan Alley tune “Body and Soul”, Hawkins remained artistically daring, becoming the first established jazz star to embrace the new, modern bop movement of the early ‘40s. Although Hawkins was never able to swing at light-speed like the younger bop players, his versatility, intensity, and skill with difficult chord changes allowed his playing to remain relevant, and even influential far beyond the swing era. In fact, he recorded well into the 1960s with successive generations of jazz stars like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.
Lausanne 1949 finds Hawkins in excellent form as a both soloist and band-leader. Despite the presence of the young bopper Clarke, fresh from his fecund collaborations with Parker, Gillespie, and Monk, it is The Hawk who towers over this CD, very much in command of the proceedings. On both the ballads and the up-tempo pieces his playing is fluid, robust, and consistently inventive. In a pleasant surprise, the two locals who round out the main four-piece combo, Pierre Michelot on bass, and Jean-Paul Mangenon on piano, do a thoroughly solid job. At both the start and the finish of the performance, the four-piece fills out to a seven-piece with James Moody adding a second tenor sax, Hubert Fol on alto, and Nat Peck on trombone. Peck in particular, a refugee from the Glenn Miller Band (which by the way is still touring in the year 2001, almost 60 years after Miller’s death!), contributes several vibrant and swinging solos during his brief appearances.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to make any meaningful comments about Kenny Clarke’s contributions to the band. This is because except for the few moments where everyone else is silent, only the occasional “ting-ting” of his time-keeping ride cymbal, and boxy thump of his bass drum, can be heard anywhere this recording. In fact, the overall sound quality of this CD ranges from middling to poor, to the point that it really disrupts the aural fabric of the concert. As well as absent drums, the piano is painfully tinny, sounding like a gut-shot upright from an old Wild West saloon. Also, there are frequent and baffling level changes, where players rise or drop in volume for no apparent reason. Granted, 1940s audio technology was practically Paleozoic by today’s standards, but there do exist many period recordings that are much more listenable than this one.
However, if you can live with the distracting sound problems, there are some impressive performances here. Hawkins really showcases his versatility as soloist in both the hot, bop-influenced numbers, and the breathtaking virtuosity of his balladry. His trademark tone, deep, husky and powerful without being blustery, combined with his acrobatic speed is actually the one element of the band that is consistently well-recorded on Lausanne 1949, and it is a marvel.
Some jazz scholars actually cite Hawkins as the artist who first credibly figured out how to play small-group jazz ballads, and there is no doubt that the ballads on Lausanne 1949 are almost uniformly excellent. Slower songs like Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”, “Hawk’s Blues”, and “It’s the Talk of the Town” are all-Hawkins. That is, he completely jettisons the melody, sometimes even before finishing the first statement of it. He then proceeds to improvise over the chord changes for the next four or five minutes while his sidemen hang on for dear life, hoping that Hawk will reach the breaks and the end at the same time they do—and he always does. The effortless harmonic improvisation on “It’s the Talk of the Town”, the CD’s third track, is especially stunning. Although he never repeats the melody, or himself, his solo is so rooted in the deep structure of the chord changes that it’s almost danceable.
Among the fast tunes, “Rifftide” a Hawkins original, “Sweet Georgia Brown”, and “Assy Panassy” by his French alto player Hubert Fols really cook. “Rifftide” has a nifty bop-flavoured passage where Hawkins plays a characteristically blazing and robust solo, while the other two saxes play an equally fleet but discordant unison part underneath, and just behind him. “Sweet Georgia Brown” is also worth mentioning, both for its glorious solo that has no apparent relation to the song’s usually hummable melody, and also because in an exciting and refreshing change, some of Kenny Clarke’s trademark drum kicks, tics, and prods actually reach the microphones.
Although this concert is not a landmark performance by any stretch, it does represent another uniformly fine “day at the office” for Hawkins, full of minor excellences. The sound quality, though, is so shoddy that Lausanne 1949 mostly imparts a wistful feeling of “what might have been”. It also seems a rather dodgy move to stick drummer Kenny Clarke’s name in the title when it sounds like his only instrument is a cardboard box. Sadly, if someone had paid more attention to the recording of this concert, or if the time, technology, and dollars had been available to support some much-need remastering, this CD’s “Body and Soul” would be greatly improved.