First some context. Aside from being best known in jazz circles as the only major jazz artist to play baritone saxophone, Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996) had three main claims to fame. Firstly, he made his first notable appearance on the jazz scene at age twenty as an arranger for the drumming man Gene Krupa at a time when Krupa was still a major, if fading, star. Secondly, he is acknowledged as being a central force in the creation of Birth of the Cool, as a performer and as the arranger of roughly half the tunes that were performed and recorded by Miles Davis’ nontet. Birth of the Cool both introduced Miles Davis as a leader, and perhaps more significantly (given that Miles was destined to be a leader), showed jazz musicians an approach to playing that was neither hard bop, the major stylistic innovation of the day, nor big band swing. Instead, it featured tight, intricate, yet understated, arrangements for a small band that put the focus on the interplay between the players, rather than on dominating soloists for whom the rest of the band were merely providing a setting. And lastly, Mulligan will always be identified with his work in 1952 and 1953 in the “pianoless quartet” with trumpeter Chet Baker. By removing the piano from the rhythm section, the horns were liberated from the piano’s role of feeding “the chords of the progression to the soloist,” as Mulligan put it in an interview. This hugely influential experiment put a new focus on the exchange between the horns themselves, thus opening up a whole new area for musical exploration.
Knowing this context, while not essential to “understanding” or enjoying the music on 1960 Zurich, nevertheless can add something to the appreciation of the disc. The first thing to note is that there is no pianist in Mulligan’s Concert Big Band. Without the piano as the great organizing force, what we hear is something very focused on ensemble playing. The arrangements do not set the rhythm section off against the brass section, and the brass section off against the reeds, and so on. Rather, on popular numbers like Rogers and Hart’s “You Took Advantage of Me,” the Mulligan classic “Walkin’ Shoes” and Ben Webster’s “Body and Soul,” the arrangements build on the interplay between all of the voices that are available within this large group. The sound that is created is one that seems to explore as many possibilities as are available within this group through using various combinations of sounds and players, while performing, for the most part, very melodically straight-ahead up-tempo numbers. This approach is what gives this band a sound that is even bigger than would be thought possible with a thirteen member group, while keeping everything sounding fresh and exciting.
Although none of the soloists here, including Mulligan, valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer (a long-time Mulligan collaborator who arranges a number of tunes on this disc) and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, are anything short of excellent, their contributions have the interesting effect of complimenting what the band is doing, rather than having the band, again, merely provide a setting for the spotlighted work of the all-star soloists. Yet as great as this music is, it also reminds us that one of the classic approaches to playing jazz, playing with a big band, is all but gone given the overwhelmingly difficult job of assembling a large group and having a audience pay enough to keep the whole group in work long enough that they can reach the heights of the great big bands.