Curious but happy, this. Quite why the venerable Mr. Gibbs got together a stunning set of jazzmen and added in effect a standard chamber orchestra I did not at first appreciate: 16 violins, four violas, four celli and three French horns. The effect’s very, very cheerful, but in general I’d rather have space and air, or some sort of ensemble either comprised by the main performers or by the more usual jazz horns. I I prefer more astringency, or an ensemble that — even when it doesn’t — could bite if it needed to. Even by engaging arrangers who we are told knew bebop, knew jazz big band writing and string section writing, it doesn’t seem possible to avoid a certain relaxation. Actually I didn’t need telling about the competence of the orchestrators here, it’s quite obvious.
What also becomes obvious after a while is the intensely dedicated resolve of the musicians to have a ball. Did I mention loss of musical tension due to the string presence? There isn’t tension, there’s just this crazy ole dude lolloping his vibraphone 19 to the dozen and having a ball. Standing up. Presumably: to adapt a line of Sun Ra’s, anything he might have had to sit on was presumably swung off years ago.
It might be a pity that James Moody, as screwball a jazzman as any, wasn’t brought in on the act. Well, he does get to play, and saxopohonists much more gifted than Moody have seldom if ever existed. Is there any recent recording of Moody with a younger saxophonist the old master could snack off? There are people who remember Moody not deigning to play, clowning all the time. Some of us have seen the video of a generally mainstream concert tour broadcast we were all too young to have seen go out the first time on television: there was Moody deadpan playing modal scales because they had just been invented — and showing that they could be played deliberately (rather than as became the case — routinely) to no real musical effect. Here he just plays when he gets a chance, a guest on a few titles.
Excuse the excursus, Moody merits praise, and this sort of record prompts this sort of disengaged reflection. I ought already to have discussed the four tracks preceding the startlingly brisk and breezy “Groovin’ High”, with Gibbs overbrimming and Moody on alto. There’s also Nicholas Payton on trumpet, who has most solo duties on that horn, although the sometime-arranger Howie Shear is very interesting on his little blowing slots. Tom Ranier plays a very respectable bit of alto on his own arrangement of “Cherokee”, but when he takes up his more usual piano, he’s effervescent on a par even with Gibbs.
Med Flory’s chart on “Night in Tunisia” has as ever lots of Gibbs, and Payton scratching his head, temperate youth unable to restrain reckless old age but relaxing philosophically into a melodically inventive solo. Phil Kelly’s arrangement of “Lover Man” is one of a couple of items where the jazz band is a quintet with Gibbs and just Sam Most (on flute) showing what a potent rhythm trio is here, the prefect strong underlinings of Ranier’s piano and Dave Carpenter’s firm bass. On Flory’s “Salt Peanuts” the preliminaries go on a bit, and the strings sound closer than at anywhere else here to being a conventional big band — behind the racing Gibbs. Steve Hamilton gets a drum solo. Howie Shear’s take on “Perdido” begins with nice vibes work over Carpenter’s bass, and Moody gets a good workout in cool school tenor style rather like the late Bob Cooper. After Payton’s feature sharing “Doxy” with Gibbs the last track is Gibbs’s “Bopstacle Course” arranged by Shear. There is nice flute-vibes interplay, and with Ranier’s as ever splendid support the leader gallops on.
Oh, and I haven’t yet mentioned the bossa nova “Round Midnight” (which opens the set deceptively soberly with Payton well starred) or Lester Young’s “Jumping with Symphony Sid” — or George Wallington’s “Lemon Drop” with cuckoo vocal duties shared by Gibbs and Most. They sound even happier when restricting themselves to vibes and flute on Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” (which even in this slightly agog setting still sounds a deeper tune than the Broadway grandstander “If My Folks Could See Me Now”). Bop for the People, too much Champagne, this isn’t music of the utmost seriousness but is a whale of a lot more fun than any with-strings set I ever heard. The Joy of Bebop! This isn’t banal or inconsequential or pap, like some supposed “happy music” that is really only dopey. There’s none of that smile with nothing behind it. The CD insert quotes Gibbs’s great contemporary the bassist Chubby Jackson: Gibbs has “learned how to put a grin on music”.
Does he give lessons?