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Album Spotlight

August 25, 1996|Don Heckman


"The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet With Chet Baker"

Pacific Jazz

* * * 1/2

The first thing that attracts one's attention in this fascinating four-CD set is a number of photographs of the band by the famed jazz photographer William Claxton. Especially a striking shot of Mulligan, Chet Baker, drummer Larry Bunker and bassist Carson Smith in the studio in the spring of 1953. Mulligan, thin, almost gawky, Baker with a lock of hair drifting down over his forehead in the best James Dean fashion.

Yet these impossibly youthful-looking figures--Mulligan, a baritone saxophone player from New York and Baker, a trumpeter from Oklahoma (with Chico Hamilton and Bob Whitlock, the quartet's original drummer and bassist)--were establishing within a few short months the essence of the style that brought West Coast jazz to national prominence in the '50s.

The band's impact was enhanced, of course, by the absence of a piano or guitar--a media-attracting gimmick that primarily served to give the group wider exposure. And there's no denying that the airy openness of a rhythm accompaniment without harmonic inserts made for a free-flying musical environment for the horn players.

It still sounds amazingly good. Mulligan's transcendent capacity to create appealing melodies is essential to the early quartet work. Melodic Mulligan lines such as "Walkin' Shoes," "Soft Shoe" and "Nights at the Turntable," and Bernie Miller's "Bernie's Tune," along with the brisk, up-tempo contrapuntal rhythms of Baker's "Freeway," continue to be irresistible--as are Mulligan's swing-tinged baritone solos and Baker's soaring, melodic choruses.

Interestingly, the set also includes Mulligan's initial efforts to put a group together via a couple of tracks with a trio (Mulligan with bassist Red Mitchell and Hamilton) and a drum-less quartet with pianist Jimmy Rowles and bassist Joe Mondragon. But the piano-less quartet with Baker obviously had the right musical chemistry, and Mulligan was smart enough to realize that, sustaining that lineup as long as he could (including a reunion recording, also in this set, in 1957), then adding a trombonist in a similarly oriented if darker-toned version.

Good as the Mulligan quartet tracks are, the bonus in this collection is a group of quintet pieces (with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz) recorded in January 1953. Konitz's playing can only be described as marvelous--and doubly so in retrospect. At a time when Charlie Parker's music was dominating an emerging generation of jazz players, Konitz was blithely taking his own path. The validity of that path is brilliantly evident in his solos here on 12 invaluable tracks, especially "Too Marvelous for Words," "These Foolish Things" (with a stunning bridge on the first chorus), "All the Things You Are" and--courageously, given Parker's virtual ownership of the tune--"Lover Man." Anyone who has ever doubted Konitz's legitimacy as one of the great jazz originals should spend a few hours with these performances.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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