One of the best qualities of Chris Barber, musician, is his imagination; an imagination which as easily moves from breathing life into a tired jazz standard to organising musical projects as ambitious as the ‘Echoes of Ellington’ tour of 1976. The tour brought together two seminal jazzmen – Russell Procope and Wild Bill Davis fusing neatly with Chris’s Jazz and Blues Band and the musical results are here: gloriously weathered Ellington jazz at its best.
It’s one of the accidents of jazz history that Russell Procope’s long and honourable service in Duke Ellington’s Orchestra occasionally hid him in the shadow of Johnny Hodges. An accident and an optical illusion, for as Procope told Stanley Dance in 1962 (The World of Duke Ellington, Macmillan, 1971), “We don’t have a first saxophone player or a second — we have things where anybody might be playing the lead.” But, no doubt because of Hodges’ opulent personality, the sound of Russell Procope, after 1946, became a musical delicacy rarer than it deserved to be. For by the time he joined John Kirby in 1938 Procope had matured from ‘a kind of child-wonder’ (in Duke Ellington’s words) into a master musician; a lythe elegant saxophonist whose tone and fluency recalled great contemporaries like Benny Carter and Hilton Jefferson, and whose contributions to the Kirby sextet would alone have qualified him for jazz immortality. It comes as something of a surprise therefore to learn that for Procope saxophone was, in theory, a second instrument, “I believe there’s so much more you can do on a clarinet than on a saxophone,” he told Dance in a statement that lends strange credance to an early and much criticised Rex Harris viewpoint. “You have so much more register, so much more tone. I believe that men with all the ideas Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins had would have found much more room to express themselves on clarinet.” An interesting debating point – but for Procope alto-saxophone was always much more than a reluctant double. And these recordings are an invaluable document of his later work and inspiration.
Wild Bill Davis
“Russell Procope was a man of dignity and gentility,” says Duke Ellington. “What is more he became a conscientious all round musician.” The same description applies to his partner on these records ‘Wild’ Bill Davis, the first great populariser of jazz organ, who by the age of twenty-two had already won a degree in music at Wiley College, Texas. That was in 1938, and nine years later Davis became intrigued with the sound of the Hammond organ, ran into debt to buy one, and began the long battle to win acceptance for his instrument. “Some people still won’t accept it,” he told Dance, “and in the early days it was tough.”
It took fifteen years and two generations of organists – Bill Davis, his pupil Bill Doggett, Jimmy Smith, and a whole cluster of rock musicians – to slowly legitimise the instrument for most jazz ears. Duke Ellington was a big admirer of Wild Bill’s work on piano and Bill deputised for Duke many times with the Orchestra when Duke was indisposed. Bill Davis was featured on piano during the ‘Echoes of Ellington’ tour playing in an intriguing style that occasionally recalled his main instrument. “Most of the time on organ I play in chord form,” he told Dance, “like a band, reed, or brass section,” and the approach works too at the piano providing a chunky swinging style at times reminiscent of Milt Buckner.
Aside from the contribution of the guests on this set, mention must be made of the new dimension added to the Barber Band by the authoritative, driving and ever tasteful drumming of Peter York captured here for the first time on record with Chris’s Band.
Record One of this set – from the Barber Band, shows off all the hallmarks that have for so long kept the Jazz and Blues Band at the head of its field; creative soloing amid witty arrangements that carefully avoid the obvious. After a headlong Stevedore Stomp and ravishing Jeeps Blues, listen to Slapping Seventh Avenue for the best of Chris Barber, a dancing Ellington vignette featuring leathery Lawrence Brown-ish trombone against carefully-crafted background, full-toned pawky Halcox trumpet, and wittily in-context drums from Peter York. Procope and Wild Bill are added to the band for Mood Indigo, a lush four-part arrangement, showcasing Procope’s woody clarinet (his approach occasionally recalls Darnell Howard, and it’s an interesting coincidence, if no more, that both began as violinists and both play Albert system clarinets), and reflective Davis piano. Shout ’em Aunt Tillie, a jaunty tune calls up the ghosts of jungle-nights in Harlem, this time with Halcox’s spritely trumpet against Latin-American rhythm.
Record Two spotlights the Procope-Davis Quartet (with marvellous interplay from Flavelle and York) and from the yearningly sensual Warm Valley to a happy Second Line (introduced with true Ellingtonian sophistication by Wild Bill) this is a set of performances that repays close listening; two master-soloists in maturity playing the music of a lifetime’s experience with every track producing magical jazz.
Record Three is a happy equal-terms collaboration between band and visitors. Squatty Roo with relaxed chase choruses gives John Crocker a chance to play some booty tenor and Procope’s sensitive Blues for Duke are followed by Take the A Train arranged by Alan Cohen with a cheerful vocal by Chris and climbing trombone to a full-stop coda. A standard Ellington introduction (really from ‘The Duke Steps Out’) heralds another impressive Cohen arrangement, It Don’t Mean a Thing which frames Procope’s alto against Barber, Halcox and Crocker’s and Just Squeeze Me to follow, with familiar On the Trail under-riff and thick front-line voicing swings firmly and gently. The Mooche, a beautiful recreation combining academic perfection with heat, highlights duets from Crocker and Procope, Halcox and Barber, the latter a masterly brass conversation in appropriate jungle mood. And to conclude, a carefree romp through The Jeep Is Jumpin’ propelled expertly by Peter York and Jackie Flavelle.
Beautiful music, and thank you Chris Barber.(by Digby Fairweather)
What a fantastic tribute album to Duke Ellington !
Recorded in concert at the St. Ivo Centre, St. Ives, Huntingdon, 3rd June, 1976.
Chris Barber (trombone, vocals)
John Crocker (saxophone, clarinet)
Jackie Flavelle (bass)
Pat Halcox (trumpet)
Johnny McCallum (guitar, banjo)
John Slaughter (guitar)
Peter York (drums)
Wild Bill Davis (piano)
Russell Procope (saxophone, clarinet)
01. Stevedore Stomp (Ellington/Mills) 2.54
02. Jeep’s Blues (Ellington/Hodges) 6.00
03. I’m Slapping Seventh Avenue With The Sole Of My Shoe (Ellington/Mills/Nemo) 7.53
04. Mood Indigo (Ellington/Mills/Bigard) 8.28
05. Shout ‘Em Aunt Tillie (Ellington) 8.47
06. In A Mellotone (Ellington) 4.45
07. Prelude To A Kiss (Ellington/Mills/Gordon) 4.51
08. Second Line (Ellington) 4.54
09. Perdido (Tizol/Drake/Lengsfelder) 3.54
10. Warm Valley (Ellington) 5.40
11. Caravan (Ellington/Tizol) 6.00
12. Sophisticated Lady (Ellington) 4.51
13. Squatty Roo (Hodges) 4.54
14. Blues For Duke (Procope) 6.27
15. Take That “A” Train (Strayhorn) 5.05
16. It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing (Ellington/Mills) 4.03
17. Just Squeeze Me (Ellington) 5.17
18. The Mooche (Ellington/Mills) 5.12
19. The Jeep Is Jumpin’ (Ellington/Hodges) 4.02