Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer

The Bee Hive label is one of those many jazz labels that existed only because of the enthusiasm of the people who created it, acting out of a spirit that exceeded any thought of commerce. Named for a ‘50s era jazz club, it was created by husband and wife Jim and Susan Neumann, intense fans of bop and its immediate stylistic successors, who operated a lighting fixture business in Illinois. From 1977 to 1984, they recorded and distributed 17 LPs that now enjoy their first CD release as The Complete Bee Hive Sessions (Mosaic MD12-261), a 12-CD set that benefits from Mosaic’s usual thoroughness. The music is never less than lively, and along the way there are some brilliant performances by Dizzy Reece, Clifford Jordan and Johnny Hartman.

 

Jim Neumann became a devoted fan in his youth when he heard Johnny Smith’s “Moonlight in Vermont.” At Oberlin in the 1950s, he was active in the jazz club, promoting concerts by musicians who included Woody Herman and Dizzy Gillespie. Neumann eventually amassed a collection of over 100,000 recordings as well as other materials, donating it all to the Oberlin Conservatory in 2007.

 

When the Neumanns started their own label, it was to document musicians who were still developing the language of bop that fashion had passed by. When pianist Ronnie Mathews, tenor saxophonist Sal Nistico and trumpeter Dizzy Reece recorded their Bee Hive sessions, they hadn’t led significant U.S. recording dates in over a decade. Like hard bop itself, each had benefitted from the great New York independents that flourished (whenever their various beginnings) by the mid-‘50s and into the early ‘60s. Mathews had debuted on Prestige in 1963 before settling into a career as a sideman to Max Roach and Art Blakey; Nistico had found attention as a sideman to the Mangione brothers before recording his own sessions for Riverside/Jazzland; and Dizzy Reece had recorded a tremendous series of sessions for Blue Note.

 

There’s a certain sense of family about the Bee Hive label that suggests something of the way that Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside favored various configurations. Of the 16 LP sessions (the 17th was a compilation of otherwise unreleased tracks, recorded at the 16 other sessions and often led by musicians who weren’t leaders on the date), two each are led by baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, guitarist Sal Salvador and pianist Ronnie Mathews. Some of the same musicians appear in both leader and sideman roles: Brignola turns up on sessions led by Salvador and Nistico (Mathews is present on that one, too), and Jordan on the one led by Dizzy Reece. Ted Curson is on the Brignola and Nistico sessions and Nistico turns up in a Curtis Fuller quintet. Some of the best rhythm section players of the style (bassists Sam Jones [a stalwart of many Riverside sessions], Art Davis and Walter Booker; drummers Roy Haynes and Jimmy Cobb) also turn up on multiple sessions.

 

While the Neumanns appear to have generally left the musicians to their own creative devices, there’s plenty to distinguish the Bee Hive recordings, things that testify strongly to the general tastes of the label’s owners. By the 1970s, straight-ahead, acoustic modern jazz had fallen on relatively hard times, whether from the inroads of jazz-rock fusion or electric funk (a rejection by the market place) or free jazz (a rejection of the marketplace). The defining recordings at the outset of the 1970s, clearly, were Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Anthony Braxton’s For Alto. But by the time Bee Hive launched in 1977, there were already signals of a resurgence of the “tradition” of modern jazz. Dexter Gordon had already made his magisterial return to New York with (the visionary yet traditional) Woody Shaw, and one listens to the Neumanns’ recordings now with the bittersweet knowledge of the generation of “suits” about to arrive. It would be the first decade in jazz history to begin in the future and end in the past.

 

Two features indicate the Neumanns’ altruistism. They liked larger combos and disliked contrafact melodic paraphrase, opting at almost every turn to hire quintets and sextets and pay mechanical royalties on standards. The sessions abound in familiar tunes, usually from the jazz tradition (Ellington, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Horace Silver, Benny Golson, et al.) but also from the Great American Song Book. “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a late Billie Holiday signature, turns up on two different sessions. The standards lend a certain air of familiarity to the recordings: the results are often closer to club sets than recordings on Blue Note and Prestige, labels with an implicit requirement that a musician develop some kind of identity as a composer, which served front-rank composers like Silver, Golson and Andrew Hill and likely created a few fine ones like Sonny Clark and Hank Mobley, even while generating thousands of near-anonymous variants on “I Got Rhythm,” “How High the Moon” and the blues. Junior Mance and Arnett Cobb each record a single original on their sessions and the count only climbs above two for Mathews on one of his sessions and for Reece.

 

Not only do the Neumann’s like sextets whenever possible, they also like meaty, usually rough-hewn, low-pitched horns. The first session on the label will illustrate much of this and more. It’s a sextet led by Nick Brignola, initially devoted to Charlie Parker tunes, though eventually only half the session consists of them. The front-line also includes Pepper Adams to make up an aggressive pairing of bop-based baritone saxophonists, with trumpeter Ted Curson thrown in for good measure (clearly there was something in the jazz subconscious of the ‘70s that could only be satisfied with mechanized, aggressive or low-pitched Bird: there’s the birth of Supersax to play transcribed Parker solos in unison and also the unlikely parallel of Braxton’s contrabass clarinet treatment of “Donna Lee”: one imagines an ideal of the time, a Parker solo re-enacted by a cement truck). But the Brignola band bristles, driven along by the collective and necessarily levitating art of Dave Holland and Roy Haynes, stretching out on three Parker compositions and Golson’s “Stablemates.”

 

That fondness for sextets with low-pitched horns will become a pattern through the Bee Hive history, though it’s seldom as successful as the matching of Brignola, Adams and Bird repertoire. Brignola’s second session ups the ante to three baritones with Ronnie Cuber and Cecil Payne, far less well-matched with Brignola than Adams. Sal Salvador’s first session finds his guitar grouped in the front-line with Brignola’s baritone and Eddie Bert’s trombone. Tenors are something else. The Dizzy Reece set has the trumpeter joined in the front-line by Clifford Jordan and Charles Davis (yes, the baritone saxophonist) on tenors. On one of Jordan’s own sessions, he finds himself matched with bass trumpeter Cy Touff and fellow tenor player Von Freeman. Even when the Neumanns record pianists, as they do frequently, instead of the usual trio they manage to find room for a horn or two.

 

Occasionally questions of compatibility arise, and they may reach back to Jim Neumann’s original inspirations, most notably Woody Herman and Dizzy Gillespie. Herman is in evidence in sidemen like Brignola, Nistico and Touff. The latter’s pairing with Clifford Jordan isn’t immediately convincing (and it’s hard to imagine Jordan [whose own tastes in trumpeters seemed to run to Don Cherry and Lee Morgan] coming up with Red Rodney as a musical partner). Gillespie is represented primarily by his compositions. In addition to “Woody ‘n’ You” (a shout-out to Herman), his works heard here include “Groovin’ High,” “Anthropology,” “I Waited for You,” “BeBop” and “Birk’s Works.” The Neumann style is an inclusive version of early modern jazz that matches some of the complexity of early bop with the more comfortable propulsion of the Herman bands, those sextets almost stand-ins for big bands.

 

There’s hardly a session here that doesn’t have some appeal: some of it is a good embodiment of its style, much is excellent, while the best of it has a real claim on posterity. There are sessions that represent musicians of great energy (Brignola, Nistico); some that could never not be funky (Junior Mance, Arnett Cobb); others that represent the extraordinary polish that certain jazz styles take on with time (Salvador, Mathews); and others that were still growing, still setting fires (Reece and Jordan, conspicuously). The quality of the rhythm sections alone usually sets these recordings above both contemporary and more recent incarnations of the same genres.

 

While Sal Nistico was best known for the booting, raw-edged solos he contributed to the Herman band, on his own he was a more refined hard-bop tenor saxophonist. His Neo Nistico set with Brignola, Curson, Matthews, Sam Jones and Roy Haynes is a mature extension of the Jazzland LPs he recorded in the early ‘60s. His own work flows, organically here, into Curtis Fuller’s Fire and Filigree, a quintet that’s completed by Jones, pianist Walter Bishop Jr. and drummer Freddie Waits. Fuller, the dean of hard-bop trombonists, shines on his own “The Egyptian Two,” a reflection of his adventurous early work on Savoy and Prestige.

 

Polish came naturally to most modern jazz pianists born in the 1920s and ‘30s, whether it came from Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum or Frédéric Chopin. Roland Hanna’s (born 1932) New York Jazz Quartet (with Frank Wess on reeds, George Mraz on bass and Ben Riley on drums) is so polished that it almost disappears, something that doesn’t happen to Dick Katz’s (1924) In High Profile because of the occasional incongruity of repertoire and style. Quintet tracks with Wess and trombonist Jimmy Knepper suffer from sheer brevity (they’re all under five minutes), but the playfully glib account of Monk’s “Friday the 13th” is at least strange, as is his trio version of John Coltrane’s “Cousin Mary.” Junior Mance (1928) clearly comes from somewhere very different (blues and gospel and a Gillespie small group to be precise) and his Truckin’ and Trakin’ (a title so soulful as to risk incomprehension) benefits from the further infusion of tight-vibrato soul jazz from tenor saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman.

 

If some of this veers toward particular kinds of comfort jazz, it reaches its highest level with Sal Salvador’s quartet session. Best known for his work in the 1950s, he’s clearly enjoying the studio, his bright lines floating with ease over and through a superb (and oddly compatible) rhythm section of Billy Taylor, Art Davis and Joe Morello. The Horace Silver tunes are particularly well-suited to this treatment, soulful but with an air of serene sophistication.

 

The first of pianist Ronnie Mathews’ two sessions, Roots, Branches & Dances, dramatizes some of the stylistic conflicts of the times. It begins with his original “Salima’s Dance,” a driving modal composition of clear Coltrane inspiration that has Frank Foster’s soprano saxophone coiling over the pulsing rhythm section. It’s work of real power and immediacy (though hardly revolutionary), but Foster then exchanges his soprano for his tenor for the rest of the session, the music moving to the middle of the road without incurring any sense of risk. Mathews’ second session, though, is consistently inspired, whether it’s Mathews playing a Tatum-esque solo version of “A Child Is Born” or leading a superb hard-bop quintet with tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford and trumpeter Bill Hardman. Hardman (like Reece, a consistently overlooked figure, he had done fine work with both Blakey and Silver in the preceding decades) shines here, just a little brighter than everyone else.

 

One of Johnny Hartman’s last recording sessions, Once in Every Life, managed to earn Bee Hive a Grammy nomination (some of the songs would later be used on the soundtrack of The Bridges of Madison County), and it’s hard to imagine Hartman’s ballad art ever being equaled. Here he’s backed by a sextet that includes trumpeter Joe Wilder, Frank Wess and Billy Taylor, supremely at home on standards like “For All We Know” and “Easy Living.” Among the delights is a duet with guitarist Al Gafa on “It Was Almost like a Song.”

 

The gradual disappearance from jazz of Jamaican-born trumpeter Dizzy Reece is one of the music’s many stories of loss, and it’s made more immediate by the inclusion here of his Manhattan Project LP (just as it was by the 2004 release of his earlier Blue Note sessions as a Mosaic Select). Rather than resting on his late-50s laurels as a hard bopper, Reece presents intense, provocative work, a match for Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard at their most adventurous. Pressed on by collaborators Clifford Jordan, pianist Albert Dailey, Art Davis and Roy Haynes, the music has an urgency – an immediate reflection of the mood of the late ‘70s – that rarely arises in the music that surrounds it here.

 

The last two sessions recorded by Bee Hive in the summer of 1984 are also among the best. In June an aging Arnett Cobb recorded Keep on Pushin’ (produced by soul jazz master Bob Porter, as was the Mance session a few months before) with a fine mainstream band that might have manned one of his Prestige Soulville dates, including Joe Newman and trombonist Al Grey on a couple of tracks and Junior Mance, drummer Panama Francis and bassist George Duvivier. As touching as “Stardust” and “Blues for Lisette” are, the absolute highlight of the session comes on a tenor/bass duet on the gospel song “Deep River.” With an expressive dimension comparable to Albert Ayler’s version of the song on Swing Low Sweet Spiritual (aka Goin’ Home), Cobb might be reciting his own benediction.

 

The final session was devoted to Clifford Jordan. There’s a certain amount of disarray to the Dr. Chicago session – some discord between Jordan and pianist Jaki Byard is alluded to in the notes (a possible throwback to their shared Mingus history?) – but there’s also music of brilliance, including the charging title track, the duet of Jordan and Byard on “If I Had You” and the hyper-kinetic version of “BeBop.” The pinnacle of the 12 CDs is here, testimony to the Neumann’s vision and likely their willingness to pay for orchestration: it’s Melba Liston’s arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live for,” an 11-minute version in which Jordan and Red Rodney (on flugelhorn) develop rich variations on Strayhorn’s harmony and Liston’s voicings. Byard, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Vernel Fournier add distinct conceptions of the material, turning it into a rhapsodic whole. It’s a direct throwback to the glorious Riverside past more than two decades before that Jordan and Liston shared with musicians like Tadd Dameron, Jimmy Heath, Blue Mitchell and many, many others, already receding into the rearview mirror of jazz.

Stuart Broomer © 2015

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