Comprised mostly of air-shots from Birdland, New York City 1955-1958 is an unmitigated treasure trove for fans of the star-crossed bassist Oscar Pettiford who died at the age of 37 from a viral infection in 1960. Pettiford’s star in the jazz firmament burned brightly for much of his eighteen-year trans-Atlantic career and his influence is still readily discernible today in the work of countless professional players. Like his contemporary Charles Mingus, Pettiford was also a consummate composer who contributed a number of compositions to the canon. Several of these get numerous and varied workouts on the set, which clocks generously to nearly one hundred-and-sixty-minutes.
Pettiford also had an abiding aptitude for organizing formidable bands. The collective roster on these dates reads like a veritable murder’s row of amassed jazz talent and includes: trumpeters Johnny Coles and Art Farmer; saxophonists Gigi Gryce and J.R. Monterose; pianists Hank Jones and Hod O’Brien and drummers Osie Johnson and Shadow Wilson amongst others. Gryce also contributes arrangements alongside Benny Golson, Lucky Thompson and Ernie Wilkins. Sound quality varies from date to date, but remains surprisingly strong overall given both the vintage and sourcing of the recordings.
As is their standard, the folks at Uptown spare no effort or expense in the accompanying annotations. A thirty-nine page accompanying booklet is crammed with a lengthy essay, period photos and assorted Pettiford ephemera with each concert specific noted and every solo attributed. It’s a degree of detail that borders on the staggering, but the music is certainly worthy of the effort and reflective of the passion Pettiford put into nearly his every pursuit. The decision to include announcer spots by Leonard Feather, Arthur Godfrey and others is sturdy in terms of verisimilitude, but less so in that their spoken introductions are more cursory than illuminating.
Sextet, nonet and big band configurations run down a total of forty-six pieces of music. Arguably Pettiford’s most famous creation, “Bohemia After Dark” serves as frequent rallying cry in much the same way Miles Davis’ employed “The Theme” as recurring focal point during concert sets. Five different versions range from thirty seconds to just over two-minutes in duration and the bands dig in on each one. “The Pendulum At Falcon’s Lair” is another classic present in three iterations. Pettiford favors bass, but also rosins up his cello bow on various occasions, playing the instrument arco and pizzicato. His workout on Ellington’s “Jack the Bear” on the former instrument delivers an early high mark.
Other draws of the extensive set include numerous opportunities to hear tenorist JR Monterose as principal on his horn and the band working through several originals by Gryce. Monterose recorded infrequently throughout his long career and his smooth, sagacious sound fits right into Pettiford’s framework whether it be ensemble or as soloist. Gryce’s tunes rival those of the leader in terms of swinging complexity and his contributions on alto and flute are equally integral to the audience pleasing outcomes. Two dates from a different club cap the set with the band scaled down to an economical sextet and Sahib Shihab doing triple-duty on alto, baritone and flute. Pettiford maximizes the circumstances once again commanding the band with an exemplary amalgam of authority and grace.
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