NO JAZZ record producer, with the possible exception of John Hammond, has indulged his musical fantasies as constructively as Norman Granz. And certainly no one has done it nearly as frequently.
Working with an extraordinary roster of musicians, Granz almost invariably produces all-star sessions for his Pablo label. He plays musical chairs like no one else, often taking musicians from different backgrounds and placing them together for the first time. Even when his efforts suffer from an embarrassment of riches or simply fall short of the expectations such collaborations engender, they are always revealing. Frequently, they are much more than that.
Take "Count Basie: Kansas City Five" (Pablo 2312-126), for example. Granz has enjoyed the luxury of recording Basie in numerous contexts, but this one is unique. Basie is joined by Milt Jackson on vibes and Joe Pass on guitar, each of whom made their reputations working with pianists of decidedly different temperaments -- John Lewis and Oscar Peterson, respectively. Bassist John Heard and drummer Louis Bellson complete the quintet.
This kind of informal recording, made in 1977 and just now released, is a natural for Basie, a throwback to his early days in Kansas City before the came east, took on personnel, and began favoring orchestrated charts over the head arrangements indigenous to southwest bands.
That's immediately evident as Basie, Jackson and Pass open the album, jumping on the simple melodic line of "Jive Five" to launch their own buoyant, yet unmistakably bluesy improvisation. Even though the tune, like the album itself , holds few surprises or fireworks, felicities around, beginning with the way Pass borrows the trill Basie leads at the end of one chorus and kicks off the next one with it.
And there is more than just the common vocabulary of the blues holding the album together. All five musicians have an impeccable sense of time, space and economy. Those qualities, of course, have always defined Basie's style, but it is a pleasure to hear how Pass and Jackson adhere to his philosophy on "One O'Clock Jump." It's recast to include a delightful opening statement by Basie which, set against Heard's walking bass line and Belson's concise punctuations, soon leads into a rising and modulated ensemble effort, exquisitely performed.
If Jackson and Pass are clearly the album's most voluble players, it's no less clear that Basie holds the reins on the session. He establishes the tempo on every piece but one and even when he takes a back seat to his session mates on the untempo "Timekeeper," his presence is always felt. Among the album's other highlights are "Perdido" -- Basie and Pass in sublime counterpoint -- and a spare, tender Memories of You."
Granz is also responsible for what seems, on the surface at least, to be a much more unlikely choice of personnel on Clark Terry's "Yes, the Blues" (Pablo 2312-127). As it happens, though, this is actually a reunion album of sorts since it teams Terry up with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, who hired Terry for his banbd nearly 25 years ago.
The two have since pursued quite different musical courses: Terry distinguished himself with the Ellington Band and later with the NBC Orchestra. Vinson, whose career first soared with the rise of jump bands in the '40s, had to wait until the '60s blues revival to regain even a small measure of his former popularity.
The album captures Terry and Vinson working with a solid rhythm section (the sure-footed John Heard is again on bass) as well as George "Harmonica" Smith, a fine blues player who has been sadly underrecorded recently and spends most of his time out on the West Coast.
Once again, Vinson reprises "Kidney Stew" (has he ever cut an album without including it or his theme "Cleanhead"?) and "Railroad Porter Blues" which, while not as well known as Vinson's "Back Door Blues," makes use of the same ribald story line and stop-time delivery.
The selections range from a sombre joust called "Diddlin'" (on which Terry's trumpet mouthpiece is pitted against Smith's harmonica) to a remarkably faithful rendition of the Kansas City classic "Swinging in the Blue" to an exhausting blowout on "Quicksand."
Terry's also found on J. J. Johnson's "Concepts in Blue" (Pablo 2312-123). Using trumpet and fluegelhorn and employing a mute at times, Terry competes favorably with Johnson's broad colorful playing. This is a different shade of blues compared to Terry's work with Vinson: softer, more lush, but no less enjoyable.
Johnson wrote six of the eight selections, the finest of them showcasing his commanding, sometimes growling tone ("Mohawk") or the contributions of his illustrious side men: Terry's probling lines on the softly lit "Nermus"; Ernie Watt's saxophone spiraling over Ray Brown's bass ostinato on "Concepts in Blue", the sensitive accompaniment provided by pianist Pete Jolley on "Azure."
The unexpected convergence of Johnson, Terry and Watts at the close of John Coltrane's "Village Blues" is sheer serendipity. The tune permits each of the musicians to explore familiar territory at length before they regroup, fading out in Dixieland like polyphony. Like the best of these albums, it bears witness not only to the excellence of the soloists, but to their inspired compatibility as well.