Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Blast from the Past

Along with all the lively chats I had with Guaraldi's colleagues and former sidemen, while working on my book — definitely the high point of the research process — additional excitement came from the discovery of fresh examples of the pianist's recorded output. Such albums came in two flavors: Either they were new to me — such as Woody's Herman's Anglo-American Herd, a way-obscure British LP on the Jazz Groove label, and the only known recording of the 1959 UK tour that included Guaraldi — or they were just plain new, as with Concord's The Best of Cal Tjader: Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival 1958-1980, which came out in 2008, when I was up to my eyeballs in notes, transcripts, photocopies of old newspapers, and all sorts of other ephemera. The latter finally allowed me to hear the exciting late-night set by Tjader's combo at the debut Monterey Jazz Fest, which did much to raise Guaraldi's profile as a ferocious pianist.

I know of other recordings that haven't yet seen the light of day; somewhere, the Fantasy/Concord vaults must contain the entire Brew Moore/Tjader septet performance that was recorded live at UC Berkeley on August 28, 1955. Thus far, only two isolated tracks have been released on two different Brew Moore albums ... talk about frustrating!

Meanwhile, Santa Claus brought Guaraldi fans a lovely present on December 11: The Cal Tjader Quintet: Live at Club Macumba, which presents two mostly up-tempo sets recorded at that San Francisco club in late 1956. The album has been released on the Acrobat Jazz label, and is readily available at Amazon and the usual outlets. The precise dates are unknown; Tjader's quintet was booked September 3-16 and then again October 2-28, so it's possible one set was recorded during the September run, while the second came in October. Or some other combination therein.

The original tapes are part of what is known as the Ackerman Collection, an archive of jazz recordings made during the 1950s and '60s, and assembled by broadcaster Ken Ackerman, beloved as the voice of the "Music Till Dawn" show on KCBS. As sometimes happens with such things, the collection was stored away and then mostly forgotten, until being "rescued" by San Francisco Traditional Jazz Federation members William Carter and Dave Radlauer. They, in turn, donated everything to Stanford University's Archive of Recorded Sound in November 2007. Cataloguing and restoration have allowed bits to be released commercially; this double-CD set is one such example. You can read more about the collection here; I note, with interest, that the listings include a KNBC radio broadcast of a set by the house band at the popular San Francisco restaurant Sabella's. That unit was fronted by Joe Marcellino, one of Guaraldi's two musical uncles.

So, all right already, you're thinking; how's the music?

Each set runs roughly 46 minutes, including some quite amusing banter between numbers, accompanied by plenty of keyboard noodling from Guaraldi. Both sets feature six songs, most quite lengthy arrangements, with three — Tjader's "Bill B," Dizzy Gillespie's "Guarachi Guaro" and the ballad "For Heaven's Sake" — present in each set. This duplication supports the belief that the recordings were made on separate evenings.

Guaraldi had just come off an eight-month stint with Woody Herman, mostly as part of the massive "Thundering Herd," and ultimately — in August 1956 — as part of a smaller octet booked into Lake Tahoe's Bal Tabarin Casino. Returning to San Francisco marked a reunion for Guaraldi, who had worked earlier with Tjader from the summer of 1951 through January '53. This time around, Guaraldi would remain with Tjader's quintet through January 1959.

Thus, these late summer/early autumn Club Macumba dates essentially introduced Tjader's new combo, which also included Eugene "Gene" Wright on bass, Luis Kant on congas, and Al Torre on drums. (Torre may not have been present when Guaraldi joined; Tjader was using drummer Jesse Cooley when this group debuted on June 28, 1956, at San Francisco's Sheraton Palace Hotel. John Markham took over in July, and was followed by somebody else — alas, unknown — until Torre stepped in.)

As it happens, Torre spends most of his time playing either bongos or timbales on these recordings; his standard drum sound is evident only on "Bill B." With Kant adding his Cuban sizzle on congas, the dominant style here is heavily Latin, heavily mambo-oriented, and heavily percussive. Although Guaraldi enjoys quite a few dynamic solos, he also spends considerable time repeating two-bar phrases over and over and over again. Some listeners find this exciting; I confess to not being among them. The style simply doesn't showcase Guaraldi's melodic talents. His aggressive piano chops definitely are worth an admiring whistle, but the result often sounds more like a percussive exercise than a tune.

Straight-ahead jazz fans are most likely to appreciate his efforts on both versions of "Bill B." Guaraldi delivers a great solo — running well over two minutes — on the first disc's version (which also features lovely bass work by Wright), and then swings like mad at a slightly slower tempo, for more than three minutes, on the second disc's version. He contributes only gentle shading on both versions of "For Heaven's Sake," and comps nicely behind Tjader's vibes on "The Lady Is a Tramp," before launching into some lively give-and-take with Torre and Kant.

Both versions of "Philadelphia Mambo" are rather redundant, but even here, Guaraldi's midpoint solos roar all over the keyboard. He may not be delivering "melody" in the usual sense, but he's hitting more notes — always with intriguing harmonics — than the next three pianists might be able to cram in. He goes positively crazy, amid much verbal encouragement, during both versions of "Guarachi Guaro" (which Tjader re-titled and re-recorded as "Soul Sauce," years later).

"Mambo at the M" isn't terribly interesting until Guaraldi takes over, about four minutes in, and then he cooks until the number concludes, once again battling for supremacy against Torre and Kant. Guaraldi doesn't deliver much oomph in Tjader's "Mamblues," but the feisty pianist rises to the challenge again during a mambo-inflected cover of the standard "Lullaby of Birdland."

The percussive give-and-take notwithstanding, though, I'm most enchanted by the always cleverly harmonic comping Guaraldi does behind Tjader's vibes, particularly during quieter moments. They truly were a great team.

The sound quality is surprisingly good, particularly since these sets likely were recorded by a reel-to-reel machine that was set up and left alone. Background fuzz is present, but not intrusively so; I've heard worse on some of Fantasy's professionally recorded live albums.

The liner notes are dominated by Paul Watts' lengthy, informative and highly enjoyable essay. The one minor hiccup to this package, as Tjader biographer (and longtime writing colleague) Duncan Reid pointed out, is that the photo used on the CD jacket cover shows Tjader in the 1970s ... which is a bit peculiar, for a recording made in 1956. It's not as if there aren't plenty of great Tjader photos more appropriate to the era...

Although not likely to be appreciated as much by fans of the gentler, more melodic sound that characterized most of Guaraldi's work as leader of his own groups, I can't overstate the value and significance of this double-CD album. It's a marvelous slice of history, with the ambient chatter of patrons and clinking of glassware giving a strong sense of the Macumba's atmosphere, and the great fun had by musicians and audience alike. Until time travel is perfected, this may be the next best thing.

1 comment:

Duggadugdug said...

Many thanks for the heads up on this release, which I've now listened through a couple times.

Your review is spot-on. I greatly appreciate having these performances, particularly for their historic value. They are a tasty slice of you-were-there ambiance for those of us who weren't alive or in San Francisco in the 1950s (did you catch Tjader chatting up "Mary" before the first performance of "Guarachi"?). Vince has some fine moments, but I definitely was mambo-ed out by the end. Tjader's vibes are far more forward in the mix than the piano during most of the recording. But overall the sonic quality is very good, particularly when you consider the era and the likely equipment used.

I also noted that a certain author and keeper of an online Guaraldi timeline earned well-deserved mention in the enjoyable text of the CD booklet. :-)

I'm sure we readers don't even need to ask, but please do keep highlighting any new Vince recordings that become available! It's pretty cool to have surprises like this popping up 57 years after the fact...