Sunday, January 8, 2017

Portrait of the Artist (Bob Brookmeyer, 1959) | Liner notes by Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff Liner Notes for Bob Brookmeyer's Portrait of the Artist | Republished with permission

Robert Brookmeyer is tall, lean, sardonic, epigrammatic, and utterly serious about music, if not always about himself. He has become recognized as one of the most expressive trombonists in jazz history. It is his not only that he plays the valve trombone with remarkable facility, but rather it is his imagination, intensity and cutting wit that make him an authentic jazz individualist. Although he is very much his own man, Brookmeyer reminds me of the harmonic taste and venturesomeness of the late Brad Gowans, the shaggy dog narrative humor of Vic Dickenson, and the urgency of Jimmy Harrison. I do not mean that he has necessarily been directly influenced by these men, but I do mean that he has a largeness of spirit and musicianship that these three shared.

This album, however, finally underlines another aspect of Brookmeyer – his writing and arranging. The only man in jazz who is more self-deprecatory than Brookmeyer is Pee Wee Russell, who is introvertedly similar to Bob in other areas of temperament. Characteristically, therefore, Brookmeyer terms himself an arranger rather than a composer and mutters that he does not consider himself in the same league as the more acknowledged jazz “composers.”

Let us hear. First there is the Blues Suite, which takes all the first side of the album. The work was written in February and March of 1959 and is Brookmeyer’s first large-scale jazz composition. “The piece,” he points out, “is very simple. There are no complicated transitions from one movement to the other. It is as long as it is only because that was the space I needed to develop what I had to say.” The work reflects Brookmeyer’s long-term involvement in the blues as well as his lack of rigidity, as both a composer and player, in addition to what he terms his occasional predilection for whimsy. I have been surprised when critics keen about the relative lack of humor in modern jazz and then overlook Brookmeyer. He is, in a way, the Krazy Kat of our time and like the mouse in the Herriman cartoons who kept conking the canine police official with a brick, Brookmeyer’s humor is of the loving kind.

The brief introduction is anchored on four help notes and presents in fragmentary form some of what is to come. The first movement is essentially constructed in elongated a-b-a song form. Note the melodic inevitability of the theme. Brookmeyer is one of the relatively few jazz writers who are actually melodists. There are touches of Ellington in the way the melody falls and in the voicings, particularly the reeds. The influences on the Brookmeyer piano, which is heard extensively and pungently in the work, are several. That includes Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, certainly Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and most recently, Bill Evans.

In this first movement, his piano is both rhythmically incisive and thematically, a connective protagonist. The atmosphere is remarkably relaxed, with the development unfolding with organic, sensuous ease.

The second movement, with its train-like, Monkish introduction is episodic. I cannot resist noting that the “jazz” Henry Mancini thinks he is writing for Peter Gunn is unwittingly a parody of the form and spirit Brookmeyer delineates here. The trumpet solo is by Ernie Royal. The movement continues with a thrusting urgency that has overtones of ominousness.

The third movement is whimsical. “Just a jump tune,” says Brookmeyer. The bursting tenor is Al Cohn, a musician of such consistency that he has for too long been taken for granted by a jazz audience ceaselessly hunting the “new.” Brookmeyer’s piano solo following Cohn has elements of Duke in its spare, propulsive economy. The fourth movement, like the first, is basically in a a-b-a song form. I am much struck by the rocking melody, which has a folk quality not unlike the themes Aaron Copland used in Appalachian Spring. Brookmeyer’s solo and the brass guar he has chosen for himself are rugged and yet lyrical and underline Brookmeyer’s key skill – a feeling for drama, or, as he puts it later, “mellow drama.”

Brookmeyer’s treatment of Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) begins like the founding of Rome, and then Brookmeyer plungers into the marrow of the message. If there is indeed a vocalized essence of jazz instrumental playing – and I believe there is – it is pungently projected in Brookmeyer’s solo. The first trumpet solo is by the crisp, underestimated Nick Travis. The second burst is by Ernie Royal. The driving alto saxophonist is Gene Quill, currently an enlivening member of the Gerry Mulligan big band.

Mellow Drama is a long ballad composition. The mood is dark and the message would not have been unfamiliar to Edgar Allan Poe. The incisively fresh interpretation Out of Nowhere is brisker and is introduced by Brookmeyer. Gene Quill explodes on alto, and the blaring trumpet solo is by Ray Copeland. The concluding Darn That Dream is broodingly lyrical. The urgent, muted trumpet solo is by Ray Copeland and the open-hearted sequel is by Irving “Marky” Markowitz.

This album, I hope, will aid considerably in the re-evaluation of the Ambrose Bierce of the trombonists. Brookmeyer has the capacity to be one of the most ecbt of all jazz writers. The Blues Suite, for instance, is stripped clean of frills. It is a thoroughly unpretentious, but deeply felt piece. Similarly, the other arrangements are vigorously personal, often sharply edged in their humor, and always logically developed.

After a term of commercial writing in New York, Brookmeyer is now a key member of the Gerry Mulligan band. He has become one of that unit’s most enthusiastic writers and one of its most invaluable soloists. As this album indicates, Brookmeyer has a good deal to say as a writer, and he says it with trenchant economy and directness. This is indeed a Portrait Of The Artist as sketched by himself.
-- Nat Hentoff

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