At long last, Gerry Mulligan’s five Concert Jazz Band albums, recorded for Verve between 1960 and 1962, have been collected, though not by Verve. Mosaic (35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902, 203-327-7111, email@example.com) has done a consummate job with The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions. These much loved but long-unavailable records have never sounded better—even the muzzy Milan sides gleam. The integrity of the original LPs is preserved, with unreleased takes placed at the end of appropriate discs. From the first measures of Al Cohn’s arrangement of “Sweet and Low,” you know you are on enchanted ground, and the sense of discovery and triumph never subsides for long, partly because each album’s personality is distinct from the others’.
Mulligan became an overnight sensation with his piano-less quartet in the early 1950s, but big bands remained his first love and the CJB was his boldest attempt to initiate a venturesome orchestra—its very name warned dancers to go elsewhere. It was to be a workshop ensemble, an expanded version of the Miles Davis nonets (for which Mulligan had scored most of the music), allowing him and other writers to show what a full complement could do. His celebrity, plus the willingness of members to work cheap and Norman Granz’s deep pockets, made the undertaking possible. Another crucial component, as Bill Kirchner demonstrates in his illuminating notes, was the steady instigation of Bob Brookmeyer, the Mulligan quartet’s valve trombonist and ultimately the CJB’s most prolific arranger.
Eighteen months after the start-up, Granz sold Verve, dooming the project but for one last hurrah in late 1962, but the CJB’s influence was immediate and lasting. The first big band to play the Village Vanguard, it engendered what is now known as the Vanguard Orchestra, unleashing a tide of rehearsal or Monday-night bands. Its method of building orchestral constructs from combo outlines helped Mulligan retain a limber spontaneity; among the many bandleaders who elaborated on the idea were Charles Tolliver (see below), David Murray, and most recently Dave Holland. But Mulligan’s band had something no other band could rival—his stubborn, nostalgic, frequently inspired, occasionally cloying passion for melody.
Ironically, Mulligan was so preoccupied with the mechanics of bandleading that he wrote nothing for the project beyond an unreleased update of his Kenton classic “Young Blood” and a majestic “Come Rain or Come Shine,” recorded twice to feature Zoot Sims and, more successfully, himself. So in addition to Brookmeyer and Cohn, he enlisted Bill Holman, George Russell, Johnny Mandel, and a then unknown Gary McFarland. Mulligan and Brookmeyer were the primary soloists, spelled by Sims, Clark Terry, Gene Quill, Jim Hall, Willie Dennis, the forgotten tenor Jim Rieder, and the group’s unsung hero, trumpeter Don Ferrara, whose bursts of invention on “Out of This World,” “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” “Barbara’s Theme,” and “All About Rosie” place him in the Hasaan category of lost jazz noblemen.
A benign Olympian hovers over this material, and it isn’t Apollo. The blessings of Duke Ellington are everywhere; no other group of writers paid homage with more candor and creativity. The original notes to the CJB’s last LP specified Ellington’s impact on those pieces, but it was apparent from the first: symbolically in the first recorded number, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ ” (from Anatomy of a Murder), and wittily in the Ellington-meets-Clyde McCoy passages of “Sweet and Low.” Hats are tipped to Evans-Thornhill, Basie, Goodman, and Herman, while Russell’s “All About Rosie”—a superior update of the 1957 version—flies in its own orbit. Yet Ellington is invoked constantly, in voicings that include clarinet and in the interplay between soloists and ensemble.
There is so much to admire, not least the rhythm sections, especially the team of Mel Lewis and Bill Crow, which emphasize a relaxed capering that reflects Mulligan’s easeful swing. The contrast between Mulligan’s smoothly gruff lyricism and Brookmeyer’s gruffly smooth barking, hissing, chomping solos typifies the good humor that often rises to the top—as in anything by Cohn, notably the matchless double windup of “Lady Chatterley’s Mother,” or the last bar of Brookmeyer’s “You Took Advantage of Me” (a solo sigh that was played by the ensemble at a European concert released on European labels), or Mulligan’s whimsical “Emaline” intro to “Come Rain or Come Shine,” or his breakaway interpolation of “Blues in the Night” and Brookmeyer’s asthmatic entrance on “Sweet and Low,” or John Carisi’s orchestration of Miles Davis’s two choruses on “Israel,” to say nothing of Holman’s 6/8 arrangement of “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” which turns it into a rocking counterpart of “All Blues.” The On Tour album qualifies as a de facto Zoot Sims concerto and a definition of mercurial wit.
Rumors of hours of unreleased material have proved untrue; the Vanguard tapes are apparently lost, and the 11 new alternates and otherwise unreleased items don’t add much, except for “Young Blood.” Mulligan would undoubtedly be relieved. This is desert island material, returned to life after more than two decades, in a limited pressing of 7,500 copies. Those should sell quickly enough; maybe then Verve (which now offers only the Vanguard set) will return this music to stores. Don’t wait.