While now it seems ubiquitous, back in the early fifties, the idea of a bop band playing without a piano was considered a radical idea. The iconic “West Coast Cool” team of Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker set the tone for a sound, style and attitude that survives to this day.
After Baker left, Mulligan formed a new group in 54-55 with a sextet of Jon Eardley/tp, Bob Brookmeyer/vtb, Zoot Sims/ts, Peck Morrison/b and Dave Bailey/dr (with a couple replacements here and there) to create a flexible, lithe and hiply swinging band that still sounds fresh and tasty. Mosaic Records has just released a limited edition 5 lp (180 gram) boxed set of this influential band, but since most of us are not vinyl audiophiles anymore, we found a similar 3 cd set that was released back in 2006 by Fresh Sound Records in order to give you the best choice for the best music.
A number of the pieces here are re-arranged pieces from the original quartet such as “The Lady Is A Tramp,” “Bernie’s Tune” and “Makin’ Whoopee” which have a fuller yet still nimble sound. A tune like “La plus que Lent” has some hints of expressionism as Mulligan gives a tip of the beret to his boss and inspiration, Gil Evans, with some rich and thoughtful textures. The band is also able to swing sublimely as a couple takes of “Broadway” display, and Sims sounds marvelous throughout. Mulligan does resort to adding some piano on “Blues” with Sims tapping into his inner Lester Young, as Eardley and Brookmeyer create some wondrous weaved threads for a toe tappoing tapestry.
Also, because we are dealing with Gerry Mulligan, the band comes off as richly rehearsed, the mixture of structured themes, segues and solos on a piece such as “Demanton” and “Elevation” is a magical sleight of hand, while the “Duke Ellington Medley” gives the reeds a chance to glow.
The Fresh Sound 3 disc set has an extra bonus of including a 1954 San Diego concert with Red Mitchell/b and Larry Bunker/dr in the rhythm section and what’s invitingly remarkable about this gig is that only the Ellington Medley is re-done from the studio, so you get a ton of fresh and previously unrecorded material that swings like “It Don’t Mean A Thing” and “I’ll Remember April” as well as some autumnal pieces such as “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” The pulse and vibe is more relaxed in concert as well; you can feel the palpable energy of the band better in the concert hall than in the studio.
The thing that is most striking about this group is what great and full tones each of the horn players had. Mulligan is creamy, Zims is Lesterian warm, Brookmeyer is cerebral and Eardley is radiant coal embers. It’s a sonic lesson of the importance of having a personal sound, something today’s artists have traded in for mind searing chops. Not only do the individual artists have a signature fingerprint, but so does the band. When did we go wrong?
Both the album and cd set include excellent notes to fill you in on the background of this ground-breaking band. Even with the Fresh Sound adding an extra gig, the price is almost half of the Mosaic Lp set, so unless you’re a snotty audio nerd, the preferable choice is a no brainer. Dig in!