Jazz Duets and Test Pieces:
Apart from my love of jazz, I also have another weakness: crime novels. Reading Michael Connelly’s recent book, I was amused and surprised to come across a reference to a recent jazz issue by tenor sax player Houston Person and bassist Ron Carter. The disc is called Chemistry and involves a range of tunes from ballads to originals. It had come into my collection not more than two weeks previously…
Chemistry is the key to the playing of duets, not only in classical music but particularly for jazz musicians. Long, long ago I was obliged to take piano lessons for several years, and one year I was entered in a duet competition playing alongside my music teacher’s daughter. At some point in our playing we made a mistake and had to go and start all over again – a very good example of a lack of chemistry between the two of us. I should add that I gave up the piano at age 14 without having had regrets since, though I can still ‘read the dots’ if so moved. As a result of listening to Person and Carter, I’ve been looking out duet recordings from my collection and have been surprised by the number of musicians who have successfully undertaken the challenge. The first and brilliant classic recording is by Louis Armstrong and pianist Earl Hines – a 1928 recording of Weather Bird. A little later, violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang indulged in some duo recordings. But the next recording which came to my attention back in the 1960s was a mid-fifties recording by cornetist Ruby Braff and pianist Ellis Larkins – beautiful music, repeated much later in the 1990s when they made a CD of the music of Irving Berlin. Braff seems to have liked the duet form, especially with piano players such as Ralph Sutton and Dick Hyman. One interesting recording Braff made with Hyman is a concert recording entitled America the Beautiful featuring Hyman on an old theatre organ. Recorded about the same time is another live recording by pianist Michel Petrucciani alongside Hammond organist Eddie Louis – some brilliant interchanges between two outstanding soloists.
Bassist Charlie Haden, one of the leading modern jazz musicians of recent years, made a whole series of duet recordings with piano players, ranging from Hank Jones to Gonzalo Rubalcalba and including Brit John Taylor, Chris Albertson and Kenny Baron. Most again include some lovely music. Guitarist Jim Hall also like the duet format, and some of his best also feature bass players Haden and Ron Carter. But for me the more interesting ones are those he made with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, especially the recording he made at the North Sea Jazz festival. Bass player Slam Stewart and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli produced a nice duet recording back in the 70s which became a feature of the old Humphrey Lyttleton programme, The Best of Jazz. Tenor sax player Stan Getz made a great recording with a little-known pianist Albert Dailey, as well as his final recordings with pianist Kenny Baron, whilst alto sax player Lee Konitz did likewise with Petrucciani. Tenor sax players Al Cohn and Zoot Sims recorded an untitled track which swings like mad, whilst alto player Phil Woods and tenor man Lew Tabackin tore up Limehouse Blues. Finally, someone had the idea of capturing drummer Max Roach playing duets with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry live in Paris on record – those with Gillespie are the better ones in my view. All these examples depend on the chemistry between the partners playing together – and all produce some outstanding lessons in the art of duetting.
Certain musicians produce classic jazz recordings which in effect have become test pieces for their successors. Trumpeter Bunny Berigan’s 1937 recording of I Can’t Get Started is a recording which all trumpet players strive to equal – often without success. Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge would be two exceptions in this regard. Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 recording of Body and Soul, a two-chorus version made at the end of a recording session, sets the standard for all subsequent tenor players. One example which springs to mind which met the level required is a version by British tenor player Tony Coe. Perhaps better known as one of those who played the tune associated with the TV cartoon of the Pink Panther, Tony produced a lovely version of Hawkins’ classic, one which Coe was repeatedly asked to play during his subsequent jazz career. There are other musicians who set the standard for their successors – who can play the piano as well as Art Tatum for example, – but these Hawkins and Berigan recordings stand out. Mike Goldsmith.