Classic recordings—Gerry Mulligan
by Stuart Nicholson
The Complete Pacific Jazz and Capitol Records of the Original Gerry Mulligan Quartet and Tentette with Chet Baker
Mulligan (bar); Red Mitchell (bs); Chico Hamilton (d).
Los Angeles, 9-10 June 1952.
Get happy. ‘S wonderful. Godchild. Haig and haig. She didn’t say yes...
Chet Baker (tpt); Mulligan (bar); Jimmy Rowles (p).
Los Angeles, 9 July 1952.
Bernie’s tune. Lullaby of the leaves. Utter Chaos #1.
Same personnel as above.
Los Angeles, 15 & 16 October 1952.
Aren’t you glad you’re you. Frenesi. Nights at the turntable. Freeway (1). Soft Shoe. Walkin’ shoes.
Chet Baker, Pete Candoli (tpt); Bob Envoldsen (v-tbn); John Graas (fr h); Ray Seigal (tu); Bud Shank (alt); Mulligan, Don Davidson (bar); Joe Mondragon (bs); Chico Hamilton (d).
Los Angeles, 29 January 1953.
A ballad. Westwood walk. Walkin’ shoes. Rocker.
Same personnel except Larry Bunker replaces Hamilton (d).
Los Angeles, 31 January 1953.
Takin’ a chance on love. Flash. Simbah. Ontet.
Chet Baker (tpt); Lee Konitz (alt); Mulligan (bar); Carson Smith (bs); Larry Bunker (d).
Live at the Haig, Los Angeles. [Note : The three sessions with Konitz probably took place on 23 January 1953, 30 January 1953, and 1 February 1953 but it has been impossible to attribute any date to a specific session.]
Too marvelous for words. Lover man. I’ll remember April. These foolish things. All the things you are. Bernie’s tune.
Same personnel as above. Los Angeles, see note.
Almost like being in love. Sextet. Broadway.
Same personnel as above, except Joe Mondragon replaces Smith (bs), see note.
I can’t believe you’re in love with me . Lady be good (2 versions).
Chet Baker (tpt); Mulligan (bar); Carson Smith (bs); Larry Bunker (d).
Los Angeles, 24 February 1953.
Makin’ whopee. Cherry. Motel. Carson City stage.
Same personnel as above.
Los Angeles, 27 March 1953.
Festive minor. My old flame. All the things you are.
Same personnel as above.
Los Angeles, 27 April 1953.
Love me or leave me (2 versions). Swing house. Jeru. Utter chaos #2.
Same personnel as above.
Los Angeles, 29 & 30 April 1953.
Darn that dream (2 versions). I may be wrong (2 versions). I’m beginning to see the light (2 versions). The nearness of you. Tea for two.
Same personnel as above.
Los Angeles, 20 May 1953. [Note : There is some evidence that this session may have taken place in January 1953.]
Five Brothers. I can’t get started. Ide’s idea. Haig and haig. My funny Valentine.
Same session, Chico Hamilton replaces Bunker (d).
Aren’t you glad you’re you. Get happy. Ponciana. Godchild.
Of the five arrangers who contributed to the ‘Birth of the Cool’ sessions, Mulligan was the possibly the most original, certainly the most prolific, responsible for six of the twelve numbers recorded for Capitol.[i] It was an impressive vote of confidence by his peers, including Miles Davis, Gil Evans, George Russell, John Lewis and Lee Konitz; indeed Russell would later say, "The most important innovator of 1950s was Gerry Mulligan."[ii]
Previously, Mulligan had caused a stir in musician’s circles with his charts of "How high the moon" and "Disc jockey jump' for the Gene Krupa band of 1946-7 and "Sometimes I’m happy", "Godchild" and "Elevation" for Claude Thornhill’s orchestra during the summer of 1948.
What is interesting about this early work was its gradual move away from the angular contours of bop towards a smoother, less frantic form of expressionism. However, in tandem with his arranging was a fast developing skill on baritone sax after a spell playing a variety of saxophones in bands led by Tommy Tucker, Elliot Lawrence, Krupa, and Thornhill, all of whom had recruited him primarily as an arranger.
Having initially come under the spell of Charlie Parker, Mulligan was absorbing the lessons of Lester Young, rationalizing both his playing and writing in favor of a conspicuously melodic, linear approach, even naming his music publishing company Pres Music. Several arrangements and originals he wrote during this period reveal this trend, including those for Kai Winding ("Godchild" and "Sleepy bop" from April 1949), Brew Moore (the May 1949 Lestorian mode session), and his own tentette recordings for Prestige in 1951.
When, Kerouac-like, he hitch-hiked to the West Coast in early 1952, he endured a brief, somewhat fraught, relationship with the Stan Kenton Orchestra while also sitting-in at the Lighthouse, Hermosa Beach, and the Monday night jam sessions at The Haig, a tiny 85-seater club on Wilshire Boulevard at Kenmore Street. Here, in early July, Mulligan met trumpeter Chet Baker and just over a month later he approached club owner John Bennett to fill the Monday night spot with a group of his own.
The June and July 1952 sessions reveal him evolving a small group concept having spent his whole career with large and medium sized ensembles. Consequently there a clear sense of experimentation, of feeling his way, and at this stage a piano appeared central to his ideas; the fact that there is no piano on the first session, other than Mulligan’s ‘arranger’s piano’, is because Jimmy Rowles had promised to appear but failed to show.
Ultimately, however, it seems it was a practical reason rather than a cerebral concept that persuaded Mulligan to go without a keyboard. When the Red Norvo trio opened at the Haig in mid-July for an indefinite engagement, the club’s piano was put in temporary storage. Mulligan’s hand was forced, if he wanted the job he played sans piano.
Their first ‘pianoless quartet’ session came after playing five successive Monday nights at the club and produced "Bernie’s tune" and "Lullaby of the leaves". They were released in the Fall of 1952 and became a minor hit, putting both Mulligan and Pacific Records on the map.
The saxophonist has often said his approach was to simplify rather than complicate[iii] and certainly his handling of "Bernie’s tune", a minor key 32 bar AABA tune then popular with musicians for jamming, could not be simpler with its unisons, Mulligan’s improvised backgrounds and a somewhat strained ‘baroque’ passage before the final chorus.
Equally, "Lullaby of the leaves", with its skeletal background figures and economy of purpose, gives a hint of the exceptional empathy that would develop between Mulligan and Baker, neither of whom at this stage had fully adapted to the absence of a pianist. Indeed, their treatment of "Bernie’s tune" sounds as if they expected one to walk through the door at any moment.
Two months and a hit with "My funny Valentine" for the Fantasy label later, Mulligan’s little ensemble was hitting its stride. Every number from the October 1952 session has something to commend it. Three are original Mulligan compositions specially tailored for the group and a fourth, "Freeway", was by Baker. The group was now beginning to attract large crowds at the Haig and regular performance together was bringing focus and unity in dealing with the ‘pianoless’ concept.
In contrast to the August session, Mulligan and Baker had now come to terms with the way their lines stood out in sharp relief with no chordal backing and were clearly aiming for greater clarity of expression, whether in a leading or secondary role. This session and those that follow reveal the spirit of the Davis Birth of the Cool sessions and Mulligan’s own Prestige tentette recordings with their sophisticated contrary voicings and elegant counterpoint, albeit boiled down to their very essence. With his miniature ensemble, Mulligan attempted to duplicate these lines as much through part writing as through the inspiration of the moment.
The role of the bass is given prominence, calling for greater vertical development of the front-line’s role. While Mulligan from the start seemed aware of this, Baker by now had fully grasped the concept and the group offered an ideal forum to focus his melodic ideas, "Chet was one of the best intuitive musicians I’ve seen," Mulligan would assert later.[iv] And although Baker apparently did not sight-read well, he had an exceptional ear and picked-up quickly on things, contributing his own improvised lines that often sounded as if they had been written out in advance.[v]
"Nights at the turntable" is typical of the engaging originals Mulligan devised for the group. A 36 bar AABA 1 composition, Mulligan and Baker open in unison, followed by a brief period of open and closed harmony followed by the final 4 bars in unison. The middle eight and final A 1 section (A+4 bars) introduce quite precise contrapuntal lines, but always, the recurring opening motif of 4 quavers is played in unison.
Mulligan and Baker are more confident of what they are trying to achieve, and this shows when each plays accompanying lines to the other's solo. These are not riffs, but engaging background figures of varying length and complexity that would have lost their impact competing with a piano, which would have directed them towards a more traditional relationship between trumpet and saxophone.
"Soft shoe" and "Walkin’ shoes", both 32 bar AABA Mulligan compositions, follow "Nights at the turntable" with its engaging mixture of simple part writing and orderly, rhythmic counterpoint. In contrast, Baker’s "Freeway" is all hustle and bustle; which while providing contrast to Mulligan’s love of ‘cut time’ medium tempos, muddies the studied interrelationship between saxophone and trumpet through its fast moving lines.
Mulligan’s next session was with a West Coast version of his tentette formed, like his 1951 East Coast unit with whom he made his debut as a leader on records for Prestige, as a rehearsal band. On "Westwood walk" and "Walkin’ shoes" Mulligan succeeds in capturing the engaging characteristics of his quartet with a larger ensemble. On the former, a 32 bar AA song with A sections of 16 bars each, the emphasis is on hard swing without decibel excess, exemplified by Mulligan’s writing for the ensemble after the solo choruses. However the latter, while capturing the poise of the smaller group, lacks its intimacy of the earlier version of the song.
The remaining sides appear as a logical continuum of Mulligan’s generally overlooked role in helping mid-wife the "Birth-of-the-Cool" dates. Both his compositions and arrangements favor the subdued lyricism and similar tone colors favored by the Davis nonet. Even so, "A ballad", with its Thornhill-like ‘clouds of sound’, is a wholly convincing in its own right. A 44 bar AA 1 BA song with the A sections of 12 bars and a B section of 8 bars, the whole performance comprises just one chorus of the song (plus a 4 bar tag).
Mulligan would later say that much of what he wrote in the 1950s was based on what he wrote for Davis,[vi] but it was also clear he was seeking to expand on his past achievements, despite the inclusion of "Rocker" from the Birth of the Cool sessions.
On "Simbah" he experiments with a minimum of chord changes over an extended composition of 48 bars, in an unusual AABAA form where the A sections are 8 bars and the B section 16 (the basic form excludes the 24 bar introductory passage). The A sections are confined to just one chord throughout, while the B section, except for a couple of passing chords to modulate back to the A section, is effectively based on 3 chords. This was unusual in jazz at the time and a sharp contrast to bop which made extensive use of substitutions; it anticipates the move towards modal harmonies by some five years.
Yet Mulligan did not stop there; after the exposition of the AABAA theme he never returns to it. The rest of the composition includes transitional passages, pedal points, and ostinato figures and is a miniature masterpiece of developmental writing for a small jazz ensemble; this ‘second’ section, although related to the first, is unmistakably more lyrical in content and more imaginative, particularly the feeling of rhythmic suspension in the coda. A lot happens in a short space of time, yet there is never a feeling of congestion in Mulligan’s writing, rather an orderly and logical progression from one idea to another.
In contrast to the static harmonic movement of "Simbah", there are moments in "Flash", a 32 bar AABA song, where new chord changes are coming at the rate of one every beat, such as the particularly affecting chromatic ascent of diminished chords at the end of each A section. Here Mulligan plays ‘arranger’s piano’, and, like "Ontet" (a variation on George Wallington’s "Godfather"), introduces the harmonic movement of the song rather than revealing any of its specific melodic contours per se.
"Flash" opens like a small group performance, with piano, trumpet and alto taking successive choruses. Only at the end of the alto chorus does an ensemble emerge briefly, before a somewhat lumpy Mulligan piano solo and the introduction of the ensemble proper. It is impossible not to think Mulligan’s piano style was inspired by Thelonious Monk’s improvisations on originals such as "I mean you", "Thelonious", or "Epistrophy". He evokes Monk as much in terms of the minimal melodic line, sharp rhythmic displacements and the essentially pianistic nature of the composition as in his own slightly ham-fisted piano technique.
Ontet , with its melody based around the ii-V-I progression, uses the group more fully, an exercise as much in tone colors as part writing. Taken together, the tentette recordings, originally issued on one side of the Modern Sounds album shared with a Shorty Rogers Giants group (Capitol), certainly do not deserve the semi-obscurity to which they have been consigned. Not only are they among the very best of what would become known as ‘West Coast Jazz’ but they stand up today both in terms of compositional form and orchestral ingenuity.
The final three studio sessions show Mulligan’s quartet expanding their repertoire with a variety of originals and sometimes quite unusual standards. "Makin’ whoopee", for example, is customized into the group’s carefully proscribed world of gruff melody and tactful counterpoint and emerges as a typically ingratiating performance. "Cherry" does not fare so well; the group’s quite stylized delivery did not sit well with the attempted humor of a Dixieland coda. However, as ever, it is Mulligan’s originals that are the most captivating.
"Motel", for example, is a 32 bar AABA composition, built around a descending figure answered by a motif built around the interval of a 4th, an unusual interval in jazz at the time to feature in a melody line. Equally, the middle eight is based on the descending cycle of 4ths (although his use of cycles was not so unusual in song construction; the "Walkin' shoes" middle eight, for example, is also based on a cycle, albeit descending 5ths).
Both "Festive minor" and "All the things you are" were not released until this 1983 compilation. The former, not surprisingly in F minor, would appear in versions by subsequent Mulligan ensembles on the Columbia and Mercury labels. Here, however, it does not work quite so well with just the baritone stating the theme, reducing the group to a trio for a large portion of the performance. Equally, while both Mulligan and Baker contribute good solos to "All the things you are", the somewhat tentative ending was probably the reason it was not selected for release.
With the popularity of the group taking off, Mulligan needed to expand the group’s repertoire quickly, so it is hardly surprising that he turned to numbers with which he was familiar. "Darn that dream" and "Jeru" (like "Rocker" and "Godchild") came from the Birth-of-the-Cool sessions; "Swing house", "Walkin’ shoes", and "All the things you are" from arrangements he had contributed to Stan Kenton; and "I may be wrong" from a chart he wrote for Chubby Jackson.
Somehow, however, this little group seemed at its best with ‘cut-time’ medium tempo numbers, even succeeding in bringing a quiet integrity to the master take of "I’m beginning to see the light", Helen Forrest’s big hit with the Harry James Orchestra. Although making allusions to a larger ensemble with its powerful unisons, the kick both Mulligan and Baker get a out of the old war-horse conveys itself to the listener all these years later.
Another ‘cut-time’ piece, although at a brighter tempo, "Tea for two" provides the chords for an ingenious Mulligan variation that cleverly juxtaposes paraphrase with his witty writing; played with zest by the quartet, it is among the best sides cut by this unique group.
Unquestionably live recordings provide jazz music’s most vital life studies, and the inclusion of six previously unissued sides, plus "Five brothers" and "My funny Valentine" restored to their full length, all recorded at the Haig in early 1953 provide an important documentation of this group. Mulligan has spoken of how they developed a remarkable empathy during their performances at the club,[vii] and it is interesting to hear how they react away from the confines of a recording studio. Certainly there is more risk taking—Baker’s solo on "Haig and haig", for example—prompted by a free and easy feeling that permeates the group as a whole.
"My funny Valentine" is a reprise of their hit for the Fantasy label, played andante maestoso while "Five brothers" is a Mulligan original dating back to a 1949 Stan Getz date. A straightforward 32 bar AABA song which he would arrange for Claude Thornhill’s orchestra a matter of weeks after Getz recorded it, it is a perfect vehicle for the conversational exchanges of the trumpeter and saxophonist.
By the time these recordings were made, Mulligan was announcing that he had requests for numbers, "from our new Pacific Jazz album." Both "Aren’t you glad you’re you" and a rampaging "Get happy" immediately distance themselves from the sometimes introspective moods created in the studio and are far removed from the concept of ‘cool’ jazz. They are the confident and sometimes exuberant (Bunker’s drums on "Get happy", for example) statements of young men at one with their art, palpably playing for their own enjoyment as much as their audiences.
The introduction of Lee Konitz into Mulligan’s tightly knit ensemble was not wholly successful yet it evoked such fine performances from the alto saxophonist that they are nevertheless memorable for all that. Konitz, a major improviser on his instrument in a way that Mulligan and Baker were not, effectively dominated a group that had previously relied on a careful inter-relationship of leading and secondary voices in both ensemble and solo passages. Only Mulligan, with his arranger’s skill, seemed secure in improvising accompaniments behind Konitz who takes center stage.
Effectively, Mulligan and Baker take a back seat as Konitz works out on "Lover man", his big feature number with the Kenton orchestra of which he was then a member, and versions of "Too marvelous for words" and "All the things you are". That he was sitting-in with the Mulligan Quartet is only clear on "I’ll remember April" when baritone and trumpet unite in typical catch-as-catch-can counterpoint to announce the theme before stepping back from the microphone to allow Konitz to take the only solo.
Although "Bernie’s tune" is shown as coming from these live sessions, this seems doubtful; no audience sound is audible and there is a degree of preparation that is not apparent on the previous numbers.
"Bernie’s tune", like the studio versions of "Almost like being in love", "Sextet", and "Broadway" that follow, shows thought had now been given to integrating Konitz into the quartet by his doubling or harmonizing Mulligan’s lines an octave higher (easy to do from arrangements since both alto and baritone are Eb instruments)—incidentally, providing interesting tonal color in so doing—or by the altoist occasionally doubling Baker’s part in unison or simple harmony.
On their final session together, Mulligan has clearly taken more trouble with arrangements and it can only be a matter of speculation whether the four recordings at Phil Turetsky’s house, like those of a year before that presaged the quartet, might have in turn heralded an expansion of the group. Whatever Mulligan intended, however, became moot when he was arrested for a narcotics offence and was sent to the minimum security jail at Newhall for six months.
As a post-script to this remarkable little unit, Stan Getz filled in for Mulligan at the Haig during June 1953, while he was appearing at the Tiffany Club. The 16 June recordings that exist (+Fresh Sounds [Sp] FSCD-1022) reveal the extent to which Mulligan had focused his playing with the specific end of producing a cohesive and integrated group sound. His playing was shaped in service of the ensemble, most particularly in accompanying figures that spelt out the harmonic movement of chords that often presented fugue-like effects against Baker’s trumpet.
In contrast, Getz’s accompanying figures are closer to background riffing than specific counterpoint per se, producing instead a rather workaday jam-session feel quite removed from the detailed ensemble characteristics that made the Mulligan’s original concept so unique. This is also true of their 1958 meeting in Chicago for the Verve label, Stan Meets Chet (+Verve 837 436-2).
Mulligan’s imprisonment marked the end of his association with Baker. During their year together they developed an uncanny rapport, sometimes mechanical but frequently inspired that would never again be recaptured in subsequent ‘re-union’ sessions.
By dispensing with a piano he had created a group that was unique in jazz, something that even got a mention in Time magazine.[viii] It respected the primacy of the improviser in both shaping the ensemble sound and in creating an environment for the soloist to flourish. It was a concept later picked-up by Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler and became common in free jazz, but for the moment, Mulligan had found a niche that he would later develop with Bob Brookmeyer (v-tbn) and Jon Eardley (tpt), eventually expanding into a sextet before ultimately returning to his first love, a big band.
What is interesting about these sides is that at no point can either Mulligan or Baker be accused of creating a truly great solo. Mulligan’s playing was as far removed from the stunning virtuosity of Serge Chaloff in one direction as Chet Baker was from a Fats Navarro or a Dizzy Gillespie in another. Yet despite the absence of a piano, Mulligan’s role as conceptualist, composer, and arranger in ordering the inter-relationship of the group’s instrumentation actually revealed their strengths—Baker’s ingenious, warm lyricism and Mulligan’s genial swing—rather than their weaknesses.
Simply dispensing with a piano is in itself is no guarantee of success, as, for example, various configurations of Max Roach’s small groups demonstrated, from his 1957 group with Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley to his quartet with Cecil Bridgewater and Odean Pope of the late 1970s and 1980s. Here, much of their repertoire was based on the bop/hard-bop methodology of head-solos-head, casting the soloists adrift with the skeletal accompaniment of bass and drums for long periods, which tended to highlight the improvisers weaknesses rather than their strengths; a situation that no amount of resourceful drumming from the leader could compensate.
In contrast, Mulligan’s organization of the limited tone colors at his disposal through clever part writing, well conceived transitionary passages, and judicious counterpoint created a context where both baritone and trumpet functioned effectively within the clearly proscribed limitations of their respective styles. It is to his credit that both Mulligan and Baker were able to appear profound, exciting, and occasionally moving without recourse to artifice or grand gesture.
i. "Godchild", "Venus de Milo", "Deception", "Rocker", "Jeru" and "Darn that dream".
ii. Jazz Masters of the Fifties by Joe Goldberg, page 12.
iii. For example, downbeat, 17 January 1963, page 20.
v. Milwaukee Journal, 23 September 1973. Quoted in West Coast Jazz by Ted Gioia.
vi. Jazz Masters of the Fifties by Joe Goldberg, page 21.
vii. downbeat 17 January 1963, page 20.
viii. Time, 2 February 1953: "Mulligan’s kind of sound is just about unique in the jazz field: his quartet uses neither piano or guitar."
Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker..