Sunday, November 30, 2008
The Young Lions: Exposing the Emptiness
The trouble with having a distinct sound is that it can eventually become staid. I went through a period a couple years' ago where I became obsessed with Blue Note's classic sound, in particular the many albums recorded in the home of engineer Rudy Van Gelder. One listen to the pounding open bars of 'The Chess Players' from Art Blakey's The Big Beat were enough to get me hooked - and I still am in a way: Blakey's sessions at Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio are all magnificent and Lee Morgan's Tom Cat and Jackie McLean's Old and New Gospel are among my all time favorite jazz recordings. The only trouble was it gave some of Blakey's proteges an unwelcome anonymity which proved to be the undoing of Blue Note in my eyes.
The Young Lions, committed to tape just six weeks after the Jazz Messengers laid down The Big Beat, captures the same sort of hot house fire of any RVG session but without the predictability that came part and parcel with the Blue Note/Van Gelder tag. All too often I find that the soloist's quota system ("make sure that Curtis Fuller gets a trombone solo that's just as lengthy as Freddie Hubbard's trumpet but be sure they don't take any attention away from Tina Brooks because he's the leader") could grow tiresome. Far too democratic for the creative process to flourish, there needs to be a competitive tension at the core to spark some truly magnificent solo duels (imagine Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young working under such a system in the thirties: their legendary all night 'anything you can do, I can do better' sax off would have turned into a dull, politically correct display of tenor sax relativism, if it would have occurred at all).
Some praise must be heaped on Frank Strozier for helping to guide this record through the wilderness. As the only Young Lion without prior experience working for Blue Note, it's no coincidence his alto sax provides a welcome layer of grit that only a Memphis-trained bar musician could provide. Wayne Shorter, for his part, seems up to the challenge for once, restraining himself on the all-too slick solos that have defined the bulk of his career and embarking on some booming tenor playing as well. I'll refrain from bowing down to Lee Morgan's alter, however; his concise, bellowing trumpet solos both suited the Blue Note sound and managed to overcome it. That's not to say there isn't some wonderful interplay as well: the three work just as well with as they do against.
I often used to wonder if Rudy Van Gelder and Alfred Lion would meet over coffee the morning of their sessions and choose the day's players the same way that Junior High phys ed students pick teams for floor hockey. I imagined their entire vaunted line-up crowding into Van Gelder's rumpus room, Lou Donaldson getting chosen ahead of Hank Mobley, Blue Mitchell over Donald Byrd. I can still imagine this scenario but I no longer think of it as complimentary to the label's virtues. Rather, it reminds me of just how restrictive Blue Note could be: by carving out a unique sound they unwittingly prevented their charges from developing one for themselves. The Big Beat, in spite of its many charms, could have been recorded by anyone on their roster; The Young Lions could have only been made by the Young Lions themselves.