Return to Dr.Progresso Reviews


JACK MONTROSE SEXTET (Pacific Jazz/West Coast Classics CDP 7243 4 93161 2 6) BLUES AND VANILLA (Spanish RCA ND 74400)

Jack Montrose is one of the forgotten heroes of West Coast Jazz, a phenomenon of the first half of the fifties and a natural outgrowth of the Los Angeles music scene (musicians being in steady demand to record movie soundtracks as a "day gig") and the Stan Kenton bands of the late forties and early fifties in which West Coast Jazz was incubated. The best known of the West Coast Jazz musicians and outfits were Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, the Chico Hamilton Quintet, Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne. But there were many others, and Montrose (who should never be confused with the east coast tenor player, J. R. Monterose) was only one of them.

Capitol Records now owns Richard Bock's Pacific Jazz label, one of several homes (others were Contemporary and Fantasy) for West Coast Jazz in the fifties, and has now issued six collections from that label in a new West Coast Classics series. (The other five albums are by: Chet Baker & Russ Freeman, Cy Touff, Bill Perkins, Jack Sheldon, and Bud Shank/Bill Perkins.) For some idiotic reason the uniform packages all say "STEREO HI-FI," behind the clear plastic disc-holder of the jewel boxes, requiring an added sticker on the outside of the wrapper that tells the truth: "Glorious Mono." All of these albums were recorded before stereo recording had become common, of course.

The JACK MONTROSE SEXTET album is without question the best of the six, and an unexpected treat, clocking in at just under 70 minutes of music. The CD packaging draws almost entirely from the 12" LP of the same name, using its original cover and notes, but the CD itself includes in addition an earlier 10" LP Montrose had made for Pacific Jazz, as well as an alternate take from that earlier album which had previously been issued only on a sampler. The 12" LP had been part of a special series Pacific Jazz had released that used abstract modern art for covers. This album was the third in the West Coast Artists Series, and presented a painting by Sueo Serisawa and a brief writeup of the artist on the back cover. It's a classy package and one example of the attempts being made in the fifties to spruce up jazz's image.


In his original liner notes, Whitney Balliett (author of an occasional New Yorker column of jazz reviews collected in book form as The Sound of Surprise ) had this to say:

"There have lately been a good many bosomy sermons -- now that the apologists have done their work -- within and without the music about jazz, the art. Few of these hosannas, however, ever point out this fact: Jazz is always an art form; but it is only an art when it recreates, in whatever mode, its chosen materials into fresh, higher superstructures that give the listener a kind of surprised emotional elevation, sustenance, and release -- akin, in a sense, to the purge and exhilaration of Greek tragedy. The jazz artist who achieves this connection with his listener must, perforce, be more than just a professional. And as an artist he must, of course, also be an individualist, even an iconoclast -- great jazz being, it would seem, a remarkable working union of iconoclasts -- or else he would simply be a skillful reshader or copyist.

"Modern jazz, however, has, in addition to a general lack of oomph, few individualists among its members. Individuality, like the tortoise, takes time and courage. But there was recently appeared in the modern jazz world a powerful and almost Victorian worship of 'progress' as a virtue in itself. Thus a competent musician, to be 'progressive,' often handily copies what seems progressive in the work of a slightly more mature musician. This is easy, and at the same time, stylish. Real progress in jazz, though, can take place only when a musician has full knowledge of who and what have come before in his medium and has decided, beneath his own sun, that he is ready to try and forge a new branch on his tree -- a condition of patience and work that few modern jazzmen have the endurance and imagination for.

"One modern jazzman who is worth quietly watching and studying, is Jack Montrose, a serious, single-minded and unhurried twenty-six-year-old composer, arranger, and tenor saxophonist. Montrose is representative of the new school of West Coast modern jazzmen -- the shiny silver fish of contemporary jazz -- in that he combines these capacities to a professional and perhaps even higher degree. Much of his composing and certainly his arranging, should be considered with that of Jimmy Giuffre, Gerry Mulligan, and John Lewis, the most idealistic and promising of their kind now in jazz. Like many West Coast composer-arrangers, his writing shows a quantity of classical influences. His arrangements are often scored for all the instruments at hand. He uses an abundant amount of suspended rhythm, broken rhythms, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and rhythm instruments for color instead of accent and foundation. Again, in place of the water-off-the-duck's-back unison ensembles one hears in so much modern jazz, Monterose, more often than not, makes every front line voice an individual one, pitching them against each other rhythmically, harmonically, and for color contrasts: organizing them into light-footed fugal sections or strettos; making them talk and swing and jar one another dissonantly. ..."

If I had the space, I'd quote the rest of what Balliett had to say; his is an excellent essay. In his own notes to the album (they got a lot of words on the back covers of albums in those days) Montrose himself points out his classical influences, which started with Stravinsky but quickly "progressed" back to Mozart and Beethoven. He states, "To me, classical forms were originated for a reason -- by necessity. They are rules in music. There is a reason for them and a necessity." This is a discovery jazz and rock musicians have made over and over again.

A lot of them were making this discovery in the fifties, a time when jazz itself seemed to rediscover Bach and counterpoint. The 12" LP which leads off this album was recorded in 1955. The 10" LP which follows it in the CD was recorded in 1954. (It seems odd to me to present the 1955 sessions first, followed by those from 1954, since the 1955 sessions are an evolutionary advancement over those of 1954. The material used in 1955 is also stronger, compositionally.) My favorite piece on this CD is "Some Good Fun Blues," the title of which says it all. The horns build on a catchy twisted piano riff and the theme develops through several contrasting sections to create an uptempo, almost bouncily happy "blues."

That piece prefigures to a considerable extent the direction Montrose would follow on the 1956 BLUES AND VANILLA -- his only other album available on CD, as a Spanish import. (I believe this Spanish edition, despite being identified as an RCA/BMG release, is actually the work of the same person who runs the Fresh Sound label. He licenses albums for release in Spain, but exports most of them to the U.S. and European jazz markets, making them "grey-area" -- not quite bootlegs, but not entirely legal either for sales outside Spain. In any event he appears to be working with good masters and the packaging faithfully reproduces the cover and liner notes of the original 1957 RCA LP, which I have.) Montrose recorded other albums -- one for Atlantic, at least one other for RCA -- but these two CD releases are definitely the cream of the crop.

BLUES AND VANILLA used two quintets, one for each side of the original LP. Side one was one extended 18-minute piece, "Concertino da Camera (Blues and Vanilla)". For that piece the quintet included Joe Maini on alto sax, Red Norvo on vibes, Walter Clark on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums. RCA A&R man Shorty Rogers produced. The five pieces on side two were performed by a quintet which still included Norvo, but had Jim Hall on guitar (substituting for the alto sax) with Max Bennett on bass and Bill Dolney on drums.

Of the title track, Montrose notes, "Its sub-title, 'Blues and Vanilla,' is derived from the fact that the composition is separated into two large, easily recognizable sections, the first of course being the 'blues' section and 'vanilla' comprising section two. These two sections are constructed identically, though each, of course, is confined to its own melodic material. Section I, or 'The Blues,' consists of three separate and distinct blues themes, each of which undergoes an individual metamorphosis and development until the three finally emerge together and are performed contrapuntally to one another, each in its entirety. Section II, or 'Vanilla,' consists of three separate and distinct themes of the type which I like to consider as being 'vanilla.' As in section I, each theme undergoes its respective development until at length all three appear concurrently and contrapuntally, as occurred in section I. The coda consists of a re-statement of the blues themes from section I, thus forming an overall-all large compound three-part song form. The composition is almost totally contrapuntal in texture and great caution was exercised to ascertain that each voice of the counterpoint was a complete and naturally swinging entity in its own right." That last sentence is the key. Despite the intellectual construction of the elements of this piece, it is not at all pretentious, abstract, or "difficult." Indeed, it's the very reverse: a surprisingly relaxed and happy piece.

The unique combination of "blues" and "vanilla" (the meaning of which hasn't changed in over forty years) is a combination of contrasts, but the overall feeling is bouncy and Up, the melodic themes are cheerful and catchy, and this is an album I like to use to start my day. The feeling continues on side two (the shorter pieces) despite the substitution of Hall's fluid guitar for Maini's almost rock-like alto sax. Indeed, Duke Ellington's perennial classic, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," is transformed through the imaginative use of counterpoint into a completely fresh piece that fits perfectly in this context. And Red Norvo! Norvo is the "other" swing-era vibes player (Lionel Hampton being better known), but he evolved with the times and in the late forties emerged with a trio (Tal Farlowe on guitar, Charles Mingus on bass) which helped define "cool" and "West Coast jazz." Norvo made a variety of albums in the fifties (for the Contemporary label) and proved he was as modern as any of the younger musicians he now worked with. His presence on Montrose's album is a delight.

The Pacific Jazz/West Coast Classics CD is a fresh (1998) release. BLUES AND VANILLA is undated (it carries a 1972 copyright -- probably evidence of when a Spanish LP was released) but was probably released on CD in the late 1980's or around 1990. It will be much harder to find, but is well worth it, being the more individualistic of the two albums (albeit only 37 minutes long). Both are highly recommended.

Return to Dr.Progresso                    Back to Top

If you are interested in obtaining any of the music discussed in this site, click on Ordering Information

I welcome feedback on these pages. I can be reached directly at twhite8 AT cox DOT net. Let me hear from you. --Dr. P