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COLLABORATION WEST (Prestige/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-122-2)[1952-53]

EVOLUTION (Prestige/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-1731-2)[1953-55]

THE TEDDY CHARLES TENTET (Atlantic 7 90983-2)[1956]

COOLIN' (New Jazz/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-1866-2)[1957]

TEO (Prestige/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-1715-2)[1957]




Teddy Charles is one of the unsung heroes of modern jazz -- at least at the present. In the fifties he was all over the place, and on some of the best recordings of that era, some of which he also produced. A vibraphonist, he came to NYC in 1946 to study at Julliard, but quickly discovered the 52nd St jazz clubs where people like Charlie Parker were holding forth. His first professional work was in the big bands of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Buddy DeFranco and Chubby Jackson. By the early fifties he was forming his own New Directions Trio and Quartet and playing some of the most experimental, avant garde jazz around. This brought him into contact with the other jazz experimentalists of the day, like Teo Macero and Charles Mingus (which in turn led to his presence on the Mingus-produced Miles Davis album, BLUE MOODS, on Debut/Original Jazz Classics). He became a producer for Prestige Records, and created the Prestige Jazz Quartet for that label -- a quartet modelled on and with the same instrumentation as the Modern Jazz Quartet -- but only one PJQ album has been reissued on CD -- TEO with guest musician Teo Macero. Subsequently he moved on to Bethlehem Records, where he produced a number of albums and recorded several of his own. Always interested in sailing, Charles retired from music in the sixties, bought a charter boat, and moved to the Caribbean. In 1980 he drifted back into music again, returned to New York and began operating a marina there while playing in clubs at night. In 1988 he led a quartet at the Verona (Italy) Jazz Festival which was recorded by the Italian Soul Note label.


So much for the overview. Let's talk about the recordings.


The best is THE TEDDY CHARLES TENTET. This is a masterpiece. The next best are COLLABORATION WEST and EVOLUTION -- important albums in the evolution of modern jazz. But the rest aren't chopped liver, by any means.

COLLABORATION WEST has, in addition to the entire original 1953 12" LP, a 1952 10" LP tacked on. This was NEW DIRECTIONS Vol. 1, by the Teddy Charles Quartet. (Vol. 2, by the Teddy Charles Trio, has never been reissued on CD.) This quartet, with Charles on vibes, Jimmy Raney on guitar, Dick Nivison on bass, and Ed Shaughnessy -- the same Ed Shaughnessy who was in the Johnny Carson Tonight Show Band for so many years -- on drums, cut only four tracks, but the title of one of them, "Edging Out," tells the whole story. This was jazz on the edge in 1952. Polytonal if not atonal at times, it built on the experiments of the late forties by Lennie Tristano, Gil Evans and others. Highly improvisational, but far from self-indulgent, this was music being made by men who had no charts for the course upon which they were embarking, but who set high standards for themselves. The guitar-vibes combination made for shimmering textures, and these were combined with feverish rhythms to produce in "A Night In Tunisia" (a Dizzy Gillespie classic) a powerful, churning caldron of intensity.


Nearly a year later Charles went out to Hollywood, to record two sessions with a West Coast all-star group. The first was a quartet: Charles on vibes, with Shorty Rogers on trumpet, Curtis Counce on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. The second session added Jimmy Giuffre on tenor and baritone saxes. This was an inspired matchup and led to some of Rogers's best and most experimental writing ("Wailing Dervish") and playing on record. Charles's thinking dominates the sessions and jolts Rogers out of the ruts into which he was already falling. In his original notes for the LP, Hall Overton (an experimental pianist who sometimes collaborated with Charles) offers these elements "that distinguish this music from standard jazz idioms: 1. longer forms than the usual 32 bar song form. 2. a much more varied type harmony (polytonality, 4th chords). 3. spontaneous counterpoint, whenever performers feel an extra melodic line fits. 4. fluctuating tonal centers." Overton adds, "It is important to note that the improvised portions ... match the written portions to the extent that it is often difficult to tell them apart. This is clear proof that the group understands in an intuitive, improvisational way, what it is doing and it marks an outstanding achievement in jazz of this type." More to the point, unlike many jazz sessions where diverse musicians were brought together to make a record, these were not "blowing sessions," with no forethought or advance planning. Charles's collaborations with these west coast musicians mesh well; they form a coherent group.

EVOLUTION picks up where COLLABORATION WEST leaves off, with two additional tracks by the quintet. But the bulk of this rather short album (the LP is not augmented with any additional tracks) is taken up by an east coast group, the Teddy Charles New Directions Quartet of 1955, a major group in its own right, consisting as it does of Charles on vibes, with J. R. Monterose on tenor sax (not to be confused with Jack Montrose, a west coast tenor player), Charles Mingus on bass, and Gerry Segal on drums. By now Mingus was leading his own Jazz Workshop groups, which intermingled personnel with Charles's New Directions groups. Monterose, for example, was a key ingredient in the Mingus Jazz Workshop's powerful Atlantic album, PITHECANTHROPUS ERECTUS (found on the boxed sex, PASSIONS OF A MAN, reviewed elsewhere in these pages).

The jazz scene in the early and mid-fifties was incredibly and excitingly fertile. Musicians were realizing that the old restrictions had fallen away, that jazz was opening up and pursuing a variety of directions. Parker, Gillespie and Monk had liberated jazz from swing with bop in the forties, but had imposed a new set of restrictions in place of the old. Now musicians were drawing their inspiration from recent (20th century) developments in classical music, at the same time they were taking their performances out of dingy, mob-owned clubs and into concert halls and colleges. There was no single direction to be taken, but many. The sky was the limit. It was not unlike the advent of progressive rock in 1969: a new musical consciousness was being formed by a variety of very talented people. Every time you placed these musicians in new combinations, they gave off sparks and produced new ideas. All were ambitious about their music. There was a lot of composition as well as inspired improvisation. And Teddy Charles was in the middle of this, as a writer, a performer, a leader and a producer.

This reached a peak with Charles's Atlantic album, THE TEDDY CHARLES TENTET. Atlantic then was a premier jazz label, issuing a series of pivotal albums, starting with the Modern Jazz Quartet's FONTESSA, including a number of Mingus's best albums, Giuffre's best albums (reviewed elsewhere here), and still unreissued albums like Bill Russo's WORLD OF ALCINA. Charles made two albums for Atlantic, the TENTET and WORD FROM BIRD, its followup. Half of the latter album is included on this CD, and the remainder is to be found on the Mingus PASSIONS OF A MAN boxed set.


The TENTET is a composer's album, and it gives us the work of some of jazz's best composers of that era. The Tentet itself is made up of vibes, trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, piano, guitar, bass and drums, although not every instrument is used on every track (the trombone and French horn were used only on two tracks from WORD FROM BIRD). The composers are Mal Waldron (who played piano with Charles and with Mingus, and later accompanied Billie Holliday in her last years), Teddy Charles himself (who wrote "The Emperor" and arranged "Nature Boy"), and non-band-members Gil Evans (who had not yet collaborated with Miles Davis on MILES AHEAD), Jimmy Giuffre and George Russell (then little-known). Bob Brookmeyer contributed "Showtime" to WORD FROM BIRD. This is subtle but engaging music, exhibiting a near-perfect blend of composed and improvised music that strongly prefigures so-called "Third Stream Jazz."

WORD FROM BIRD was a disappointing followup album. On one side it appeared to continue the Tentet's approach with the title track and Brookmeyer's "Showtime" but on the second side it presented a rather laid-back version of the New Directions Quartet, with Hall Overton on piano, Mingus on bass and Shaughnessy on drums. One track, "Blue Greens," by this quartet appears on the TENTET CD; all of the quartet tracks are included on PASSIONS OF A MAN. Both of the bigger group's performances, "Word From Bird" and "Showtime," are included on the CD. I cannot recommend the TENTET CD highly enough -- but it has disappeared from some stores and may require a special order.

Charles was back at Prestige to produce a number of albums after that. Only about half the Prestige albums on which he played have been issued on CD, however. One is COOLIN', a more typical Prestige album -- not quite a "blowing session" (an unrehearsed session with a pickup group that just jams -- something Prestige did more often than not), it is not very ambitious either, being a more mainstream approach to jazz. The album made use of tricky charts but left lots of room for soloists to stretch out. Here the Prestige Jazz Quartet (Charles, Waldron, Addison Farmer on bass and Jerry Segal on drums) is joined by Idrees Sulieman on trumpet and John Jenkins on alto sax. Sulieman was an underrated trumpet player with a bright singing tone; Jenkins was a post-Parker alto player who sounded a bit like Jackie McLean. This is post-bop ("hard-bop,"" neo-bop") jazz, not experimental at all, but played with authority.


The Prestige Jazz Quartet made one album for Prestige as the PJQ (it hasn't been released on CD), but before that came out Prestige released TEO, the PJQ joined by Teo Macero on tenor sax. Macero is a fascinating musician. He can be found on some of Charles Mingus's most experimental recordings in the early fifties. His own 10" Debut LP, EXPLORATIONS (now part of a Stash CD that collects much of Macero's work) was a pioneer effort in experimental jazz, and his side of the Columbia 12" LP, WHAT'S NEW (the other side is by another forgotten jazz composer, Bob Prince) was revolutionary at the time, making use of sped up and slowed down tapes and overdubs (it too is on the Stash CD). He used to give concerts at the Cooper Union at which he used the tapes from those albums and played live saxophone against them. But he is, of course, far better known as a major producer at Columbia in the fifties and sixties. He produced Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk for that label, making some of their biggest and most famous albums.

On TEO he contributes one composition ("Just Spring") and a moody, otherworldly near-legitimate sax sound. It's Macero's album, but Teddy Charles still dominates it. Like COOLIN' it is fairly stretched out (there are only six tracks), but it is compositionally more interesting, albeit far from the experimentalism of earlier Macero and Charles efforts.

In the late fifties Charles moved to another small, NYC-based label, Bethlehem. I believe Bethlehem was associated with or taken over by King Records, for which Charles had produced some r&b records. Bethlehem issued two Mingus albums in this period and a variety of Charles albums, only two of which are available on CD. The Bethlehem label was revived in the late eighties, and has commendably reissued some fifties jazz albums with bonus tracks and (for the first time) in stereo. The Vibraphone Players of Bethlehem Volume 1 was originally issued as (and still uses the cover from) SALUTE TO HAMP by Teddy Charles and his Sextet. "Hamp" is Lionel Hampton, probably the first and original jazz vibes player, who made his mark with Benny Goodman in the thirties, and still plays his own unique, riff-driven vibes. This album is very atypical of Charles, since all the material is "standards" like "Airmail Special," "Stardust," and "Flying Home" from the swing era, played by a group that included Hank Jones on piano, Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, Zoot Sims on sax, Art Farmer on trumpet, Addison Farmer on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. This was a minor album for Charles.


ON CAMPUS was another Bethlehem album, but it has been released on CD by Fresh Sound, a Spanish label run by a jazz fan. These are just this side of bootlegs; Fresh Sound obtained only Spanish release rights, but sells its albums primarily in the United States. Here a septet (Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Jimmy Raney on guitar, Sam Most on flute, Dave McKenna on piano, Bill Crow on bass, and Ed Shaugnessy on drums) performs at a concert at Yale in 1960. There are some "Ivy League" songs here ("Whiffenpoof Song") and some oldies ("Struttin' With Some Barbecue") as well Monks' "Well You Needn't" at a time when few were covering Monk. But it's still a minor album, only a step up from SALUTE TO HAMP. (Regretably, Fresh Sound got the sides of the LP mixed up, and put side two first on the CD, while still listing the tracks in their original order. Thus, the listed track one ("Yale Blue") is really track six, two is seven, three is eight, and four is nine. The CD actually begins with track five. Further complicating things is the fact that track five is given as "Rifftide," but is actually "Well You Needn't.")


After Bethlehem Charles both produced for and recorded his own albums for another small label, Warwick, and did a final album for United Artists (none of these are available on CD) before giving up on the music business in the sixties. But eventually he returned to both NYC and music, putting together a new quartet that performed and was recorded at the 1988 Verona Jazz Festival in Italy. When this CD was released I hoped to see a resurgence from Charles and more new albums. That has not, as yet, occurred, and another ten years have passed. But the Live At the Verona Jazz Festival 1988 album is a solid hour of music that shows Charles could still get it up. It opens with "All The Things You Ain't," a take on "All The Things You Are," complete with the original (Charlie Parker) interpolation of "Prelude in C# Minor," and follows that with the Miles Davis classic, "Walkin';" a new Charles composition, "Third Leveling;" "To Start Again" by pianist Harold Danko; "Nostalgia for Mingus," a version of Mingus's "Nostalgia in Times Square;" and closes with "A Night In Tunisia." Although this is far from the experimentalism of the early fifties, the mature Charles hasn't mellowed out into blandness (as so many others have). Working with a quartet made up on Danko on piano, Ray Drummond on bass, and Tony Reedus on drums, Charles picks up pretty much where he left off. His choice of material is broad and revealing. The notes state that Charles had developed "an adventurous and exhilirating sound that Charles likes to call 'Third Level Jazz,'" which explains the title of his composition. His playing has the same trademarked eliptical approach to melody, the same flirtation with atonality in spots. It's a shame he hasn't done any more recording since 1988.

But if Charles had never come back from the Caribbean his music would live on in COLLABORATION WEST, EVOLUTION and -- most especially -- THE TEDDY CHARLES TENTET. These are must-haves for any collection.

UPDATE [07-10-01]: The TENTET album has disappeared from the stores, but I’m indebted to Barry Stock for pointing out that the Collectables® label is reissuing it. The album is to be released on this label on July 31, 2001.   It’s “Item Number: COL6161” and “Item UPC: 090431616123.”   Note, however, that it is only the original album. It does not include any bonus tracks, but with WORD FROM BIRD out as its own CD now (see my review elsewhere), the extra tracks used on Atlantic’s CD of the TENTET are unnecessary.

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