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DUANE TATRO’S JAZZ FOR MODERNS (Contemporary/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-1878-2) [1956]

I was still in high school when this album was originally released, and the first thing I noticed about it was its cover: a photo of a General Motors futuristic showcar of the mid-’50s, the Firebird II, as seen from its rear, looking like a shark-like rocketship.   I was a fan of both science fiction and automotive design, and that cover spoke to me.


So did the music, when I brought the LP home and played it. Here was the absolute quintessence of “modern jazz” – horns locked in counterpoint, tone-rows, polyphony, the works. Indeed, what I did not then realize was that Tatro’s album was the full flowering of the seeds planted by Gil Evans and Stan Kenton in the ’40s, and by the Miles Davis-led “Birth of the Cool” arrangers’ band of the late ’40s.

I’d never before heard of Duane Tatro, but that was hardly surprising. His name was virtually unknown in jazz circles at the time of his album’s release – and it has hardly become better-known since then. This album was Tatro’s only release.

I don’t normally quote jacket blurbs, but the one of the back of the CD release of this album is worth quoting in full: “There has been precious little of Duane Tatro’s music available in recent years – one composition each on Music to Listen to Red Norvo By (OJC-155) and Art Pepper’s Smack Up (OJC-176), to be exact. Yet listeners lucky enough to have heard the present album have long cited Tatro as one of the most challenging and imaginative writers of the Fifties. A precocious talent who played tenor sax with Stan Kenton while still in his teens, Tatro grew into a visionary composer who effectively blends advanced compositional techniques with the swing and expressiveness of jazz.   He does it with a striking octet of three brass, three saxophones, bass, and drums; and with a cast of talented musicians (including such prominent fellow writers as Lennie Niehaus, Bill Holman, and Jimmy Giuffre) who perfectly understood the weight and colors of Tatro’s scores.”

Tatro became a professional musician (playing clarinet and sax) at 15, his first job with Mel Torme’s band. At 16 he joined Stan Kenton’s band. It was the middle of World War II and after touring with Kenton Tatro returned to high school. After high school Tatro played with dance bands and then joined the Navy. After playing with Navy bands he used his GI Bill to study composition in Paris with Arthur Honegger

Tatro took a day job in a California electronics plant where he came a production manager, while pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree from USC. In 1953 Contemporary Records commissioned four pieces from Tatro. These were begun in April 1953, but not finished and recorded until September 1954 (“Backlash,” “Multiplicity,” “Turbulence” and “Folly”).   Four additional pieces were then commissioned (“Low Clearance,” “Outpost,” “Maybe Next Year” and “Conversation Piece”) and recorded in April 1955. Finally three “slightly longer compositions” (“Minor Incident,” “Dollar Day” and “Easy Terms”) were recorded in November of that year.   Together, these eleven pieces comprise the album. (No bonus tracks.)

Stu Williamson (trumpet), Bob Enevoldsen (valve trombone), Bill Holman (tenor sax), Ralph Pena (bass) and Shelly Manne (drums) played on all the sessions. Additionally, Joe Eger played French horn on the first and third sessions while Vincent de Rosa played French horn on the second session. Lennie Niehaus played alto sax on the first two sessions while Joe Maini Jr. held that chair on the third session. Jimmy Giuffre played baritone sax on the first and third sessions and Bob Gordon played that instrument on the second session.

If you know anything about ’50s West Coast jazz you’ll recognize most, if not all of those names; these were “all-star” sessions Tatro put together to record his music.

And what music!   Listening to this album nearly 50 years later, I’m impressed by how well it holds up. (The mono recording is exemplary – as was typical of Contemporary’s albums of that era – despite the album’s short running time of 34:21.)   Tatro’s own notes for the album (reprinted along with those of label owner Lester Koenig) are succinct and to the point: “With the exception of ‘Dollar Day’ which is 52 bars, all the pieces use the standard 32-bar chorus.” He means the popular song form. “The departures from conventional writing are melodic and harmonic. For example, only ‘Multiplicity’ has a key signature. The development of each piece is derived from the material introduced in the first chorus.” Individual pieces use a “melody set in a Phrygian mode,” “a theme built on a 12-tone row,” “a simple melody written over a polychordal structure,” or “intervals of a fourth with interplay of unison lines and ensemble,” to quote a few examples.

This was startling music in 1956 (and no less so during the previous three years of composition and recording), but it is not nearly so startling now – to ears which have grown accustomed to the evolution of polyphony and dissonance in modern music.   What remains remarkable are the plaintive melodies and airy harmonies reminiscent of 20th century French wind music (hardly surprising, given Tatro’s studies with Honegger).

What Tatro did was to take not only the “Birth of the Cool” advances of the late ’40s but Gerry Mulligan’s subsequent explorations (with piano-less groups) and he used and built on these to create a fully-formed and mature music which at once epitomizes “West Coast jazz” and also goes beyond it into territory occasionally explored by Teddy Charles, Jimmy Giuffre and Bill Russo.   It remains much closer to melodicism and jazz than the music of Robert Graettinger, but shares Graettinger’s sophisticated use of modern, 20th century compositional devices.

As such, the album, now available as part of the “Limited Edition Series” by Fantasy’s Original Jazz Classics on CD, is highly recommended. The CD was released in 1996 and will not remain in print too much longer.


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