The Amazing Chico Hamilton Quintet – Part One

[This piece draws upon my review of the Hamilton Mosaic collection elsewhere, but contains sufficient new material to justify its appearance here. Part Two immediately follows.]

The Chico Hamilton Quintet was a unique Fifties chamber-jazz ensemble. Hamilton was the drummer -- ordinarily an odd choice to lead this kind of group, but Hamilton was probably the most musical drummer in jazz, equal to his contemporary, Shelly Manne, in subtlety and finesse, but tempered by his seven years with singer Lena Horne into a greater musical sensitivity. A west coast jazz deejay, Sleepy Stein, said of Hamilton, “this man plays music, not drums.”

The Quintet was equally unique in its instrumentation and its focus on musical forms more commonly associated with classical music than jazz. Yet the Quintet depended on spontaneous improvised interplay between its musicians. They were Buddy Collette (saxes, flutes, oboe, clarinet), Jim Hall (guitar), Fred Katz (cello), and Carson Smith (bass). This lineup of instruments survived several turnovers in personnel, as Paul Horn replaced Collette, and was himself much later replaced by Eric Dolphy; John Pisano replaced Hall; Hal Gaylor replaced Smith; and Nate Gershman replaced Katz (at the same time Dolphy came in). When eventually Hamilton hired Charles Loyd to replace Dolphy, he also abandoned the original Quintet format and its music.

In its original form the Quintet was a musical equal to its contemporary, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Both played chamber jazz: subtle, contrapuntal music to which each instrument contributed its own line. With the array of instrumentation available to it, the Quintet could cover a broader territory, ranging from the blues propelled by a tenor sax -- or a walking bass -- to something more ethereal from oboe and cello. The “chamber” aspects of the music had less to do with the unusual instrumentation itself than with its dynamics and subtle tonal shadings. The Quintet played in a softer, quieter range than most jazz groups, thus forcing its audiences to stop talking to each other and listen more closely to the music.

This was immediately obvious with their first album, The Chico Hamilton Quintet Featuring Buddy Collette (Pacific Jazz PJ-1209), which was recorded in August, 1955 and released later that year. Side one was recorded in a studio on August 23rd, but side two was recorded in a Long Beach club, The Strollers, on August 4th, only a few weeks after the Quintet’s formation, and the club ambience is clearly audible. This album was one of the first 12-inch LPs released by Richard Bock’s Pacific Jazz label, and is now valued at $30 to $75 by collectors, depending on its condition.

The gig at The Strollers was originally for only two weeks, but stretched into eight months, giving the Quintet a residency which allowed them to settle in and grow. Then radio station KFOX began a series of live broadcasts from the club, and once the first album was released the Quintet began to acquire a national following. (Copies of tapes from those broadcasts, recorded off the air by jazz fans on home equipment, are very rare and highly valued by collectors. None has been released as a commercial recording.) Down Beat magazine gave the first album a five-star (its top rating) review.

On January 4th, 1956 the Quintet was back in the studio, recording their second album, The Chico Hamilton Quintet In Hi-Fi (PJ-1216). The “Fi” is in fact no higher than on the first album, but “Hi-Fi” was just coming into existence as a sales buzz-word, and a number of record labels of the time were incorporating it into their album titles. Indeed, the monophonic recordings of Bock’s Pacific Jazz label were exemplary, setting standards rarely exceeded since then. By now the Quintet had half a year of playing behind it and its style had matured.   Richard Bock was also developing a West Coast Artist Series for his album covers, and this album was the fifth in the series. The cover photograph shows the Quintet in the background and in the foreground a sculptor and his abstract sculpture. The sculptor was identified only as “Vito,” and in the photo his hands are blurred with movement as he apparently continues to sculpt. This album is also valued at $30 to $75, depending on its condition.

That was to be the last album recorded by the original Quintet. Buddy Collette got a job with the Jerry Fielding orchestra on the Groucho Marx radio and TV shows. Jim Hall left to join the Jimmy Giuffre 3. Multi-reed man Paul Horn replaced Collette and guitarist John Pisano replaced Hall. The revamped Quintet went into Los Angeles’ Forum Theatre to record the next album on October 21st and 24th.   Richard Bock liked the acoustics there, and the recording bears out his judgment. This album, released in early 1957, was called Chico Hamilton Quintet (PJ-1225), a startlingly uninspired title and the third Quintet album to have essentially the same name. It was recorded in both mono and stereo, although the stereo version was not released until 1958, when the album was reissued on Bock’s new successor to the Pacific Jazz label, World Pacific (ST-1005). The album’s cover was a striking abstract painting which seemed to evoke a bass or cello and drums in its images, and was by Keith Finch – the 6th in the West Coast Artist Series. The original Pacific Jazz release is valued at $30 to $75, depending on its condition, but the World Pacific reissues (in both mono and stereo) are worth less to collectors, ranging from $20 to $50. The mono version is worth more than the stereo version.

Part Two

The original Quintet lasted for only the first two albums, released in 1955 and 1956, but the instrumental approach and the body of music played remained consistent until the end of the Fifties. But their fourth album was a surprise. Zen – The Music of Fred Katz (Pacific Jazz PJ-1231) was really a Fred Katz album played by members of the Quintet, augmented by a trombone choir and a woodwind ensemble. But annotators regard it as a Quintet album, and some list its title as Chico Hamilton Plays The Music of Fred Katz. Katz was the cellist in the Quintet, and his music on this album, recorded in November of 1956 and released in 1957, could easily be considered “Third Stream” music, blending as it does classical sounds and forms with jazz, with a bit of klezmer thrown in. One of the pieces on this album, “Lord Randall,” subsequently became a part of the Quintet’s live performances. In its original form as a Pacific Jazz release, this album is valued by collectors at between $30 and $75, depending on its condition. The album was reissued a year later on the World Pacific label as WP-1231, but this version is valued at only $20 to $50.

The Quintet’s next release was Chico Hamilton Plays South Pacific in Hi-Fi (PJ-1238). Recorded in January, 1958 and released a few months later, it was undoubtedly inspired by the success of Shelly Manne and Andre Previn’s 1956 My Fair Lady album, which spurred many record labels to put out their own jazz versions of Broadway shows. Few achieved the commercial success of Manne & Previn’s album, and not many were critical successes either. One discographer lists this album as a 1957 release (which is impossible, given when it was recorded), and mistakenly attributes it to the World Pacific label.   Actually, although it was subsequently reissued on World Pacific (WP-1238 in mono, ST-1003 in stereo), it was one of the last releases on Pacific Jazz. It is valued at $20 to $50 as a Pacific Jazz release, and $16 to $40 in either World Pacific version.

Pacific Jazz owner Richard Bock revamped his label in 1958, renaming it World Pacific in perhaps a too-early attempt to broaden its appeal with “world music” as well as jazz, although it remained primarily a jazz label. Both the second and third Quintet albums were reissued in 1958 on this label, the third album in stereo.   All but the stereo release kept their original catalog numbers with “WP” substituted for “PJ” in the prefix.

The first Quintet album to be released on the new World Pacific label was Ellington Suite (WP-1258 or ST-1016), a curious album which purported to be by the reformed “original” Quintet. In fact Eric Dolphy, a then-unknown saxophonist (who would only two years later gain considerable fame with Charles Mingus, and who tragically died in 1964 during a European tour) had replaced Paul Horn in the Quintet early in 1958, and that version of the Quintet recorded a complete album. [See my review of that album, written after this piece.] But label owner/producer Bock was apparently not happy with Dolphy’s somewhat radical sound and approach and he decided to bring back the original members of the Quintet – plus Paul Horn – to re-record the album. Thus the album is in fact by a sextet, not a quintet, with both Paul Horn and Buddy Collette playing saxes and flutes. All of the material was written or co-written by Duke Ellington, of course, and arranged by bassist Carson Smith. The cover is another abstract painting, but the back cover boxed “West Coast Artists Series” biography of artist Sueo Serisawa has been omitted. Like the other World Pacific albums, this one is valued at $20 to $50 in mono, $16 to $40 in stereo, the mono copies being rarer.

Bock’s resistance to Dolphy’s presence in the Quintet may have been the reason that Chico Hamilton left his label and took the Quintet to the new Warner Bros. label. They recorded three albums for Warner, Chico Hamilton Quintet With Strings Attached (W-1245 or WS-1245), Gongs East! (W-1271/WS-1271), and The Three Faces of Chico (W-1344/WS-1344), the first two released in 1958 and the third in 1959. All are currently valued at $20 to $50 (depending on condition) in mono and $16 to $40 in stereo. These were the last recordings of the Quintet with its original lineup of instrumentation – sax or flute, guitar, cello, bass and drums.

However, in 1960 World Pacific released The Original Chico Hamilton Quintet (WP-1287). This album consists of nine pieces recorded live at The Strollers on November 11, 1955 by the first Quintet, a follow-up to the live side (recorded August 4th) of their first album.   Available only in mono, it is valued at $20 to $50.

Additionally, the Spanish Fresh Sound label released in 1991 a CD, Chico Hamilton Quintet Featuring Eric Dolphy (FSCD-1004), recorded on May 19th and 20th, 1959, which appear to be “air checks” – radio broadcasts – which further document Dolphy’s period with the Quintet with twelve short tracks.

Hamilton gave up his Quintet’s concept and music when he hired Charles Lloyd on saxes and signed with Columbia Records in 1961. He has made a number of albums subsequently, but none has the unique “chamber jazz” qualities which distinguished his Fifties Quintet, and that Quintet remains fondly remembered by jazz aficionados and collectors. Sadly, none of the Pacific Jazz or World Pacific albums – now owned by Capitol/EMI – have been released domestically on CD except in a limited edition of 5,000 by Mosaic, a mail-order company, as The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of the Chico Hamilton Quintet (MD6-175) in a six-CD boxed set, which includes unreleased recordings, including three tracks for the aborted Ellington album. Collectors may want this set.

--Ted White (29638 bytes)