Graded on a Curve:
The Pee Wee Russell Quartet, Ask Me Now!

If jazz is by this point far removed from its heyday as a popular style, it’s a form that’s still very much alive, valued not only for its contemporary importance at the crossroads of music and history, but also for its ability to provide unadulterated listening pleasure. Frankly, it remains one of the highest points in the rolling landscape that is the American cultural discourse. Anyone looking for a record that satisfies elements cultural, historical, and artistic should investigate the brilliant warmth of the Pee Wee Russell Quartet’s 1965 LP, Ask Me Now!

It’s safe to say that jazz is easily the reigning champ of American Art Music. And it’s such a deep and diverse field that the realization that one determined set of ears will simply never get to the bottom of the stack of worthy improvisational slabs is daunting and liberating simultaneously. Daunting because there will always be another record, and liberating because well, there will always be another record.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t misconceptions relating to jazz music’s labyrinthine development. For starters many listeners, even some who would aptly be described as buffs, adopt and promote the faulty idea that with a handful of exceptions the form doesn’t really get interesting until the development of Bebop, aka Modern Jazz in the mid-late ‘40s.

And I won’t deny that for decades I felt something similar, agreeing with the notion that jazz took a huge stride in value as it turned away from its early ambition as highly accessible and functional social “dance” music and instead openly engaged with the methodology and stature of “art,” a change in direction that would be highly accelerated as rock ‘n’ roll arrived to slowly snatch away nearly all of its currency as a “pop” form.

And I still tend to believe that jazz music’s best period was from 1945 to 1975; if I could only listen to thirty years worth of the form those would be it, and I’d make that decision without much hesitation. But with this considered, I also feel the need to stick up for the jazz of the previous century’s first half, for it was far more than just the noteworthy works of Satchmo and Bix, Jelly Roll and Fats, Benny and Artie, Hawk and Prez, Bessie and Billie, and of course the Count and the Duke.

Many factors contribute to pre-bebop jazz’s difficulty in communicating to modern audiences, in particular the limitations of recording (there was always a need to wrap up the tune, and just as it might’ve been really starting to cook; plus early tech had a difficult time in capturing the depth and warmth of the instrumentation), the dominance of swing bands (jazz at its most pop dance oriented) over small groups (which are often the seeds of Bop, Cool, Free, and Fusion), and a general tendency toward commerciality (players needed to make a living and big bandleaders especially had a lot of folks to employ).

Unlike pop or rock or even blues or country, where older musicians and bands are encouraged and often celebrated (sometimes overly so) for reinventing or revitalizing themselves beyond their perceived shelf life, in jazz this phenomenon is dicey at best. For every Coleman Hawkins, breaking ground on the tenor sax with “Body and Soul” and traversing swing to post-bop with complete class, or Max Roach, who drummed in bands or duos with Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, and Anthony Braxton and along the way transcended category on his instrument, the vast majority of jazz musicians have clearly defined eras or styles in which they contribute to the music’s rich sonic tapestry.

But it should be added that many people can’t help overzealously categorizing certain musicians as belonging to one specific period. And this isn’t even a malicious circumstance; as already mentioned there’s a formidable mountain of recorded jazz out there, so sometimes listeners naturally err on the side of oversimplification. And occasionally they also mistake ignorance for blissful progress. This is to say that some folks, even a sprinkling of supposed jazz fans, if asked about Pee Wee Russell, just might respond that he was a shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Well, no. Russell was a clarinet man, notable for his work in the Dixieland idiom, an important figure that jammed with Frankie Trumbauer and Beiderbecke, recorded with Red Nichols and Louis Prima, and was a member of the bands of Bobby Hackett and Eddie Condon. Russell was also a heavy drinker, the kind of legendary imbiber for whom a bottle a day wasn’t enough; a certain points he apparently needed that much booze to simply get out of bed in the morning. Yikes. And the sauce nearly killed him in 1951, though in taking him to the brink it also allowed Russell to get his life substantially back on something comparable to the right track.

Had Russell died in ’51 he still would’ve been a very important figure (for starters, he’s on a certifiable asston of fabulous recordings for the Commodore label), though by this late date he’s become just one of hundreds of notable and oft amazing early jazz players that a motorist might grab an auditory gulp of via Rob Bamberger’s reliably informative and most excellent radio program Hot Jazz Saturday Night.

But instead of an early exit, Russell rebounded and ended up releasing two of the most rewarding and surprising jazz records of the 1960s. Again, he’d been on a more solid life path for most of the previous decade, and while a slew of his discs from that period are quite worthy glimpses of a freshly invigorated man exuding strong expressions of the essence of Dixieland and Swing, the unexpected turn of events that define his late work make it clear that the maxim “Never Count an Artist Out” is applicable to any field.

After commencing the ‘60s with some very successful small group swing stuff for Prestige, Russell recorded a really interesting date as co-leader with Coleman Hawkins for Candid titled Jazz Reunion. He then took a startling turn, forming a quartet with valve trombonist Marshall Brown that engaged a true diversity of material with an easygoing modernist panache. Their first record, the exquisite New Groove was cut for Columbia in 1962 and featured a wide-ranging book including Monk’s “’Round Midnight” and a fantastic take of Coltrane’s “Red Planet” amongst less unexpected compositions from masters like Bennie Moten, Billy Strayhorn, and Count Basie.

And any way it’s sliced, New Groove is a stone classic. Many players of this wide open era (like Jackie MacLean for example) employed a sly “inside/outside” strategy intended to satisfy the adventurous without alienating the mainstream (an approach that still pays dividends to this day). The sound of Russell’s group took up a tactic better described as “classic/modern” and to essentially the same effect. The classicism shined through in the clarinetist’s instrument and approach; while a very unique soloist throughout his career, the main point of the matter is that by the high-flying sax and trumpet dominated ‘60s, the smooth unharried style of Russell and future jazz educator Brown registered at least partially as a statement from another time.

And yet modern as well, obviously due in part to the choice of tunes, but also because Russell was leading a pianoless quartet. This sometimes causes them to sound more than a bit like a product of the late-‘50s West Coast scene (where Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker pioneered the modern quartet sans keys), and the lack of piano and the lilt of Russell’s stick often has me thinking of the great Jimmy Giuffre, particularly when he had valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer (who just so happened to record with Russell on the above cited Jazz Reunion LP) in his fabulous early trio.

But if New Groove is classic then Pee Wee Russell’s undisputed late-career masterpiece is 1965’s Ask Me Now! Recorded for the Impulse label with one shift in personnel, drummer Ronnie Bedford replacing Ron Lundberg, the quartet excels at everything that made the group’s debut such an unmitigated joy. As a recapitulation of the “classic/modern” theme it’s an ideal record; it’s got the blues, it’s got the swing, and it’s got the itch to explore new ideas and without sacrificing the character or personality that made a largely New Thing-associated label like Impulse want to record Russell in the first place.

Three of the album’s tracks are especially illustrative of Ask Me Now!’s exceptional qualities, none more than the opener, a sweet take on Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround.” If that choice seems like an audacious move, well it sorta was. But please recognize Mr. Coleman as another innovator who eschewed the piano, thus making his work a far more comfortable fit than some might initially expect. It goes down without a hitch, with Russell George’s bass and Bedford’s brushes wonderfully huge in the mix while Brown and Russell state themes and snake around with the sort of assured soloing that can only be the product of truly advanced jazz lifers.

“Turnaround” meshes seamlessly with the quartet’s treatment of “How About Me?”, a true chestnut from Irving Berlin. They lend the tune a spark of unforced modernity, and very much through Brown’s ‘bonesmanship, his horn possessing a feel quite reminiscent of the ‘50s mainstream (think J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding). And of Ask Me Now!’s two Monk compositions, I prefer “Hackensack” by the slimmest of margins, perhaps because (in a manner similar to the record’s take on Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues”) it works so successfully at such a fast pace, never losing control of its tempo. And both Monk tunes do a terrific job of illuminating (and at a relatively early date) that one needn’t feature a piano to successfully plumb the beauty of Thelonious.

Ask Me Now! blends standards with then fresh compositions and to extraordinary result. It also includes two Brown pieces, the best being “Licorice Stick,” a song likely written with Russell in mind. However, it’s the composer’s horn that nearly steals the show on the tune. As the record progresses the rhythm section never falters and Russell and Brown constantly navigate each other’s territory with expert grace. Brown, who rarely recorded, connects throughout the record as a real lost treasure. And it’s been insinuated by a few that he’s the actual leader of this group, but I don’t buy it.

I’m not buying it because Ask Me Now! exudes Pee Wee Russell’s sublime individualism to perfection. If you know someone who publicly promotes Woody Allen as a great clarinet player (and I’ve met a few), please find a copy of this album and spin it for them at the quickest opportunity. The eleven concise tracks will quickly set some things straight. It’ll then provide splendid listening for decades to come.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+ 

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