Graded on a Curve: American Jazz Quintet,
Gulf Coast Jazz, Vol. 1

New Orleans is a locale rarely discussed in Modern Jazz terms. In the second half of the 1950s however, tenor saxophonist Harold Battiste, pianist Ellis Marsalis, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, drummer Ed Blackwell and numerous bassists, Crescent City residents all, comprised the American Jazz Quintet. The moniker might seem nondescript, but it actually reflects their collective artistry quite well. The music found on Gulf Coast Jazz, Volume 1 makes a strong case for that name deserving a much higher profile.

When folks get together to gab about post-bop they often lump the vast majority of the music into the designations of East Coast Hot and West Coast Cool. In so doing, East essentially means New York City and West basically encompasses the state of California. While the Chicago scene gets its due as does Philadelphia and Boston, the rest of the country is almost entirely left out of the discussion.

In 1956 the American Jazz Quintet made their first recordings at Cosimo’s Studio in that cradle of Dixieland, zydeco, and rhythm & blues. 1996 saw those initial sessions compiled on the CD In the Beginning by the musician’s cooperative label All for One. Previously, ten of those tracks filled the first two sides of the Opus 43 imprint’s 4LP box set from ‘76, the very scarce and extremely pricey (as in 850 bucks used) New Orleans Heritage – Jazz: 1956-1966 (on which the American Jazz Quintet got coupled with the A.F.O. Executives and the Ellis Marsalis Quartet).

In the Beginning holds the recording debuts of Alvin Batiste, Ed Blackwell, and Ellis Marsalis, though as the music clearly shows, the group (which along with Harold Battiste also included alternating bassists Richard Payne and William Swanson and on one cut the alto sax of Warren Bell) benefited from the substantial playing experience of the individual members. For one obvious example, while living in Los Angeles Blackwell had already hooked up with his most famous associate Ornette Coleman (Blackwell temporarily moved back to New Orleans in ’56).

Just as importantly, In the Beginning also highlighted the Quintet’s concerted emphasis on original compositions over standards. And its 13 selections serve as a highly worthwhile eye-opener, but fascinating is Boogie Live…1958, a CD that first surfaced in ’94 via All for One credited to Blackwell (his nickname was Boogie) and the American Jazz Quintet 2 (with Nat Perrilliat replacing Battiste on tenor and Otis Deverney holding down the bass spot).

Fascinating why, exactly? Well, as the title states, it’s the documentation of a gig, and live shows of this vintage are nearly always interesting. This one was held in a high school gymnasium complete with scholarly remarks from the bandstand and polite yet engaged applause throughout; additionally, the set dishes three cuts breaking the 15 minute mark. And furthermore, Perrilliat’s early adoption of Coltrane’s late-‘50s “sheets-of-sound” technique is a real feast for the ears.

As is Batiste’s bop clarinet, an element that brings quick distinction to the Quintet’s entire oeuvre. With the careers of Buddy Collette, Jimmy Giuffre, and Tony Scott aside, the clarinet suffered a serious nosedive in usage during the post-bop era, though if one did want to locate a licorice stick in the Modern Jazz milieu, then California was most certainly the place one would want to be. In a nutshell the Cool scene was far more receptive than the Hard-boppers to the tones of the clarinet.

Batiste easily transcends any sense of novelty though, and nothing supports that reality better than the American Jazz Quintet tracks recently issued by the V.S.O.P. label as Gulf Coast Jazz, Vol. 1. It’s now 1959, with Perrilliat out and Battiste back in as Payne and Swanson return to replace Deverney on the upright. The set kicks off with their theme song “Punchin’,” which also closed Boogie Live…1958 under the working title of “Comin’ On.”

At just under two and a half minutes this compact slice of bop lacks even an ounce of excess fat, and as the group’s theme this trimness combines with the high melodicism to superb effect. Everybody gets in their shots, and to these ears “Punchin’” conjures the level of energy found on top-flight mid-‘40s bebop radio shows.

Batiste’s playing does remain an undeniably unique characteristic throughout Gulf Coast Jazz, particularly at the start of the also brief “Monkey Do,” with the Giuffre-like sound lending the proceedings a bit of West Coast flavor, though a bigger aspect in the similarities to the Cool relates directly to the sophisticated air of the Quintet’s songwriting.

For instance, the smoldering “Venetian Sky,” in large part due to Blackwell’s use of mallets on the toms (the apex of which is his excellent solo), brings to mind Chico Hamilton’s work from the period. But “Fourth Month,” a Batiste composition based on the chords to the chestnut “I’ll Remember April,” stretches out to over seven minutes (the version included on Boogie Live…1958 maxes-out at over 18). It integrates significant hard-bop power into their presentation in great part due to the heft of the tenor sax.

Like Perrilliat, Battiste had obviously been listening to and absorbing current post-bop developments, though his flashes of gruff gusto also point to his extensive background in R&B. Along the way Marsalis is an expressive anchor. His piano is especially attractive on “Capetown,” which like many of the tracks here first appeared on In the Beginning. It’s appealing on the earlier collection, but frankly three years experience as a group honed this version to a very sharp point.

“Capetown” unwinds with a warm-weather smoothness that would very likely get a smile from Shorty Rodgers (or maybe even Mancini), but the uptempo “Ohadi” gracefully swings the pendulum back to the meatiness of hard-bop. And as the tunes stack up, the date’s lack of a plainly asserted leader lends resonance to their chosen name.

Perhaps a cue was taken from the Modern Jazz Quartet, the era’s most successful exploration of collectivity over the temptations of the leadership role. Interestingly, Blackwell’s relationship with Coleman is mirrored in Modern Jazz Quartet bassist Percy Heath’s appearance on Ornette’s ’59 LP for the Contemporary label Tomorrow Is the Question! (MJQ pianist John Lewis also “presented” and contributed a song to the Gunther Schuller-instigated Coleman-starring ’61 Atlantic album Jazz Abstractions).

But make no mistake, even though Blackwell and Batiste are regularly described as belonging to the avant-garde region of the jazz landscape, the Quintet falls successfully (never squarely) into the post-bop realm. “Stephanie” and “Tribute” are indicative of the 12-song set’s whole; both could play in one’s friendly neighborhood coffeehouse (at the appropriate volume, natch) without ruffling a solitary feather.

Much of the reason is due to Marsalis. A huge part of the piano’s role in the post-bop scenario is structural; Marsalis tackles this responsibility without hesitancy and underscores his link to the Neo-Trad movement. Ellis is the father of Wynton and Branford don’tcha know, and while I’ve had my ups and frequent downs with the material from his sons, the music of the father (from this era anyway) stands tall; please see Monkey Puzzle, the excellent ’63 Ellis Marsalis Quartet LP for AFO with Perrilliat, bassist Marshall Smith, and drum legend James Black (currently in print as The Classic Ellis Marsalis).

Like “Capetown,” “Never More” is a fine exhibit for the pianist. From there “Three Musketeers” provides another fast-paced hard-bop showcase, one that extends to over 17 minutes on Boogie Live…1958 (Battiste’s Clifford Brown tribute “To Brownie,” which appears on both the live disc and In the Beginning, is ultimately no surprise). “Apartment 11” offers more Cool swank (plus a splendid solo from Marsalis), and “Chatterbox” rounds out the set with an emphasis on the melodic. It bookends very well with “Punchin’,” though in closing it also expands to over six minutes.

Gulf Coast Jazz, Vol. 1 was the first of two sessions cut for the Andex label back in ’59, and it hovered in the purgatory of the unreleased until just a few months ago. But as the cover shows, Andex made it to the design stage (at least) before abandoning the project, and it’s nice to know that more stuff is awaiting release.

A great big brand-spanking new LP box including everything from In the Beginning to Monkey Puzzle would deliver an indisputably massive hunk of knowledge and enjoyment, but in the interim the music is floating around in the digital realm (some of it on CD), and it all deserves to be heard. For the American Jazz Quintet, Gulf Coast Jazz, Vol. 1 stands as a major statement completely on its own.


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