June 7, 2001
SEXTET OF ORCHESTRA U.S.A.
Mack The Knife
Koch Jazz KOC CD-8588
This short — less than 35 minute — album would merely be an interesting curio of the jazz-meets-theatre era if it weren't for a couple of things.
For one, the title and musicians are another reminder of Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) mainman John Lewis' attempts to create a functioning Third Stream ensemble. Second —and perhaps more importantly — the first three tunes contain solos by multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy (1928-1964), whose time in the limelight was as short as it was spectacular.
Pianist Lewis put together the 40-piece Orchestra U.S.A. in the early 1960s, as an extension of his work with the MJQ, trying to commingle classical and jazz performers playing both jazz and classical compositions. Mostly due to the lack of cooperation from the classical side, according to bass trumpeter/journalist Mike Zwerin, who actually organized this CD date, the orchestra collapsed after a couple of years.
Californian Dolphy only made to New York at the beginning of the 1960s, but he
soon was recognized as an inventive multi-instrumentalist on bass clarinet, flute and alto saxophone, while adding musical heft to the groups of Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and his own. Being identified with the New Thing didn't advance his career, however, and after deciding to move to Europe, he died there of diabetic complications.
Never as revolutionary as Ornette Coleman, Dolphy's work still stands out on this session. Most of the time you'll hear the band creating pleasant, swinging, advanced bop variations on the themes, then Dolphy will let loose with some of his patented runs and suddenly another time zone arrives. It's as if a postmodern Woody Allen character was dropped into the middle of a Noel Coward drawing room comedy. Surrealistic it may seem, but the mix does work and the music is better for it.
As for the other soloists, Lewis, surprisingly, knowing his predilection for fugues, comes across as another embryonic post modernist. His dissonant solos, especially on "Alabama Song", lag slightly behind the beat. Then on the second session, bebop veteran Jerome Richardson seems to take his cue from Dolphy, and on the overplayed "Mack The Knife" knocks out a few outside runs of his own.
Meantime bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay operate in lockstep. It's easy to see why — singly and together — they were first call for literally thousands of record dates ranging from rock to symphony work.
No explorer, session leader Zwerin still uses the quasi-trombone bass trumpet to good effect throughout and his arrangements manage to maintain a light, swinging pulse without becoming pop music. Plus he does slide a fragment of "Night in Tunisia" into "Bilbao Song".
Guaranteed to be welcomed by fans of Dolphy and the other musicians featured, as well as those interested in what progressive pre-atonal music sounded like, this CD deserves a wider audience than it received in 1964. It may even boost Zwerin's musical reputation to the level of his literary one.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Alabama Song 2. Havana Song 3. As You Make Your Bed 4. Mack The Knife 5. Bilbao Song 6. Barbara Song 7. Pirate Jenny
Personnel: [tracks 1 - 3] Nick Travis (trumpet); Michael Zwerin (bass trumpet); Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute); John Lewis (piano); Richard Davis (bass); Connie Kay (drums) [tracks 4 - 7] Thad Jones (cornet); Jerome Richardson (alto saxophone, bass clarinet); Jimmy Raney (guitar) plus Zwerin, Davis, Kay