© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Is it significant, I wonder, that neither Harry Carney nor Gerry Mulligan could identify any of the baritone saxophone players in the following Blindfold Test which was conducted by Leonard Feather and published in the Nov. 18, 1965 edition of Downbeat magazine?
No matter, when those two got together, it was like listening in to a mutual admiration society.
Come to think of it, it was and deservedly so.
“The Battle of the Baritones came about purely by chance. Harry Carney [HC] was in town; I had never conducted a Blindfold Test with him and made a solo appointment. Then Gerry Mulligan [GM], who has visited this page three times before (but not in the last five years), became available on the same day.
As any student of the saxophone should know, Carney is to the baritone what Coleman Hawkins is to the tenor. In addition to his role as founding father, he has the unique distinction of being the side-man of longest duration in any jazz group now extant, having recently started his 40th year as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Mulligan, though only 38, may seem to younger jazz fans like a senior citizen, almost two decades having passed since he went to New York from Philadelphia and joined Gene Krupa's big band.
1. Donald Byrd. "6 M's" (from Royal Flush, Blue Note). Byrd, trumpet, composer; Pepper Adams, baritone saxophone.
H.C.: They all got in a very good blues mood there. It had a nice feeling all the way. I don't know who the baritone player was, but he got a good, big sound.
G.M.: It was interesting to me in that this is essentially a very basic, three-chord blues thing, and under these circumstances, sometimes it's difficult for a soloist to keep his conception on a very elementary level harmonically. It seems to me that the trumpet player did this more completely than the baritone, who tended to become little more complicated.
H.C.: I'd say it's worth four stars.
G.M.: I'll go along with that.
2. Woody Herman. "I Remember Duke" (from Road Band, Capitol). Herman, clarinet, composer; Nat Pierce, piano; Jack Nimitz, baritone saxophone. Recorded in 1955.
G.M.: Yeah! Woody!
H.C.: Right—you can't mistake that sound. It was a hard-swinging band, too. There was a little Ellington touch when they used the plungers in that first chorus... . I liked the stride piano effect, but he didn't keep it going.
G.M.: I'm trying to figure out which Herman band this is. It could be from the early period. There was one passage that sounded like an awkward splice, but I wonder whether it wasn't made before they started using tape. Anyhow, the solo work was good. The baritone was effective toward the end, but he used some questionable changes. As far as his sound is concerned, he sounded like me; from the period this comes from, and the uncertainty about changes, it could be Serge Chaloff.
H.C.: I liked it three-and-a-half stars' worth. Baritone was nice on the whole.
G.M.: I'd say about three.
3. John Coltrane. "Chim Chim Cheree" (from John Coltrane Plays..., Impulse). Coltrane, soprano saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums.
H.C.: The tune itself is all right; we played it in the Ellington album of Mary Poppins tunes. I liked the part in front where they played the melody. Then it started going into those Eastern sounds, almost like an Oriental-type instrument, instead of a saxophone. I've heard things like that played in the Middle East. It gets kind of monotonous after a while. The rhythm section was good. I'd give it maybe two to three stars.
G.M.: You're right, it did get to sound like a double-reed instrument. It wasn't exactly my favorite record. I'd agree with your rating.
4. Maynard Ferguson. "The Lady's in Love with You" (from Color Him Wild, Mainstream). Ferguson, trumpet; Ronnie Cuber, baritone saxophone; Don Rader, arranger.
H.C.: There seemed to be some difference between the balance on the saxophone passages and the sound on the rest of it—it didn't match. But the trumpet player was good, and the arrangement built up well enough.
G.M.: The baritone player sounded like he had a hell of a lot to say, but...
H.C.: But he was trying to say it all at once.
G.M.: Right. And between the big sound and everything he was blowing, it got to be a bit overpowering. You can get a sound like that just by getting right on top of the microphone. He eased up a little later in the solo. I'd say three stars.
H.C.: Make mine three and a half.
5. Elvin Jones. "Elvin Elpus" (from And Then Again, Atlantic). Charles Davis, baritone saxophone; Jones, drums; Melba Liston, composer.
G.M.: Boy, that just had to be a date where the drummer was the leader. There was no mistaking that. There sure was an awful lot going on, but it didn't jell too well. It just wouldn't be fair to judge the baritone player by what he does here.
H.C.: I think that what they were attempting here had some possibilities, but perhaps they should have devoted more time to it. Three stars.
G.M.: He gives it three stars because he's nicer than I am. I'll give it two. Incidentally, they didn't do very well with the 5/4 meter; it sounded more like an un-swinging job of 3/4.
6. Gerry Mulligan and Ben Webster.
"Chelsea Bridge" (from Mulligan Meets Webster, Verve). Webster, tenor saxophone; Mulligan, baritone saxophone; Billy Strayhorn, composer.
G.M.: Ten stars! Anything Benjie plays on automatically gets 10.
H.C.: Of course, Ben can do no wrong, and here he's playing this beautiful opening solo; yet you're forced also to listen to Gerry's obbligato. This commands immediate attention right at the beginning of the record, and all the way through there's something to keep listening for and you always know it's going to come off. Gerry does just about everything good that can be done on the baritone; in terms of mood, quality, taste, control, ideas, it was perfect; and the tune itself, of course, is beautiful.
G.M.: God, I love to play with Ben.
H.C.: I'm sure, by the same token, he had a ball.
G.M.: It's very hard for me to select one album as the best of all I ever made, but this really does rate as my favorite.
H.C.: I'll go the limit on that one. Five and then five more!
7. Duke Ellington. "Rhapsody in Blue" (from Will Big Bands Ever Come Back?, Reprise). Jimmy Hamilton, clarinet; Paul Gonsalves, tenor saxophone; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Sam Woodyard, drums; George Gershwin, composer; Billy Strayhorn, arranger.
G.M.: What a wonderful opening. I'll give it five stars on its own and another five for Harry. I also love the beautiful, gentle tenor solo that Paul plays. Jimmy Hamilton's solo was fine, and the arrangement was great.
The only passage I wasn't too crazy about was where it got into the use of the kettle-drum effects, making it a very percussive thing. It was a little in the style of the way Whiteman played it when Ferde Grofe orchestrated it. I know what the intent was, but it's a really haunting melody, and I prefer not to hear that done to it. I never did like the Whiteman version.
On second thought, I don't even mind that part; I like the whole arrangement. Nothing associated with the Ellington sound ever needs any justification.
H.C.: The arranger was beautiful.
The arranger is beautiful. And, of course, it comes out in this.
G.M.: That Swee'pea?
G.M.: It was gorgeous.
Afterthoughts by H.C., G.M.
G.M.: Baritone players tend to have an inconsistency of sound between different parts of their register. Some baritone men can't work up a consistent sound because they use it as a secondary instrument.
H.C.: This session has been most enlightening and enjoyable. I've heard some fine baritone players.
G.M.: Yes, I heard some interesting things and some wonderful playing, but I still have only one favorite baritone player— even if he does happen to be sitting here.
H.C.: You must be getting into ESP— you just beat me to the punch, vice versa!