JJ 09/59: In My Opinion – Bruce Turner

First published in Jazz Journal September 1959

420

‘There is nothing more ridiculous about modern jazz than this air of discovery; in actual fact they have only discovered something that was found by Lizst at least a century ago’

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Considered by many critics to be Britain’s premier jazz alto saxophonist, Bruce Turner now leads his own group. He was for many years a member of the Humphrey Lyttelton front line.
Sinclair Traill

“Little  Rabbit  Blues” Johnny Hodges and the Ellington Men (Columbia 33CX101 36)
That’s a tantalizing record to pick for me, because there I have to listen to my favourite jazzman and also to somebody I don’t like in the least, Jimmy Hamilton. I know his tenor playing is better than his clarinet, but I don’t like Hamilton’s playing and never have.The funny thing about the Ellington band nowadays is that it seems a most peculiar mixture of great players, such as Hodges and Carney, and such mediocre musicians as Hamilton and Cat Anderson. From that record I really enjoyed the solos by alto and baritone, and the rhythm was great. I didn’t much like the other solos; but that is Duke’s band these days – the whole thing switches on and off the whole time. The feeling the record gave me was that directly Hamilton came on, the greatness and the magic fizzled out, and you merely had left an ordinary, competent technician playing to the best of his ability, with nothing really happening. Sorry to be so biased, but I have always thought the modern Ellington band is a mixture, as I said, of greats and nondescripts. However, on the whole, I enjoyed the record.

‘It was merely irksome, like someone throwing a fit of hysterics – and the music sounded terribly feminine. The picture it gives me is that of a lot of women throwing crockery about’

“Hot Rod” Ray Charles (London LTZ-K. 15149)
Didn’t like that record at all! The whole idea of the session seemed to be to get rid of something – to throw something off. It was merely irksome, like someone throwing a fit of hysterics – and the music sounded terribly feminine. The picture it gives me is that of a lot of women throwing crockery about; it was just a noise, nothing creative at all. There was nothing there that was “drawing in” – it was just getting rid of some­thing – like diarrhoea, if you’ll excuse the term. The impres­sion I got was that the group were getting rid of a tension – it was in no way musically creative. I like emotional jazz, but not that type of emotion – it gets nowhere.

“Princess Blue”  Duke Ellington (Philips BBL 7279)
I was very interested by that one, as I think it verifies what I’ve thought for a long time, and that is that Ellington is very, very fallible. I think there is a lot of Paul Whiteman about him, deep down under, although, of course, Duke has much, much more jazz in his make-up. But at times he succumbs to the terrible temptation to dress jazz up and to make it pretty and presentable – to make it Carnegie Hall. I couldn’t help comparing that with earlier of Ellington’s written things like “The Mooch” and “Black and Tan Fantasy”. In those early compositions he brought jazz composition to its absolute peak. He also showed the limitations of jazz writing, because all you can possibly do when writing jazz is to write down some simple but effective themes which will help improvisation from the band. In other words, the writing has only to be a frame­work for improvisation and nothing more than that. If it tries to be more than that, as it did on that record, it becomes pretentious – no matter how well it’s done. Of course Elling­ton as a composer is far ahead of Gershwin, yet I thought that record had a Gershwin flavour about it, somehow. It was saved only because there were good jazzmen in the band who managed to give the performance a jazz tint. But even from a jazz point of view I think another thing wrong with Elling­ton (though it seems like sacrilege to criticise the great man) is that he appears to be instructing his new boys to sound as much as possible like the old ones and I do not know whether it is beneficial. If Jimmy Hamilton hasn’t got a sufficiently big personality it doesn’t help matters that he has to do those Bigard runs to get by. Procope I like a lot, though there he was trying to do a Hodges.

‘You see I don’t think jazz composition has much to offer – the best jazz compositions were those Ellington wrote years ago, when he kept them very simple and swinging’

So on those counts – Duke trying to be a great composer and his seeming ambitious to try and relive the past, though he hasn’t the men to help him do it now – those things spoil Ellington for me these days. I would much rather hear his old records again for I am very much a purist where Ellington is concerned; I like the old, pre-1935 band. You see I don’t think jazz composition has much to offer – the best jazz com­positions were those Ellington wrote years ago, when he kept them very simple and swinging and allowed his men all the scope they needed for improvising. That’s how it sounds to me, anyway.

“African Queen” Dutch Swing College Band (Philips BBL 7293)
I just love that tune. Sandy Brown has an amazing sense of jazz in him, not only as a player but as a writer of tunes like that. A lovely tune. I don’t like revivalist jazz, I don’t care for the principle of it, for it usually sounds so forced and incongruous for Europeans to try to play with a strong, assimilated Negroid sound. However, this was one of the best revivalist bands I’ve heard, though I didn’t care for the rhythmic section. I thought the front line did have ideas – trombone and clarinet were particularly good.

When I first heard it, before I saw the sleeve, I thought it was Chris Barber, but then thought it was too good for Chris. Really I think it’s the best band of that type I’ve heard, though the style is not my cup of tea. I don’t think we should mess around with something based on New Orleans folk music, which really has nothing to do with us over here. But, for its type, it was good.

‘I was surprised at Charles Shavers, who I know can play like that, but who so often sounds too flamboyant and show-off. There he played his very best stuff’

“Foggy Nights” Budd Johnson Septet (Felsted FAJ 7007)
That sounded more like it to me – great! That’s the real group sound – collective jazz playing, with everybody pulling their weight and no passengers. Everybody there was as good as each other and they generated a terrific feeling of collective inspiration. I was surprised at Charles Shavers, who I know can play like that, but who so often sounds too flamboyant and show-off. There he played his very best stuff, not trying to do too much or be carried away, but just inventing some beautiful jazz. Budd Johnson I haven’t heard much of, but must hear more now – a great player swinging along there. That’s the sort of jazz I really like listening to – nothing flashy, just getting down to the blues with the real basic qualities of jazz and playing it the way it should be played.

‘I recognised Jimmy Giuffre straight away, because he is a man who interests me a great deal. I think what he is doing on that record could be the beginnings of something very interesting’

“Santa Claus Blues” Bob Brookmeyer Quintet (Vogue LAE 12108)
I recognised Jimmy Giuffre straight away, because he is a man who interests me a great deal. I think what he is doing on that record could be the beginnings of something very interesting. It’s an experiment – the whole thing at present is in a state of flux, and I don’t think Giuffre has yet found what he’s looking for. But I think he’s on the right road, and I think possibly he realises where modern jazz has come off the rails – it is too busy following composition rather than impro­visation. It is trying to be respectable, complicated and intellectual. I think Giuffre has realised that and has tried to go back to a simple, folky sound which will eventually pro­duce some wonderful music. That sort of thing we’ve been listening to was in many ways incomplete, but it was going somewhere – it has the beginnings of those qualities which make great jazz. If that sort of thing is going to counteract the modern trend, that precocious trend, where musicians are simply trying to become more involved, it is bound to do good. Of course, in actual fact the modernists are not succeeding because the classical composers have used all these screwy harmonies they are using, years ago. There is nothing more ridiculous about modern jazz than this air of discovery; in actual fact they have only discovered something that was found by Lizst at least a century ago. Giuffre doesn’t fall into that trap; on record he simply plays the blues, which is jazz, in a simple expressive way. I love that breathy tone he gets on his clarinet – it’s something new and original. Actually it’s not breathy enough, for it’s still too respectable, but he’s gone a step ahead of such musicians as Buddy de Franco and Tony Scott who use a more or less classical tone. It is interesting to hear Giuffre playing with guts, using that vibrato and vocalised sound one can get when playing good jazz clarinet. Giuffre is a man to watch – not so much for what he’s doing now, but for what he’ll do in time to come.

Unlike the traditionalists, Giuffre doesn’t copy anyone. There is no copying of Dodds or George Lewis or anyone. He is trying to be individual and achieve self-expression – for which we must give him full credit.

“Blue Echo” Rex Stewart (Felsted FAJ 7001)
It just took too long to get started, but it’s quite a pretty little theme. One kept waiting for the choruses and then had to sit through an amplified guitar solo – I don’t like any electric guitars. When anyone talks about guitars I think back to Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt, who made up their own tone and didn’t have to rely on electric currents. But apart from that I must say I enjoyed what came later. Hilton Jefferson’s alto is very good. He was one of the first jazzmen I ever heard – on a record called ” Jamaica Shout”, in about 1935 – and I’ve liked him ever since. It’s good to know he can still do it. This clarinet player, Gavin Bushell, I don’t like very much. He doesn’t seem to be a hot player and his sense of phrasing was rather corny.

This is another of these sessions that surprises me in that there is so much talent alongside so much mediocrity. This seems to happen with bands that don’t play regularly together and I’d guess this is a pick-up group. Of course Rex Stewart I’ve always liked very much – he should’ve taken more choruses on this one.

If I owned that record I’d sooner have it on tape and cut out the first minute and a half.

“Make a Country Bird Fly Wild” Henry Allen (H.M.V. JF 57)
Well, I must admit there’s a lot of nostalgia in that for me – which will certainly influence my appreciation. It just brings back the old days – it’s one of the first jazz sounds I heard. I think that this was about the first time you had a mature ‘band sound’ as distinct from – going back to 1926 – people like Louis and Bix being surrounded by people not nearly as good as they were. This Henry Allen-Luis Russell contingent was a complete band – everyone in it was good. The rhythm section too, for that type of jazz, is ideal. You couldn’t get a better bass player than Pops Foster for that type of music, and I refuse to say that he’s dated. It’s a special sort of rhythm and you’ve got to adjust yourself to that very gutty bass rhythm.

A closing thing I’d like to say is that in my opinion Henry Allen is about the second best trumpeter of all time. Of course, one gets carried away with enthusiasm and starts raving about things, but I honestly believe that next to Louis you’d have to go a long way to find a more personable and creative trumpet player than Allen at his very best.

Finally, listening to Charlie Holmes now is not as pleasur­able as listening to Hodges or Bechet, yet he reminds me of both. He seems to have been the founder of an alto style – a very fine player.