Pete Christlieb: A tenor for all seasons /2

In this second and concluding part the often unseen saxophone master talks of working with Warne Marsh and the two tenors' involvement with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

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Continued from last month…

Among the many who have validated Pete’s very personal sound is Warne Marsh. At their first meeting on a rehearsal of the Clare Fischer band, Pete admits being flattered when Warne told him he used some of his recordings to teach about improvisation. For his part, Pete admired the cool-toned, Tristano-influenced Marsh for an uncanny ability to “play between the cracks”. As Pete explained to Gordon Jack, “When Warne Marsh improvised, he could put a phrase anywhere between beats one and four and have it resolve 20 bars later in exactly the same place – displacement, in other words”.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their widely divergent styles, Pete and Warne struck up a fruitful musical partnership that resulted in some seriously good music. Arguably their most successful joint project is Conversations With Warne, a pianoless recording from 1978 with Jim Hughart on bass and drummer Nick Ceroli. The decision to eliminate the piano came after Pete heard Warne at a private session with just Hughart and Ceroli the previous year. Pete realised that Warne “had so much control over rhythm and harmony and could make intelligent recordings with just bass and drums. The harmonic image was there all the time and you didn’t ever want for a piano player”.

Although Conversations was not issued until the early 90s, two who heard tape of Warne and Pete were Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. Pete knew them from his work on the Aja album in 1977, as well as from his contribution to the soundtrack of the movie, FM. So when they offered to produce a straightahead jazz record featuring the two tenors for Warner Brothers, he jumped at the chance. The album was to be called Apogee, featuring Hughart, Ceroli and pianist Lou Levy. (3) The producers were generally hands off in the studio, allowing the musicians freedom to create.

And create they did. Describing the singular chemistry generated by the tenor tandem, Pete barely contains himself: “We had seven or eight tunes … and they were all just, oh my, they came out, everything we wanted was there. God, people are gonna go ‘Man, I’ve been waiting to hear something like that all my life’, and these two guys are improvising together … and pretty soon, he becomes him and he becomes HIM, and they’re improvising in harmony! Whew! We are levitating, our feet are off the ground, our fingers never touched the keys; it’s all ideas and sound!”

Working with Warne Marsh: ‘We had influence on each other. He made me think a different way, and I lit a fire under Warne Marsh. He changed his mouthpiece, and he got a lot more aggressive’

Pete has mixed feelings about what happened next. Excited to begin assembling the finished product, he approached Becker and Fagen to discuss what should go on the album, but the pair indicated they, as producers, would be the ones making the decisions. Although Apogee enjoyed generally good reviews, Christlieb refers to the experience as “an ambush”, saying “They took the project. I had nothing to say about the cover, about the liner notes, or the choice of tunes, or the order of tunes, or any of the tunes that we had recorded. It was not the album we had designed”. Still, he admits being thankful for the additional work that came his way as a result of the exposure with Steely Dan.

Somewhat circumspect when I asked him about the sessions, bassist Jim Hughart also questions the producers’ artistic judgement. One choice in particular involved a take on “a ballad that Warne and Pete played by themselves … it was just magnificent the way they worked off of each other … it was historically good, and they [producers] didn’t think so, I guess [chuckles]”. Instead, Becker and Fagen chose a number they had conceived called Rapunzel, that was “kind of awkward to play on”. Despite that, Hughart recalls a couple of takes of the tune being at least “releasable”, adding “but the one they chose, I really thought, stunk”.

Luckily, much of the magic these men created can be heard on the superb Conversations recordings, issued in two volumes on Criss Cross. “We had influence on each other”, says Pete. “He made me think a different way, and I lit a fire under Warne Marsh. He changed his mouthpiece, and he got a lot more aggressive”. Hughart confirms Pete’s claim, telling me “That’s one thing that’s obvious to me – they kind of became each other.” 

Such tribute redounds to the skill and virtuosity of Pete Christlieb, truly a tenor for all seasons. In addition to those mentioned, Pete’s horn has been in demand by talents as diverse as Count Basie, Rosemary Clooney, Tom Waits, Frank Mantooth, Manhattan Transfer, and many others. His dues long paid, Pete left LA a few years ago, moving, as many have before him, to the gentler climes of Washington State. He had long had a presence there, for years as part of Bud Shank’s Port Townsend Jazz Camp; and he also hung out and played with local legends like Don Lanphere, Hadley Caliman, Chuck Stentz and Bill Ramsay. (4) Gigs are few, but he and his wife Linda Small sometimes appear together, once in a blue moon with Tall And Small, their exciting 11-piece band, playing challenging charts by Bill Holman, Milt Kleeb, Ramsay, and others. Their CD is called High On You and is available – along with others – at CD Baby.

On moving to Washington, he reflects “It took me 72 years to get here, but here I am”. Whoever – Washingtonian or otherwise – hears Pete and Linda play is richer for the experience. And though he no longer has anything to prove, whenever Pete Christlieb plays, his trusty vintage Selmer still burns with controlled passion.

Footnotes
(3) There seems some confusion over which came first, Apogee or Conversations With Warne. Both Pete and Jim Hughart remember Conversations coming first. The Criss Cross CDs list the recording date as 15 September 1978. Yet, the only information I could find on the Internet regarding Apogee was that it was recorded in May and June of 1978, so before Conversations. I am unable to account for this discrepancy.
(4) Don Lanphere, from Wenatchee, recorded with Fats Navarro in 1948. He later moved back to the Northwest and left us in 2003. Hadley Caliman passed away in 2010, and Chuck Stentz in May 2018. Ninety years old as of this writing, saxophonist Bill Ramsay continues to gig in the Pacific Northwest where he holds down the baritone chair in the Tall and Small band, among other ventures.

See part 1 of Pete Christlieb: A tenor for all seasons