JJ 01/60: In My Opinion – Steve Race

The noted critic on Benny Gordon, Charles Mingus, Mose Allison, Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis and others. First published in Jazz Journal January 1960

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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. Steve Race is too well known to need any lengthy introduction here. TV executive, critic and pianist, he is a man whose work brings him to the attention of millions. Yet at heart Steve remains the genuine jazz lover, with a keen interest in all aspects of the music – Sinclair Traill

“Clarinet a la King”. Benny Goodman. (Philips BBL 7318)
That new version of his old opus, despite the modern recording techniques, doesn’t swing nearly as much as did the original. I have always liked Eddie Sauter’s arrangements, particularly in this number. Goodman is interesting, he still keeps his old tone, and, of course, we are hearing it better now thanks to development in sound technique, but he doesn’t seem as interested in what he is doing – it shows in his playing. Also he doesn’t swing as he did. He plays quite faultlessly but nothing very much seems to happen. I’ll take the original any time.

That was a fantastic bore! When I’m playing records to myself at home that is the kind of track I try to avoid

“Memories of You”. Charlie Mingus (East Coasting). (Parlophone PMC 1092)
That was a fantastic bore! When I’m playing records to myself at home that is the kind of track I try to avoid – unless I’m being very conscientious, and feel that I must work my way through every bar in the album. You know, when I was a student I was given a lot of advice that later, in the jazz world, turned out to be very useful. One piece of advice I received from the man who taught me composition was, always to write horizontally, not vertically. By that, he meant do your thinking in a horizontal sense. This is a first class example of someone writing vertically, thinking, “Here is a chord, I’ll try this. Now what’s the next note? Ah, here is a chord to go with this one.” If we were giving marks, that record would receive a bored nil from me.

One of these days I am quite prepared to see Mose Allison become a resounding success in the popular field. I love his piano playing

“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”. Mose Allison Trio. (Esquire 32-083)
I adore this man! Every now and again someone comes along who is able to fill the gaps in jazz, in the same way that soon after the war Erroll Garner managed to some extent to bridge the gap between the traditionalists and the modernists. Right now, in some curious way, Ray Charles is bridging the same sort of gap between rock ‘n’ roll and jazz, and Mose Allison has come along to establish the fact that there is a nice middle course between two extremes of jazz. One of these days I am quite prepared to see Mose Allison become a resounding success in the popular field. I love his piano playing: it has those folksy, prairie kind of overtones that I hear so much in Brubeck’s playing. I can listen to Allison with pleasure at any time. It’s a strange thought that between them Ray Charles, Erroll Garner and Mose Allison could produce something that would interest everybody in every field of popular music.

…an unrelaxed performance, and jazz for me must always be relaxed. I get this feeling with every woman jazz musician

“Fine and Dandy”. Dorothy Donegan. (Capitol T 1155)
That’s the kind of record that makes me say, wonderful, but. . . .! Miss Donegan is a very facile pianist, and has a nice sort of approach to that number, but I’m still bothered by the fact that something always comes between women and jazz. I noticed it recently in New York listening to Marion McPartland. There is still something that prevents Marion from relaxing and swinging, and it is the same thing here. Donegan seems to push the beat. That “stab” business of hers with the left hand (which incidentally is encouraged by the drummer), is a shame. The result is an unrelaxed performance, and jazz for me must always be relaxed. I get this feeling with every woman jazz musician – the fault may be mine, but women in jazz seem to me to have a feeling of insecurity; as though they were trying too hard.

“It Might as Well be Spring”. Sonny Stitt. (Vogue LAE 12191)
I thoroughly enjoyed that! The tune as a jazz vehicle hasn’t been exploited as much as it might, and Stitt and Hank Jones are amongst the few modernists that can please and entertain me at this slow ballad tempo. One thing amuses me particularly about this record: have you noticed the sleeve notes? They end with the majestic words “Alun Morgan, Dorking, May 11, 1959,” rather as one might see “Bernard Shaw, Ayot St. Lawrence, 1927.” Nothing else to say except that I love Stitt.

These days we cultivate exciting sounds, commercial sounds and all kinds of gimmicky sounds, but not beautiful ones, as we did before modern jazz came along

“Houpé”/“Upper and Outest”. Duke Ellington (Anatomy of a Murder). (Philips BBL 7315)
One of the few really beautiful sounds in jazz is Johnny Hodges’ alto. It sometimes troubles me that although we often seek other qualities in jazz we seldom seek the quality of beauty. These days we cultivate exciting sounds, commercial sounds and all kinds of gimmicky sounds, but not beautiful ones, as we did before modern jazz came along. Good music to me is beauty. However, as long as Hodges and one or two others are around I suppose we really have nothing to worry about on that score. This Houpé is a typical piece of Ellington, though I was a little bothered by its similarity to some other tune – I think it was Gershwin’s But Not For Me. It’s not quite as harmonically original as some of the things Duke’s written for Hodges, but it’s a lovely theme and a beautiful experience to listen to it. The track which followed, Upper And Outest, disappointed me in one sense. The average jazzman, when given a Hollywood film score to compose, always seems to go for that slow, heavy triplet cymbal-bashing noise, and I had hopes that Ellington of all people could get away from it, but there was a lot of Peter Gunn cliché writing about that movement. A few bars in, one suddenly gets that unmistakable sound of Carney’s baritone and from then on all is well, until near the end when Cat Anderson starts blowing those dog-disturbing squeals. When I get this record I’ll fade it just before Cat Anderson begins.

I think there is something of the clown in Rex’s playing, which disturbs me when I am listening from a purely musical standpoint

“It Ain’t Necessarily So”. Rex Stewart (Porgy and Bess Revisited). (Warner Bros W1260)
That was a nice bit of programme planning on your part. Just as Johnny Hodges seems to me to have cultivated the beautiful sound, so Rex Stewart has on the other hand cultivated an ugly one. It’s the kind of ugliness we happily accept in jazz, but it still causes me concern sometimes that a sound that is of itself so unpleasant should become one of the definitive sounds of the music we are dedicated to. I know I have to be careful about Rex Stewart because he is the jazzman who dedicated a tune to Sinclair Traill by name! All the same I think there is something of the clown in Rex’s playing, which disturbs me when I am listening from a purely musical standpoint. I could have done without that horse neigh he played somewhere in the middle. And in the very last melodic phrase, either something went very wrong or else he lost his sense of pitch. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I think that particular take would have been better unissued. One other thing, I didn’t like the arrangement by Jim Timmins. If you are featuring a trumpet with such great, but nevertheless limited, talents as Rex Stewart, it’s a pity to surround him in the arrangement with a lot of fiery trumpet players. His horn should appear in the setting of some other instruments, trombones or saxes or whatever it may be. It’s a mistake to have a kind of cutting competition going as they did there. Poor Rex wasn’t meant to play against such a towering mass of brass players. Don’t think I’d ever write off Rex Stewart – far from it – but I didn’t much care for that particular track. I prefer Rex playing with a small group.

When I was, oh, quite young, the local boy scouts used to go onto that common with their bugles and practice. And that was the very sound that Miles produced on his trumpet

“It Ain’t Necessarily So”. Miles Davis. (Fontana TFL 5056)
Well that record first took me back ten years (I feel like an old man), and then back another twenty. I first heard Miles in person in Paris in 1949, and it was an extraordinary experience for me, because as he was playing I was immediately taken back, without knowing why, to my early youth. I was born in the provinces, and my bedroom looked out on a huge common. I kept seeing this common in my mind as Miles was playing. Finally, I tracked down the reason. When I was, oh, quite young, the local boy scouts used to go onto that common with their bugles and practice. And that was the very sound that Miles produced on his trumpet. Let’s face it, it’s an untutored sound he gets: the sound someone produces who taught themselves to play an instrument. Although I am quite prepared to be told that Miles had lessons, the fact remains that his playing still reminds me of the boy scouts on that common. Incidentally, that track is full of the most tremendous fluffs, all over the place, but as always the quality of the thought behind his playing is so immense that no one could bring himself to scrap a take like that. He played a most wonderful succession of choruses with, thank goodness, his own rhythm section, including Philly Joe Jones, of whom I know none better for that kind of work. Gil Evans, who did the arrangements, ranks in my mind these days with Duke Ellington as one of the two greatest jazz writers. The combination of Miles and Gil Evans is quite invincible there, and of course, in Miles Ahead – undoubtedly one of the most important records in jazz. The sparing way Gil Evans writes under this Porgy And Bess solo is absolutely masterly – almost as if he knew what Miles would be playing in his improvised solos. It is a great record. I could have wished for a little more accuracy in Miles playing, but so, no doubt, could he.

I notice you’ve played me a whole raft of modern records, but nothing traditional. I was rather hoping you’d put in a Hot Five or maybe one of the classic Mortons – something I could rave about, even though such things are often thought to be outside my period. Many people seem to think I suddenly got interested in jazz the day Dizzy Gillespie shattered the wine-glasses at Minton’s. The fact is, I like some of all jazz – too many jazz fans like all of some, if you know what I mean. Anyway, thanks, for the Miles, the Mose Allison and the Ellingtons. They’re my kind of music . . . among others.