Al Cohn & Joe Newman: The Swingin’ Sessions 1954-55

The saxophonist and trumpeter lead some sparkling mid-50s sessions highlighting the canard that swing lost its fizz with the advent of bebop

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The six albums that make up this mature and satisfying collection are presented rather like the work of a repertory company, with the same names turning up in different combinations, and Al Cohn and Joe Newman as permanent star performers. The result is the kind of easygoing teamwork that inspires the best in everyone.

You can sense it in the very first number of the first session, Cohn My Way: the warm closeness of saxophone tones, the way Cohn opens his solo with a simple, unhurried phrase. Manny Albam’s arrangement strikes a perfect balance between solos and ensemble, allowing solo space for Cohn, Newman and Gene Quill with no hint of overcrowding – and all in just under three minutes. Things like that go unnoticed most of the time, but they’re what make good jazz sound good. By the end of the piece you’ve had an enjoyable experience.

Small bands like this, of around six to nine members, have a special quality about them: small enough for individual styles to come across, but just big enough to produce a full band effect, with a little ingenuity. There’s no end to the ways this is achieved on these 72 tracks.

A sample at random, from the Joe Newman octet album: Al Cohn’s arrangement of Dream A Little Dream Of Me opens with what sounds like trumpet over a close-harmony saxophone section which is actually two saxes and a trombone; comes the middle eight and it’s solo trumpet with accompanying figures alternating harmony and unison. Once again, it’s done to make the best of a good tune, not to attract attention, but the variety of sound keeps us listening.

And there’s so much to listen to in addition to all that. For instance, this was the period when Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson seem to have been the bass and drums partnership of choice for the entire New York scene. The rhythm section of the two of them, plus Nat Pierce and Freddie Green, in Al Cohn’s Natural Seven, is better than faultless – at times you could easily mistake it for Basie’s.

Which brings us to Mr Rhythm, Freddie Green’s one and only album under his own name. I’d never heard it until now, and what a treat it turns out to be! In addition to being the finest of all rhythm guitarists, Freddie was a constant source of simple but catchy swing tunes. There are eight on this album, including Down For Double, while Corner Pocket, probably his best-known number, turns up on the Newman octet disc.

Throughout this whole collection there’s no mistaking the link with Basie. How much did Al Cohn absorb from Lester Young, or Joe Newman from Harry Edison, or Nat Pierce from Basie himself? What does the whole sound and spirit of these small bands remind you of, if not the Kansas City Seven? In this matter, the version of jazz history commonly put about and, presumably, swallowed by innocent parties is a canard. Swing was not swept into the dustbin of history by bebop in 1940-something. It was big dance bands that vanished, for a multitude of reasons. These excellent swing recordings were made in the mid-1950s. They were certainly not alone, but they were among the very best.

(PS: Which song title below tells you that Al Cohn was a devoted Marx Brothers scholar?)

Discography
CD1: [Al Cohn & his Orchestra: Mr Music] Cohn My Way; This Reminds Me Of You; Cabin In The Sky; Breakfast With Joe; Lullaby Of Birdland; Move; Never Never Land; Something For Lisa; Count Every Star; La Ronde; [Al Cohn Septet, The Natural Seven] Count Me In; Pick A Dilly; Doggin’ Around; A Kiss To Build A Dream On; Jump The Blues Away; A.C Meets Osie; 9.20 Special; The Natural Thing To Do; Baby Please; Osie’s Blues; Jack’s Kinda Swing; Freddie’s Tune (79.09)
CD2: [Joe Newman Octet; All I Wanna Do Is Swing] Corner Pocket; Dream A Little Dream Of Me; Topsy; Leonice; Jack’s Way; Limehouse Blues; Captain Spaulding; Soon; If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight; I Could Have Told You; Lullaby Of Birdland; Pretty Skinny Bunny; It’s A Thing Of The Past; [The Jazz Workshop: Four Brass, One Tenor] Every Time; Just Plain Sam; Rosetta; Alone Together; A Little Song; The Song Is Ended; Cohn Not Cohen; Foggy Water; Sugar Cohn; I’m Coming, Virginia; Haroosh; Linger Awhile (76.16)
CD3: [Joe Newman Octet: I’m Still Swinging] You Can Depend On Me; Top Hat, While Tie And Tails; Sometimes I’m Happy; Shameful Roger; Lament For A Lost Love; Sweethearts On Parade; Slats; Perfidia; It’s Bad For Me; Exactly Like You; We’ll Be Together Again; The Daughter Of Miss Thing; [Freddie Green: Mr Rhythm] Up In The Blues; Down For Double; Back And Forth; Free And Easy; Learnin’ The Blues; Feed Bag; Something’s Gotta Give; Easy Does It; Little Red’ Swinging Back; A Date With Ray; When You Wish Upon A Star. Bonus Track: Swingin’ The Blues. (79.34)

Al Cohn (ts, cl, bcl); Joe Newman (t) with personnel including Thad Jones, Joe Wilder, Nick Travis (t); Billy Byers, Frank Rehak, Urbie Green, Henry Coker (tb); Gene Quill, Hal McKusick, Ernie Wilkins (as); Sol Schlinger (bar); Sanford Gold, Nat Pierce, Dick Katz (p); Freddie Green, Billy Bauer, Jimmy Raney (g); Milt Hinton, Buddy Jones (b); Osie Johnson, Shadow Wilson, Jo Jones (d). Arrangers: Al Cohn, Manny Albam, Ernie Wilkins. Webster Hall, NYC, December 1954 to December 1955.
Fresh Sound FRS-CD1108