The Poll Winners: Four Classic Albums

Kessel, Manne and Brown proved in four albums Kessel's claim that their trio was more than guitar with bass and drums accompaniment

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For those perhaps too young to remember, The Poll Winners (Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne and Ray Brown) made a series of bestselling albums for Lester Koenig’s Contemporary label in the 1950s and early 60s. Already respected as players in their own right, when combined as a trio they repeatedly won jazz polls for Downbeat, Metronome and Playboy jazz polls in 1956 and 1957 – hence the generic title “Poll Winners.” Although Kessel was the leading “voice” (replacing a more traditional piano) in all of their albums, Manne and Brown, with generous solo space, made their signature contribution and the group, whatever material it played, always melded together.

Avid have selected four of the group’s LP albums which vary only slightly in quality. Their first recording, The Poll Winners, is based largely on standards. It offers gently paced readings of such popular jazz staples as Jordu, Green Dolphin Street and Nagasaki on which Kessel demonstrates his mastery of both swing and bop idioms. Manne and Brown are perfectly at ease in their sympathetic support. Minor Mood, a Kessel composition, has a haunting refrain with Ray Brown setting the pace before Barney offers fleet-fingered choruses.

The Poll Winners Ride Again features the trio again playing standards like Surrey With The Fringe On Top and Spring Is Here, alongside such unlikely numbers as Volare, When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbin’ along and The Merry Go Round Broke Down. But a bluesy Kessel impresses on his original Bee Deedle Dee Do. Unfortunately, Volare, although pleasant enough – with short breaks from Manne and Brown – is more pop than jazz.

The Poll Winners Three! is a more interesting and eclectic compilation. In addition to well-known songs like Mack The Knife (Brecht, Weill), It’s All Right With Me (Porter) and Soft Winds (Goodman) the trio offer three of their own compositions: Crisis (Kessel), The Little Rhumba (Manne) and Minor Mystery (Brown). The last title is particularly rewarding, with Ray leading his colleagues through the intricacies of the tune. Appropriately (with the subtle support of Manne) he has the final and decisive word. In an interview which is reprinted in the sleeve notes to the LP album, Kessel stated: “We don’t sound exactly the same in any other group as we do on the Poll Winners albums. It’s not a guitar with bass and drums accompaniment – it’s a trio in every sense of the word.” Poll Winners Three confirms his opinion.

The Poll Winners – Exploring The Scene! is arguably the best of the bunch, as they successfully reinterpret more “jazz” compositions than in their earlier albums. The outstanding tracks are The Duke (Dave Brubeck), So What (Miles Davis), The Golden Striker (John Lewis) and Doodlin’ (Horace Silver). This is the album to sample first.

Avid are to be congratulated on releasing these innovatory and well-recorded sessions. They are to be faulted for reproducing the original album notes – by Nat Hentoff, Lester Koenig, and Barney Kessel (just barely legible) in eye-wateringly microscopic print. I’m like, “misguided, misanthropic, miserly or what?” But then I’ve said so several times, and to no avail. Perhaps a magnifying glass, or an optician can help…

Discography
CD1: [The Poll Winners] (1) Jordu; Satin Doll; It Could Happen To You; Mean To Me; Don’t Worry ’Bout Me; Green Dolphin Street; You Go To My Head; Minor Mood; Nagasaki; [The Poll Winners Ride Again!] (2) Bee Deedle Dee Do; Volare; Spring Is Here; The Surrey With The Fringe On Top; Custard Puff; When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbin’ Along; Foreign Intrigue; Angel Eyes; The Merry Go Round Broke Down (79.16)
CD2: [Poll Winners Three!] (3) Soft Winds; Crisis; The Little Rhumba; Easy Living; It’s All Right With Me; Mack The Knife; Raincheck; Minor Mystery; I’m Afraid The Masquerade Is Over; I Hear Music; [Exploring The Scene!] (4) Little Susie; The Duke; So What; Misty; Doodlin’; The Golden Striker; Lil’ Darlin’; The Blessing; This Here (80.31)

Barney Kessel (g); Shelly Manne (d); Ray Brown (b) on all tracks. (1) Los Angeles, 18-19 March 1957. (2) Los Angeles, 19, 21 August 1958. (3) Los Angeles, 2 November 1969. (4) Los Angeles, 30 August & 1 September 1960.
Avid Jazz AMSC1412