JJ 01/63: In My Opinion – Larry Adler

Sixty years ago the mouth-organ virtuoso weighed some giants but reserved his greatest praise for the logical and 'deeply musical' Bill Evans. First published in Jazz Journal January 1963

Larry Adler and dancer Paul Draper in New York around January 1947. Photo by William P. Gottlieb

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 ara hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop.

Larry Adler, master of the mouth-organ (he prefers that word to any other designation of the instrument), has been around the edges of the jazz world for quite a few years. Although not actually a jazz musician he loves the music and has always been close to it and its performers. He never misses a chance to listen to good jazz, and is a close friend of many of it’s greatest figures. – Sinclair Traill

“Evans Shuffle”. Muddy Waters-Little Walter. Vogue EPV 1046
I know that kind of harmonica playing, but I like it best from Sonny Terry. Unfortunately, it is a very limited kind of music, for the player there is only getting the most he can from the limitations of the kind of mouth-organ he is using. It has no sharps or flats and in its lower register it has no complete diatonic octave – for example, the note F and the note A are missing. He blues the notes so that he can make a G go down to F sharp or even an F. Therefore, one just admires how much he can produce with such slender resources. But one record of that kind at a time is enough for me to take – after that it seems they just go on repeating themselves. What a player that man would be had he ever been taught to play a complete instrument, with all the half notes etc! Of course it might spoil his feeling for the blues, but on the other hand, he might turn out to be the greatest mouth-organ player yet.

“Liza”. Benny Goodman. Philips BBL 7178
If you like chamber music you’ll like that, but I found myself making a couple of rather unfair comparisons when listening. That guitar part would have been so much better handled by Django – which is, I know, quite unfair to Mike Bryant, but I can’t help saying it. Also, I think I prefer Teddy Wilson in those Goodman small groups. He seemed to give the band a much more cohesive feeling, so that each player was really in with the other, like the best chamber music should be. This had more of a jam session sound about it, although one knows that some of those figures must have been prepared so that everyone knew just what to do. Good jazz, but not the best Goodman.

“In The Hall Of The Mountain King”. Duke Ellington (Peer Gynt Suite). Philips SBBL 618
I have definitely heard Duke do things I like much better than that! Such as his Ebony Rhapsody back in 1934. It was based, of course, on Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody, and the way Duke played it was a masterpiece. In that case he took the basic material of the original melody and made it into genuine Ellington. Here I accuse him of being too faithful to the original. He just plays In The Hall Of The Mountain King, with a few odd jazz figures added, and to me it doesn’t sound very good – neither good music nor good Ellington. Also, I must say I dislike that kind of echoey recording. I hate to hear Duke with that kind of recording because I remember his great sound of the 40s – the greatest sound ever ob­tained by any orchestra – and that wonderful sound is quite destroyed by this modern echo-chamber recording.

Talking about Duke, I very nearly bounced myself out of show business once, because I insisted on having him accom­pany me in a film. It was a thing called Many Happy Returns, made in 1933. My agent just booked me for the picture, and when I got to the studio I was told I had to do a number with Guy Lombardo. Well I was sixteen or seventeen at the time and I just refused to play with Lombardo; I wanted Duke Ellington. And it went up to the very head of the studio, and I still don’t know why to this day, but they got Duke for me and we did Sophisticated Lady. When I was in England sometime later, Leonard Feather cleverly picked on this point when he saw the film. Now Ellington wasn’t billed or even mentioned in connection with this film. It was Lombardo who got the billing, but Feather when he reviewed the picture said he was sure it was Duke playing behind me. Very astute.

“Tonight”. André Previn (West Side Story). Vogue LAC 12244
Now we are talking about an old accompanist of mine, for André did accompany me for a while in California. I have always liked him as a classical pianist, for he has all the technical ability and interpretative qualities. As to jazz. I think he only borrows other peoples figures and the jazz doesn’t seem to come from him. It’s rather like, “Ma, look – four hands!” I somehow cannot feel that he can take a tune and build it up entirely through his own sense of what jazz is all about – it’s always someone else’s idea at the roots. And that is just what I felt about this.

I feel something the same about Oscar Peterson – a brilliant player, but too much of it stems from Art Tatum. I have a feeling that Tatum was a bad influ­ence on jazz pianists, in the same way that Horowitz has been a bad influence on classical players. Tatum’s technical facility was so tremendous – his left hand could do anything his right could do and maybe even more – that all jazz pianists were trying to do what Tatum did and so merely became derivative. I never saw a copy yet that was as good as the original. Did you? And even if the copy is better technically than the original, even then the ideas don’t arise from the same springboard as the original.

I sat with Calvin Jackson (he also was an accompanist of mine) and some other pianists one time and watched Tatum play. After a while Tatum wanted to hear what the others could do, but no one dared play except Calvin. But poor Calvin, just because the master was sitting there, he froze up and played the worst piano he ever played in his whole life. I’ve felt the same playing with some great musicians – they can freeze you up.

“Mambo Gotham”. Erroll Garner (Dreamstreet). Philips BBL 7523
Listening to that I had the feeling that Edmundo Ros had suddenly taken to jazz. I admired what was being done technically, but there was a kind of “riveter” rhythm going that annoyed me. I would not like to own that, for my feelings are very subjective and when listening to any record I think – would that last with me? Would I listen to it again? Somehow I don’t think I would, because of that needless per­cussive effect I hear all through: it gives me a headache. And as for that stupid vaudeville ending, there was really no need for that!

“Nice Work If You Can Get It”. Earl Hines (Paris One Night Stand). Philips BBL 7222
I get a lot of nostalgia there, for I used to sit in with Earl at the Grand Terrace, Chicago, in 1933 and ’34. I think I have heard him play better than that – he hadn’t quite that relaxed quality he gets sometimes. But he is always a stupen­dous pianist, even when not at his best. I’m getting so that I like economy in music – never use a note you don’t need. If a musician plays something on an instrument, any instru­ment, for the sake of technique alone, I find I lose interest. Of course that is a subjective viewpoint, for your taste and my taste may be entirely different, and who is to say who is right? But that is what happens to me. When I hear someone play more than he needs to – I at once say – why did he trouble to play that?

However, that has nothing to do with Earl, who seldom if ever gets too fussy. He is strictly a rhythm man and is always in complete command of his own not inconsiderable technique. As I said, I was allowed to sit in sometimes at the Grand Terrace, sometimes I played four-handed piano with Earl and sometimes even solo with the band. A great honour!

I remember it was there I saw the greatest piece of nonchalance in show business that it has even been my pleasure to witness. There was a dancer at the Grand Terrace, a belly dancer whose name I forget. She was always in the show and every time I was in Chicago I saw her act. One night as she was doing her act, her left breast fell out of her brassiere. Without missing a beat, she returned the offending member and kept on dancing with complete unconcern. And because she was so unconcerned, so were the audience. There wasn’t even a gasp, as she carried it off just as if it were part of the routine. I have always thought of her as one of the greatest troupers I have ever seen.

But the show at the Grand Terrace was always full of, and I can’t think of a better word, class. It was full of talent of the highest kind. All the musicians used to get along there after their jobs, and Earl’s band was always full of guests. I remember one night playing mouth-organ whilst Earl and Duke Ellington played four-handed piano with me. Duke and Earl played some of the most cohesive music you can imagine. Earl had a wonderful arranger, Bill Mundy. It was Mundy that did that arrangement for me of Sophisticated Lady. It was an awful job getting him to do it – in fact, he took so long about it Earl said it should have been called From Monday On. There were some wonderful nights at the Grand Terrace, and I shall always remember the place with great affection. There was that great signature tune Earl had, Deep Forest. He used to open the show playing it on piano and all the audience would shout, “Fatha’ Hines, Fatha’ Hines!” Marvellous!

“Come Rain, Come Shine”. Bill Evans (Portrait In Jazz). Riverside 12-315
I noticed that directly you put on that record we all gave it our concentrated attention. The reason, I think, was because Evans has the most compelling musical sense of anyone we have heard so far. He has a wonderful sense of form, and everything he does seems to have a logical reason. Never does he do anything just for effect and he never just fills in for the sake of technique. Also, he seems to have a deep respect for his material, and I can imagine any composer being delighted to hear his works played by Bill Evans. Everything he does seems to me to be deeply musical and I never find myself being jerked out of attention to think, why did he do that? Everything is always in completely good taste. Perhaps a big word to use about someone using a sense of touch, but I think he has tact in his playing. I’d love to work with him, for I think he is my favourite jazz pianist of today.