Don Sleet Quintet: All Members

Reissue of impressive sole leader album by former Kenton trumpeter suggests what could have been had personal problems not intervened

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Now and then you see a collector proudly sharing a photo of his rare original copy of All Members on online jazz fora. Small wonder, because trumpeter Don Sleet’s only album as a leader is a top-rate hard bop record. This CD reissue by the acclaimed Spanish label Fresh Sound Records has finally made it available for a larger audience.

Indiana-born Sleet worked with Stan Kenton on the West Coast and was a member of Lenny McBrowne & The 4 Souls, which recorded two albums for Riverside in 1960/61. Duly impressed, label owner Orrin Keepnews organized a Sleet session for Riverside’s subsidiary label Jazzland. Due to “personal problems” – classic jazz euphemism for addiction to drugs – Sleet disappeared from the scene. He passed away, largely unnoticed, in 1986.

A very unfortunate course of events. On the strength of All Members, Sleet should have been able to build a fulfilling career. Keepnews, not the least tentative in his approach, recruited Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb, who played together regularly and had very recently joined Miles Davis. Bassist on duty was the prolific Ron Carter, future stalwart of Davis’s second great quintet.

Sleet convincingly holds his own, hitting his notes like a brass country boy shooting rabbits in the corn fields. He alternates between long lines and staccato motives and has a bright and slightly burnished tone that compares favourably to Kenny Dorham’s. Full of energy, Sleet didn’t shy away from ending phrases with pure, high notes that pop like champagne corks, as documented on uptempo bop-blues originals such as Sleet’s Fast Company. His stately rendering of the classic ballad But Beautiful is not bad either.

Sleet is in heaven backed by Kelly, Carter and Cobb, who are tight-knit and swing with near-telepathic grace. Solo-wise, Kelly is in good spirits and full of ideas. This holds true for Carter too, who contributes two immaculate bowed solos, and Sleet’s frontline partner, tenorist Jimmy Heath, who embellishes Clifford Jordan’s exotic The Hearing with a notable blend of intensity and relaxation.

Two bonus tracks showcase a band that not only includes Sleet but his drummer pal Lenny McBrowne as well and accompanies the Ella Fitzgerald-styled vocalist Gloria Smythe. It’s reasonably good fare but a let-down after Sleet’s sparkling burst of modern jazz.

Discography
(1) Brooklyn Bridge; Secret Love; Softly As In A Morning Sunrise; Fast Company; But Beautiful; All Members; The Hearing; (2) Running Wild; Sometimes I’m Happy (48.14)
(1) Sleet (t); Jimmy Heath (ts); Wynton Kelly (p); Ron Carter (b); Jimmy Cobb (d); New York City, 16 March 1961.
(2) Sleet (t); Daniel Jackson (ts); Terry Trotter (p); Herbie Lewis (b); Lenny McBrowne (d); Gloria Smyth (v). Los Angeles, 1960.
Fresh Sound Records 1119