Al Grey And Billy Mitchell: Sextet & Septet

When the trombonist and reedman left Basie in 1961 they sought to embrace the prevailing modernism, with sometimes abrasive results


After leaving Basie, with shared aspirations and ambition for change and development, Al and Billy immediately formed a co-led sextet in NYC in January 1961. It won the 1962 Downbeat polls award for new combo, and remained active until March 1963. Tracks (1) appeared originally on Argo LP689. Tracks (2) are from side B of Argo LP711 (Al Grey – Snap Your Fingers). Tracks (3) and (4) are from previously unreleased broadcasts at Birdland NYC. All tracks are live.

The new sextet blended blues and soul with exotic and innovative material into big-band style ensemble passages to punctuate a string of solos, identifying with a range of forward-looking ideas from contemporary, “modernistic” approaches. Famed for his booting, pungent blues solos with plunger mute, Al extends at times into mobile staccato flurries. Billy’s high-energy tenor moves busily and astringently from mainstream towards hard bop at times, with, for me, a regrettable lack of light and shade.

Noted musicians joining the ranks included the talented young vibes player Bobby Hutcherson, trumpeters Donald Byrd and Dave Burns (both fluent, articulate stylists) and on one session Herbie Hancock on piano. These are energetic performances designed to excite live audiences (tackling challenging compositions by Thad Jones, Randy Weston and Gene Kee), and drummer Eddie Williams is sometimes noisily over-busy behind the strenuously storming tenor.

I found tracks such as Bantu, Three-Fourth Blues and the over-long, rather patchy J & B sometimes quite wild, uncomfortable listening. Other tracks work much better – Bluish Grey (with a beautifully phrased opening ensemble riff and expressive solos), an attractive arrangement of the familiar On Green Dolphin Street, the serene ballad African Lady and Melba’s Blues (by talented female trombonist and arranger Melba Liston) and the closing Rompin’ by Frank Foster, returning closer to Basie, with fine solos from both Al and Billy.

With its bounty of rare, and previously unreleased recordings of these major artists, in particular the iconic stylist Al Grey, this valuable album should prove to be of considerable interest to collectors, a window on evolving jazz concepts in the 60s.

CD1(1) Bluish Grey; Wild Deuce; On Green Dolphin StreetBantu; Melba’s Blues; Home Fries; Grey’s Blues; (2) Minor On Top; African Lady; High Fly (50.37)
CD2: Home Fries; Minor On Top; On Green Dolphin Street; African Lady; Closing speech (blues backing); (4) J&B; Melba’s Blues; Three-Fourth Blues; Rompin’ (69.14)
(1) Henry Bouzier (t); Al Grey (tb); Billy Mitchell (ts, as); Gene Kee (p, ah); Art Davis (b); Jules Curtis (d); Ray Barretto (cga). NYC, 6 July 1961.
(2) Donald Byrd (t); Grey (tb);Mitchell (ts); Bobby Hutcherson (vib); Herbie Hancock (p); Herman Wright (b); Eddie Williams (d). Birdland, NYC, 31 January 1962.
(3) as (2) except Doug Watkins (b) replaces Wright, and omit Hancock. Birdland, NYC, 20 January 1962.
(4) as (3) except Dave Burns (t) replaces Byrd, and Herman Wright (b) replaces Watkins. Birdland, NYC, 19 May 1962.
Fresh Sound FSR CD1137