I LIKE IKE!
I’m not talking about Dwight D. Eisenhower’s election campaign lapel badges.
I’m singing the praises of the black Newark/New York tenor saxophonist IKE QUEBEC (1918-1963).
He had a glorious sound, which could be fierce (not gruff, like Ben Webster) or tender, and would belong I suppose for pigeon-holers to the Coleman Hawkins “school” although he was very much his own man with an instantly recognisable style. This style of Ike’s is extraordinary.
He gives the impression, especially on medium to fast tempos, of being harmonically unsophisticated and tends to build a lot of phrases round the tonic of the key. Listen for example to Old man river on the album “It might as well be spring”. This essentially melodic approach reminds me of the West Indian altoist Joe Harriott. In fact these two very original players also remind me of each other in the passion of their attack.
On ballads Ike improvises with a kind of naïve beauty (no, really, this isn’t pseuds’ corner!) which is very moving. He often finishes a line on the major third of the key. But instead of just playing a note on D (if we’re in Bflat), he has a little signature embellishment with a flourish of semiquavers Eflat/D/Dflat/Eflat before the D.
He came to prominence in the 40s, befriending Alf Lion at the birth of the Blue Note label and recording his debut session as a leader on July 18th 1944. Like several of his contemporaries, talented products of the be-bop revolution, he got hooked on heroin and fell out of circulation for much of the 50s through drug problems.
A chilling parallel biography is that of baritone saxophonist Leo Parker who had also sparkled in a late be-bop context and then gone through the 50s wilderness, only for his promising renaissance in the early 60s to be cut short in its prime by premature death.
It was Alf Lion who tried to rescue Leo Parker and it was Alf Lion whose help provided a new start for Ike at the end of the 50s. Lion’s Blue Note label was now flourishing and he gave Ike regular salaried employment as an A&R (“artists and repertoire”) man for the company and began recording him as a musician again.
Firstly, Ike was asked to come up with a series of semi-commercial singles for the juke-box market and obliged over a period with 25 or so short numbers featuring a quintet with organ and guitar. There is nothing inferior about these sides – they are excellent little jazz cameos.
But the real high point of Ike’s career and the consummation of his artistry now followed with a series of legendary Blue Note LPs starting in late 1961 with: “Heavy soul” and “It might as well be spring” featuring organist Freddie Roach and “Blue and sentimental” featuring guitarist Grant Green and Philly Joe Jones on drums.
1962 started with a posthumously issued album pairing Ike with Stanley Turrentine (a fascinating contrast – hear each of them bare their souls on See see rider!). Then in April, he backed singer Dodo Greene very sensitively on the album “My hour of need”.
According to the discography, there were further Quebec recordings for Blue Note in May, September and October which were all rejected. I don’t know why they were rejected and would love to hear them.
Possibly the explanation is that he was too ill to perform well. He had developed lung cancer.
When he made his last issued album on October 5th 1962, he was reportedly already dying – or at least racked with pain. It’s called “Soul Samba”. There’s guitar (no less than Kenny Burrell) and a chekere player as well as a drummer. It comprises a selection of Bossa Novas, including a surprising arrangement of Franz Liszt’s Liebestraum, and all these tracks are a fitting swan song. Ike’s playing is soft, sad and poetic.
On January 16th 1963, he died aged 44.
I don’t just like Ike – I love him. I play something of his on my turntable every week. Most of his small output is currently available on CD. I thoroughly recommend you to check it out. You won’t be disappointed!
VIVE LE QUEBEC NOIR!