THE MOAN IN THE TONE

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I know I'm a drummer but the instrument which fascinates me most in jazz is the tenor saxophone. I plead total technical ignorance about it but it does magic for my ears.

This week, I want to talk about a particular sub-species of tenor saxophonists, those born and/or musically bred in Texas. Because their provenance seems to give them all a greater or lesser share in what Cannonball Adderley described as a moan in the tone or what I have always thought of as "the Texas whine".

Indeed, this "whine" can sometimes morph into a positive "whinny" when Texans resort to high-note wailing or screaming. I'll never forget once as a boy at home putting on a record of Dizzy Gillespie playing "The Champ" and when Budd Johnson's frenetic solo reached its climax, my father rushing upstairs to protest at what he described as "listening to a horse in pain".

 Later on, as my appreciation of jazz broadened, I discovered that the Texas whine went back at least as early as the pre-war Basie band.

 I have been writing recently about Lester Young's tenure with Basie between 1936 and 1944 (with a gap between 1941 and 1943).  

Lester Young is of course emphatically not a Texas tenor (or any other sort of whiner!) but, interestingly, both his opposite numbers, sitting at the other end of the reed section, were.

 First there was the magnificent Herschel Evans, Texas passion personified. Reports conflict as to how he got on with Young - they were probably very close off the stand but no quarter was given on stage. One particularly great number is Blue and sentimental on which Herschel is the featured tenor soloist and Lester comes in at the end with some beautiful clarinet. I have put this track up temporarily on the Music page.

 

The legendary HERSCHEL EVANS

The legendary HERSCHEL EVANS

Herschel died tragically young of heart trouble in February 1939 and his replacement was another Texan, Buddy Tate. "Lady Tate", as Lester naturally called him, became and stayed great friends with Pres. Buddy was a lovely man and a fine soloist with the quintessential whine.

Forgive me for boasting that I had the honour and pleasure of playing with him at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1969 when he took part in an all-star concert featuring Humph's band with guests Buddy, Charlie Shavers on trumpet and (yes, I actually got to play with Bird's first employer!!) Jay McShann on piano. [Chris Welch in the Melody Maker trashed my playing as inappropriately modern but I prefer Buddy Tate's verdict. After our first number, he turned round, gave me a huge grin and said "Crazy, baby!"]

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 But I digress. Back to the Texas whine.

I could talk about Illinois Jacquet and his famous wailing on Flying home (he didn't come from Illinois - his first name was corruption of a Christian name). Or Fathead Newman (star alumnus of the Ray Charles orchestra). Or King Curtis or James Clay.  I'd like however to concentrate on just two more personal favourites:

First, Arnett Cobb, born and died in Houston (impeccable credentials for this piece). A superbly fiery player who put up with much physical suffering. At the age of 32, he developed severe spinal problems and six years later broke both his legs in a car crash putting him on crutches for the rest of his career .A key soloist with Lionel Hampton, he went on to tour with his own small groups.

Although he played several engagements with Mike Carr on organ, at Ronnie's and elsewhere, I never got to play with him to my great regret. I always love listening to his records, however, and my personal favourite is Party time on Prestige.

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This label tended to just invite people to come in and blag it in two or three hours with a couple of blues, a couple of standards and a couple of ballads - no frills like paid rehearsal time which you got at Blue Note!  Sometimes the results were perfunctory and disappointing. Sometimes the formula really worked as with the magnificent album Party time. Sample Arnett's playing on Cocktails for two (on the Music page this week).

Finally, we come to the only out-and-out no-nonsense hard bop version of the Texas whine, the glorious sound of Booker Ervin, from Denison, Texas.

His whine/wail/moan is so extreme it is an acquired taste. You either love it or can't stand it. Well, I love it - as does my confrere Simon Spillett. If you want to read in authoritative detail about Booker's playing and rather sad life (he too died very young at 39 of kidney trouble), read Simon's superb booklet which comes with the CD set Booker Ervin - the good Book.

 

The late, lamented BOOKER ERVIN

The late, lamented BOOKER ERVIN

Nobody should miss hearing Booker's searing contributions to the Charlie Mingus band with Horace Parlan or his remarkable series of Prestige albums (The song book, the space book, the blues book, the freedom book) featuring Jaki Byard on piano and Alan Dawson on drums. This is all incredible stuff - if you don't like it, you can do the "other thing" whatever that is……………………………….

Long live the moan in the tone.     

 

Spike Wells