Monday, December 7, 2015

Little Johnny C.: Johnny Coles on Blue Note, 1962

Though he was an extremely exciting and versatile player, Johnny Coles remains one of the most underappreciated trumpeters in jazz history. This is possibly because, although he participated in numerous sessions as a sideman, he cut very few albums as a leader, much preferring to enhance the records of others with his beautiful playing. Born in Trenton, NJ, in 1926, Coles began his career working in a rhythm and blues setting with the likes of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Bull Moose Jackson, Earl Bostic, and Gene Ammons, which surely goes a long way toward explaining his cool, bluesy approach to playing both the trumpet and the flugelhorn. Over the years he would work alongside giants such as Gil Evans, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and Ray Charles, to name just a few, always managing to stand out due to his highly personal style but hardly ever getting the chance to lead his own sessions. His first album as a leader was 1961's The Warm Sound, and in 1962 he cut his only—and arguably best—record for Blue Note, Little Johnny CBy this time he'd been performing and making records with arranger Gil Evans and had come into contact with pianist Duke Pearson, who was instrumental in putting together the Blue Note dates and who contributed five of the six songs in the album.

The LP was recorded over the course of two sessions held at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in July and August 1962 and finds Coles in a sextet setting along with Pearson (piano), Leo Wright (alto sax and flute), Joe Henderson (tenor sax), Bob Cranshaw (bass), and Walter Perkins (drums). Drummer Pete LaRoca replaces Perkins in the August session. The three tracks on the first side of the album were cut at the July date, and they all derive from the blues idiom, particularly "Little Johnny C." and "Jano," both written by Pearson. "Hobo Joe," written by Henderson, also has a blues structure but adds a very engaging Latin beat. Pearson contributed all the compositions recorded at the August date (as well as the very interesting liner notes for the album, by the way), and these include "My Sweet Passion," a sort of waltz that fits Coles's sensitive playing perfectly and that features a nice flute solo from Wright, and "Heavy Legs," an uptempo tune that is one of the highlights. The album closes with "So Sweet My Little Girl," a ballad that Pearson apparently wrote for his daughter and that showcases Coles's cool approach to slow numbers. After this magnificent, though sadly forgotten, outing, Coles would only record one more album under his name and would retire from playing professionally in 1989, about 8 years before his death, which occurred in December 1997 in Philadelphia.

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