Saturday, February 27, 2016

Howard McGhee Is Back in Town, 1961

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1918, Howard McGhee was one of the most prodigiously talented trumpeters of his generation, on a par with legends like Dizzy Gillespie, and he was instrumental in bridging the gap between swing and bop. He was, however, a late comer to the instrument, having started out on the saxophone and the clarinet, but once he picked up the trumpet, there was no turning back. In the original liner notes to the album we're discussing today, Maggie's Back in Town, written by Nat Hentoff, McGhee attributes his tendency toward playing more notes than other trumpeters to the fact that he was a saxophonist and clarinetist first, and he also remembers that his parents weren't in the least pleased about his interest in jazz: "I used to sneak a radio into my room and listen to Roy [Eldridge] on the air. My folks were church people. They didn't like jazz, and they didn't want me to play it, but that was what I wanted to do, and nothing could stop me." Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong were his earliest influences, and he in turn influenced a host of trumpeters who came after, among them the great Clifford Brown. During the Swing Era, Maggie--such was his nickname, to which the title of the LP makes reference--was a member of several bands, including those led by Lionel Hampton, Andy Kirk, Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, and Georgie Auld, and he distinguished himself for his powerful, exciting style that can be heard, for example, on "McGhee Special," recorded while with Kirk. The year of 1945 marks a turning point in McGhee's career: he joined Coleman Hawkins and relocated to California, where he played countless live dates and cut some forward-looking records for Dial, including sessions with Charlie Parker. Bop classics such as "Rifftide" and "Stuffy" originated during these extremely important years.

Unfortunately, at the same time that his career was thriving, a host of drug-related problems began to dramatically affect his personal life, and as a result, McGhee's recordings throughout the 1950s are very scarce. He did make a worthy comeback album of sorts for Bethlehem in 1956, The Return of Howard McGhee (with Sahib Shihab, Duke Jordan, Percy Heath, and Philly Joe Jones), but it wasn't until 1961, when he released Maggie's Back in Town on Contemporary Records, that he was truly back on the scene--and this time to stay. The album was cut during the course of a single session, which took place in Los Angeles on June 26, 1961, and finds McGhee in the excellent company of pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Shelly Manne. Around this time, McGhee and Vinnegar had been playing at the Town Hill in L.A., and their mutual understanding is obvious on this recording, as is Maggie's affinity with Newborn. The opening track, "Demon Chase," is the only McGhee original, and it starts off with an interesting call-and-response structure that gives way to lovely solos by both McGhee and Newborn. Two of the tunes were composed by Teddy Edwards: his classic "Sunset Eyes" and "Maggie's Back in Town," which Edwards obviously wrote for this session and which is given a ten-minute treatment that allows for plenty of room for everyone to solo. There are also three standards ("Willow Weep for Me," "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," and "Summertime"), all of them taken at a rather brisk tempo, with McGhee mainly playing muted trumpet (except in the release of "Willow") and offering some inventive improvisation on the melodies with the help of Newborn and the rhythm section. Finally, the album closes with "Brownie Speaks," a masterfully played salute to Clifford Brown, a trumpeter that McGhee influenced and also deeply admired, both as a musician and as a composer. Though McGhee would cut a few more notable albums before his passing in 1987, this comeback LP that Original Jazz Classics reissued on CD 1991 remains one of his most enduring statements on record and is absolutely recommendable.

No comments: