Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Julian Priester on Riverside, 1960

Anyone playing jazz trombone in the 1950s and '60s must have felt that the shadow of J.J. Johnson was looming large, and there were only two possible ways to deal with that—either take a tip from J.J. and imitate his style or else attempt to stray away from J.J.'s example and create a style of one's own. Julian Priester went for the latter. Born in Chicago in 1935, Priester attended DuSable High School, where he became interested in the trombone, embarking on a professional career as a jazz musician upon graduation. Despite the fact that he isn't as well remembered today as he should be, he's enjoyed a long career and has had the chance to prove his versatility playing in different contexts, from bop to R&B to fusion. He's also devoted a great deal of his time to higher education and has played alongside great jazzmen such as Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, and Charlie Haden, to name but just a few. In fact, he's recorded more often as a sideman (and an exciting, very dependable one at that) than as a leader, which probably accounts for his relative obscurity. From the very beginning, two of his assets were his ability to deliver inventive trombone solos and his thirst for playing in as many different settings as possible, always succeeding in bringing a fresh, personal approach to the proceedings, whatever they may be.

Around 1959, after spending part of the '50s within the ranks of orchestras led by Sun Ra and Lionel Hampton, Priester joined Max Roach's band, and it was while with the great drummer that he cut two fantastic albums for Riverside, both of them in 1960—Keep Swingin' and Spiritsville. We're concentrating here on the former, recorded in a single session in New York City on January 11, 1960, but fortunately both of them have been reissued as a two-fer by Fresh Sound Records that makes for a great introduction to Priester's music. On this date, the trombonist is accompanied by tenorist Jimmy Heath, pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Elvin Jones, a stellar combo that doesn't disappoint. The result is an excellent bop album, full of swing and appealing solos pretty much from everyone involved, though the spotlight is obviously on Priester. Jimmy Heath contributes not only many outstanding solos but also the album opener, "24-Hour Leave," which sets the pace for what's to come. Besides some lovely playing by Priester, Charles Davis's "1239A" features a fine piano solo by the quietly elegant Flanagan. The album only includes two standards: the medium-tempo "Just Friends" sounds as though it had been inspired in part by Chet Baker's classic Pacific version, and the warm, sensitive reading of "Once in a While" (the only ballad on the LP) ranks as one of the highlights. The rest of the disc showcases Priester's talent as a composer, with four originals ranging from the bluesy "Bob T's Blues" to the more boppish and swinging "The End," "Julian's Tune," and "Under the Surface." Priester carries most of the weight on these originals, though he's superbly aided by everyone else. Although they're only his first two outings as a leader, Keep Swingin' and Spiritsville represent some of Priester's best work and should pique the listener's interest in seeking out the dozens of other albums on which the trombonist appears as a sideman.

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