Saturday, August 20, 2016

Cooking the Blues: The Buddy DeFranco Quintet on Verve, 1954

Buddy DeFranco
A graduate of the Big Band Era who played in orchestras led by Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco was responsible for bringing the clarinet into modernity. In the mid-1940s, at a time when the saxophone was quickly overtaking the clarinet as the most popular instrument in jazz, DeFranco was one of the few musicians to use the clarinet in a bebop context. Thanks mostly to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, the instrument had been extremely prominent during the heyday of swing, but the speed and complexity of bebop suddenly made it less than ideal for the new style. Taking many a cue from Charlie Parker, DeFranco worked hard to develop the technical ability required to play bebop clarinet in a successful and exciting manner. Born in Camden, NJ, in 1923, DeFranco was an almost obsessively disciplined musician who was constantly practicing and seeking new ways to improve his playing. One of the most forward-looking jazzmen of the '40s and with ample experience working with large combinations, from the '50s on he preferred to play in small-group settings, collaborating with the likes of Count Basie, Art Blakey, George Shearing, and Oscar Peterson, among several others. DeFranco devoted his whole life to music, recording and touring regularly and often winning the yearly polls of the most renowned jazz publications. By the time of his passing in 2014, he'd recorded dozens of albums, the invaluable legacy of a man who was always striving to innovate.

His stint on Verve in the mid-'50s yielded some of the most interesting projects DeFranco ever tackled, in particular two albums he cut in a quintet setting in 1954—Cooking the Blues and Sweet & Lovely, recently reissued on CD as a two-fer by Poll Winners Records. Both of them are delightful outings that find DeFranco on clarinet in the company of pianist Sonny Clark (who also plays organ on some tracks), guitarist Tal Farlow, bassist Gene Wright, and drummer Bobby White. The concept behind both albums is pretty much the same: clever boppish renditions of well-known standards along with one original per LP (Wright's "Cooking the Blues" on the former and Clark's "Moe" on the latter). There's an unmistakable warmth to the music, and the rapport between the five musicians makes for some pleasant listening. No wonder that both discs received five-star ratings from Down Beat upon their release in 1958, four years after the sessions actually took place. Of course, the two of them are essential, but in my opinion, the more bluesy component on Cooking the Blues makes it stand out. It includes beautifully relaxed readings of "I Can't Get Started," "Stardust," and "Little Girl Blue," and the title track, based on a catchy riff dreamed up by Wright, offers all participants a good chance for some inspired soloing. "How About You" is taken at a rather brisk pace and finds DeFranco tirelessly playing around with the melody, while "Indian Summer," played at a tempo that's faster than usual, makes for a very appropriate closing. Unfortunately, the quintet wouldn't make any more records after these sessions (Clark died only nine years after, in 1963), yet these two LPs are a clear testament to the enduring appeal of this band's work.

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