Tadd Dameron composed some of jazz's prettiest songs. Unlike most jazz composers of the 1940s, including Billy Strayhorn, Dameron's work was a rare combination of hip, edgy and vibrant. Where Strayhorn tended toward melancholy, pensive and deep, Dameron's songs were upbeat, playful and airy. They were sophisticated tunes you could hum.
Earlier this year, New York pianist Tardo Hammer took a shot at a Dameron tribute. The result is the CD Look Stop and Listen, which tastefully captures and interprets Dameron's compositions and musical spirit.
Born in 1917, Dameron wrote for Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk and Vido Musso before meeting Charlie Parker in Kansas City in 1939. In the 1940s, Dameron became one of bebop's earliest and most sensitive arrangers and composers, turning out many of the strongest and intimate standards of the era, including Hot House, Our Delight, Casbah, Lady Bird, If You Could See Me Now and Good Bait.
As legend has it, Dameron took on the extra "d" in his first name after a 1947 encounter with a numerologist, who told him, "To be lucky, you need to add an extra letter to your name." So Tad became Tadd.
Dameron's most fruitful period was between 1947 and 1949. During these years, he made ground-breaking records with Fats Navarro, Wardell Gray, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Howard McGhee, Milt Jackson and Benny Goodman for the Blue Note and Capitol labels. All of these tracks became classics, and they remain so today.
In the 1950s, Dameron helped usher in hard bop by mentoring trumpeter Clifford Brown. The pair recorded A Study in Dameronia in 1953, and in 1956 Dameron recorded a gorgeous album called Fontainebleau followed by Mating Call with John Coltrane.
But in 1958, Dameron, a drug user, was arrested, convicted and spent the next few years in prison. When released in 1961, Dameron continued to arrange and compose, recording The Magic Touch in 1962.
Dameron died of cancer in 1965, and today his spectacular contribution to both bop in the 1940s and hard bop in the 1950s remains somewhat underrated.
George Ziskind, a Chicago pianist who spent time with Dameron in the 1960s, categorized the composer's approach this way in an essay:
"Make little songs. This was Tadd's most basic advice to the improviser. When playing one's chorus on a tune, it is not sufficient to know the harmony, to be 100% comfortable with its figurations [or] to have [only] a passing familiarity with the composer's conception.
Tadd stressed that the above were merely starting points. They were the basic building blocks necessary to construct a creditable solo and only when you had those items fully covered could you be ready to deal with the heart of the matter, i.e., to make 'little songs' as you played—little self-contained melodic bits—that could be two beats long, or two bars long, or nine or ten bars long.
The length of these motifs was not the important thing; rather, he believed that there should be lots and lots of little melodies within your solo—little songs—and that this was one of the most important defining factors when analyzing the work of any great improviser, no matter what the instrument or the style."
Which brings me to Tardo Hammer's new CD. Hammer, 49, is an old soul and knows his way around a jazz keyboard—having played with Lou Donaldson, Bill Hardman, Junior Cook, Annie Ross, Art Farmer, Vernel Fournier and Clifford Jordan, among others.
Recording a Tadd Dameron tribute album is a brave undertaking. Most Dameron tributes miss the mark either by overplaying or underplaying his compositions. To get Tadd right, you need a bop ear and strong technique—but you also must know when to lay back and let in lots of space and beauty.
Dameron's melody lines can't be muscled; you have to let them surface, and it's a tough trick to pull off. Pianist Barry Harris managed to capture Dameron in a 1975 tribute album.
Hammer accomplishes this, too, bringing Dameron to life through a handsome execution on Look Stop and Listen (Sharp Nine). Hammer's playing is both confident and delicate—just the right mix for Dameron's sweet bop.
Hammer is joined by Joe Farnsworth on drums and John Webber on bass. Both are sublime, helped immensely by the CD's fine production (Marc Edelman). All three musicians can be heard crisply and distinctly at any given time on the recording, without dropout or overheated sound boarding.
Wax tracks: Look Stop and Listen, is available at iTunes and on the web here. The entire album is worth owning for its consistency and taste, but if you're downloading, grab Hot House, If You Could See Me Now and Flossie Lou.
If you want to hear Tadd Dameron's bop playing and composing genius in the late 40s, download tracks off Fats Navarro-Tadd Dameron: Complete Blue Note and Capitol Sessions. Or buy the CD here.
Wax clips: Unfortunately I could not find any clips of Hammer up on the web. But I did find a wonderful 1990 version of Dameron's If You Could See Me Now by guitarist Mundell Lowe. Go here to see and hear it. The clip features Bob Cooper on tenor, Monty Budwig on bass and Roy McCurdy on drums.