Hal McKusick was there. Since the early 1940s, he has played with every jazz great you can think of, and the sheer number of top recording sessions he's on is staggering. That's a lot of tricky sight reading and perfection the first time through.
Starting in 1943, Hal has recorded with bands led by Les Brown, Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Ralph Burns, George Handy, Buddy Rich, Claude Thornhill, Terry Gibbs, Neal Hefti, Bill Harris, Charlie Parker, Gil Evans, Don Elliott, Elliot Lawrence, Billy Byers, Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, George Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa, Andy Kirk, George Russell, Nat Pierce, Urbie Green and Erroll Garner. And I'm only up to 1956.
And the number of great arrangers Hal has known personally and recorded with over the years is easily double or triple the list above. So when I asked Hal earlier this week for a list of his favorite penmen, he thought for a few minutes and then said in that soothing voice: "Yeah, let's give it a shot, but I'm sure I'm going to overlook other notables. We'll just add to the list."
Here are Hal's top nine arrangers, in no particular order:
Al Cohn—"Al was fabulous. I loved everything he wrote. Listen to what he did on Lady Chatterley's Mother for Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band. His sax soli on that track is amazing. I also love Theme, the ballad with cellos he wrote for my album, In a Twentieth-Century Drawing Room."
Tiny Kahn—"Anything Tiny wrote could swing with great taste. Tiny's arrangement of T.N.T. that we played in Elliot Lawrence's band is a terrific example of Tiny’s writing style. Had Tiny lived—he died of a heart attack in 1953—he would have been one of our most prodigious composers and orchestrators.”
George Handy—"His early pieces for Boyd Raeburn, like the Stravinsky-influenced Dalvatore Sally, were fantastic. Or The Bloos, written for his own orchestra in 1946, is wonderful. And, of course, his charts for Zoot Sims' album, Zoot Plays Four Altos were outstanding and good forever!”
Johnny Carisi—"Most people forget Johnny wrote Israel, which was recorded by Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool" band and became a standard. His arrangements for Urbie Green in the mid-1950s were sensational. Stella by Starlight, for one, has a unique voicing and voice leading. He could write for any size group. He also wrote for a four-sax band I led in the mid-1950s that toured but unfortunately didn’t record. The saxes were Dave Schildkraut, me, Sol Schlinger and Al Cohn, with Bill Evans and Eddie Costa on piano. Those were great charts. Some of this sax material I recorded on Cross-Section Saxes with me, Frank Socolow on alto, Dick Hafer on tenor, Jay Cameron on baritone and Bill [Evans], Paul [Chambers] and Connie [Kay].”
Manny Albam—"Manny is another nearly forgotten hero. I love all of the pieces he wrote for my quartet on East Coast Jazz, which featured me, Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson. His charts for cello on my album, In a Twentieth-Century Drawing Room, also were so sensitive. Manny could write beautifully for any size group, but I preferred his arrangements for three, four or five players. He was a master at putting lines against lines, contrapuntally, in the jazz idiom.”
Johnny Mandel—"The orchestrations Johnny wrote for Boyd Raeburn with vocalist David Allyn, and his charts later for Tony Bennett, are remarkable. Also, his writing for Buddy Rich's big band in the late 1940s, The Eagle Flies for Boyd, his charts for Elliot Lawrence in 1956, and Plymouth Rock for Basie remain great. He also wrote amazing charts for my Jazz Workshop album. Of course, Johnny was a terrific songwriter as well. Emily and Shadow of Your Smile were beautiful. He had it covered from every standpoint. He could write a lush string arrangement or a cooking chart for a swinging big band or for quartets.”
Gerry Mulligan—"I love the charts he wrote and played with Chet Baker, as well as the ones for his Concert Band. The same is true for his Claude Thornhill work and “Birth of the Cool” band. I played in his Concert Band in 1957, but I was too busy with other studio and recording work back then to travel with the band and get more involved in it.”
Neal Hefti—"Neal was and is one of the greatest arrangers. He had outstanding bands when we recorded in 1951, 1952, 1954 and 1955. Stan Getz and Kai Winding were in those groups, along with Tal Farlow, Bobby Hackett, Phil Woods and Don Lamond. They were fabulous bands. Hefti’s charts were clean and refreshing, and his rehearsals always were a lot of fun.”
Ralph Burns—"Ralph and I went to high school together in the early 1940s in Newton, Mass. I recorded with him on his album, Free Forms, in 1946 and with trombonist Bill Harris in 1952. I also recorded on Ralph’s Perpetual Motion album. That band was something else and included Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Hamilton, Al Cohn, Flip Phillips, Danny Bank, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Louie Bellson. Ralph’s arrangements were completely comfortable to play. They were always rich with woven textures, depth and warmth. He wrote with passion and was deeply influenced by Ellington and Strayhorn.
JazzWax tracks: Here are links to the tunes and albums Hal mentions above...
Al Cohn's Lady Chatterley's Mother can be found on Gerry Mulligan and the Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguard (1960) here—or you can download it at iTunes.
Al Cohn's Theme is on Hal's In a Twentieth-Century Drawing Room (1955), which is out of print. But much of the album is available on Hal McKusick Quartet here. This two-CD set from LoneHill Jazz combines four albums by Hal and is a must own. Joining Hal on these dates were Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson, with arrangements by Gil Evans, George Russell, Manny Albam, Jimmy Giuffre and Al Cohn.
Tiny Kahn's T.N.T. is on the CD, Elliot Lawrence Big Band: Swings Cohn and Kahn (1956). It's a fabulous album and can be purchased here.
Dalvatore Sally (1945) is on a Boyd Raeburn compilation called Jewells. You can download the track at iTunes.
The Bloos is on The Jazz Scene (1946) and can be found here along with the other tracks recorded by Norman Granz for an album of 78 rpm's released in 1948.
Zoot Sims Plays Tenor & Four Altos (1957) combines two albums—Zoot! and Zoot Sims Plays Four Altos. George Handy wrote the swinging charts on both albums, and the CD features Zoot all the way. It can be found here.
Stella by Starlight arranged by Johnny Carisi is on All About Urbie Green (1956) and can be purchased here. Hal's Cross-Section Saxes (1958) is a joy on the ears from beginning to end. You can find the album on a Japanese CD. Or most of the ablum's tracks are available for much less on a terrific Hal McKusick compilation called Now's the Time here.
Hal's East Coast Jazz (1955) is out of print and hard to come by. But much of the album is on the Hal McKusick Quartet double-CD mentioned above. Hal's Jazz Workshop (1956) is still in print and can be purchased here. This CD includes his quartet, octet with Art Farmer, and septet with Jimmy Cleveland and Sol Schlinger. Like all of Hal's albums, this one feature the very best arrangements and showcases his smooth and lyrical alto sound.