When I opened the mail Monday night, there it was: Louie & Clark Expedition 2—the big band CD that legendary drummer Louie Bellson told me about last fall when I interviewed him, the one he recorded with trumpet and flugelhorn great Clark Terry at the end of May 2007.
I put on the CD yesterday morning as I sat down to write, and to be honest, I didn't take it off until closing down for the day 15 hours later. The album zigs. It zags. And it swings. All of the compositions are by Louie, and more than half the arrangements are by the late Tommy Newsom, the Tonight Show band stalwart. By 4 pm yesterday, I was so excited about the album, I picked up the phone and gave Louie a call. More on my chat with Louie in a minute.
There are 13 tracks on Louie & Clark Expedition 2—each with a completely different feel and personality. All are imbued with Louie and Clark's travels through the jazz wilds over the past 70 years. Both were in Duke Ellington's band of the early 1950s, and both have played with every major big band and jazz artist—influencing most of them along the way.
Both Louie and Clark adore the Duke's suites. They also have mutual admiration for the 1960s and 1970s Tonight Show band—Louie was a frequent guest, and Clark was the band's first African-American member. So this history-rich CD is a sweet marriage of tender rhythms and pretty notes.
There's no filler or padding here. There are no low-energy throwaways or solos that go on too long. All of
Louie's compositions have tremendous kick, as do his own arrangements. Tommy Newsom (pictured with Doc Severinsen and Ed Shaughnessy) arranged 7 of the 13 tunes in the fall of 2006 before he died on May 1, 2007. Sadly, Tommy never had a chance to hear the album. The remaining swingers were arranged by band member Albert Alva, Jack Hayes and the late, great Basie-influenced Nat Pierce.
At age 83, Louie's playing has taken on a satiny finish. He keeps fabulous time throughout, with gentle, intricate stick work and rolls of old. Clark's phrasing is all heart, and the 87-year-old horn giant works in and out of melodies effortlessly, offering rich round notes and perfect intonation. These two guys have been around a long time, but neither is resting on his laurels here.
The four-part Chicago Suite covers the album's first four tracks. It has a distinct Ellington feel, capturing a range of the Duke's moods. Ellington's influence also can be felt on Davenport Blues, Give Me the Good Time, Back to the Basics (Old) and Now (the Young). Not too much pressure on the band's pianist, Helen Sung, who truly has a lovely touch.
Most of the remaining tracks are straight-ahead swingers. The exception is Ballade, which has a lilting The Summer Knows feel that's so pretty you start to wish for lyrics.
Here's what Louie told me late yesterday from California when I asked about the Ellington connection:
"Oh, sure, there's a lot of Duke in there. That's where it all starts for me. And Clark. Tommy [Newsom] wrote great arrangements for us. He was one of the premier arrangers. He did all those Tonight Show charts. Tommy was in Virginia and I was in California. We worked together in the fall of 2006. I sent him my compositions by mail. We worked over the phone. It was so beautiful working with him."
Whose idea was it to use three drummers—Louie, Kenny Washington and Sylvia Cuenca—on Two Guys and a Gal?
"That was Clark's idea. He heard my melody for the song. He thought it would be great. He was right. When I heard Kenny [Washington] was available, we had to use him. And Sylvia has played with Clark."
Two Guys and a Gal opens with a shuffling samba beat and quickly switches to a jazz tempo—pure Tonight Show. Terry's Mood also has a California sound, with a fabulous solo by Clark. In fact, every tune on this CD has history baked in and celebrates the longevity of these masters and the cats they knew and played with along the way.
Louie and Clark should be proud. Both were born to swing. Both show they still can.
One of my favorite Louie
Bellson albums from the late 1950s is Skin Deep, which is available at iTunes. One of my favorite Clark Terry albums is The Trumpet Summit Meets the Oscar Peterson Big Four, with Clark, Dizzy Gillespie
and Freddie Hubbard. It's also available at iTunes.
JazzWax video clips: For historical perspective, here are a bunch of great clips featuring Louie and Clark in action. Check out Louie with Duke Ellington here in 1950 on Louie's composition, The Hawk Talks.