I spent yesterday listening to Presenting Red Mitchell, a nifty, often-overlooked album recorded in March 1957 featuring an unusual quartet of musicians. For the date, bassist Mitchell used his working group at the time—James Clay on flute and tenor sax, Lorraine Geller on piano and Billy Higgins on drums. Interestingly, each West Coast musician had a gentle touch at this point in time, and all played well together. But the future would be very different for each musician after this date was completed.
By the spring of 1957, Mitchell, 30, already was a seasoned pro. The bassist had begun his recording career nine years earlier with trumpeter Tony Fruscella in New York. In 1949, he joined Charlie Ventura's orchestra and jumped to Woody Herman's blockbuster Capitol Records band a few months later in 1950. Mitchell remained with Herman until 1952. When he departed, he recorded steadily as a sideman on sessions led by top-name players including Gerry Mulligan, Red Norvo, Russ Freeman, Chet Baker, Herb Geller, Stan Getz and Jimmy Raney. In the first half of 1954 Mitchell toured in Europe playing different concert dates with Billie Holiday, Sonny Clark, Jimmy Raney, Gerry Mulligan and Bob Brookmeyer.
Upon returning to the U.S. in mid-1954, the bassist relocated to Los Angeles. For the next three years, Mitchell recorded relentlessly with virtually every major player, including Tal Farlow [pictured], Chet Baker, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Rowles, Hampton Hawes, Jack Montrose, Bill Perkins, Marty Paich and many others.
In early 1957, Mitchell put together a group consisting of Clay, Geller and Higgins. They appeared together in February on a Stars of Jazz TV show for KABC in Los Angeles before going into the Contemporary Records studios in March to record Presenting Red Mitchell.
James Clay was a little-known tenor saxophonist in early 1957 but one of the first to completely embrace Sonny Rollins' advanced open playing style. Shortly after Presenting Red Mitchell, Clay was inducted into the army. When he was discharged, he recorded a couple of leadership albums for Riverside in 1960, a terrific Wes Montgomery album (Movin' Along) and three albums between 1963-1964 before disappearing from the recording scene until the mid-1970s. He staged a comeback in the 1980s and early 1990s, and died in 1994.
Lorraine Walsh was already an accomplished jazz pianist when she met alto saxophonist Herb Geller in 1950. After they married a year later, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Herb began recording steadily. Lorraine recorded with many excellent musicians and bands in the mid-1950s, including Shorty Rogers, Miles Davis, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Maynard Ferguson. She also recorded several albums with her husband in 1954 and 1955. Sadly, Presenting Red Mitchell would be her last recording date. Soon after this session, Geller retired briefly to become a mom, played behind Kay Starr and appeared at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in September 1958. Then suddenly, in October 1958, she died of heart failure at age 29.
Presenting Red Mitchell was Billy Higgins' first date. He would, of course, go on to record extensively with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins and many other major jazz artists in the 1960s and beyond. Higgins died in 2001.
As for Red Mitchell, he moved to Sweden in 1968 where he continued to play and record with dozens of touring jazz greats. He returned to the U.S. in early 1992 and died later that year.
Presenting Red Mitchell is solid from start to finish. It's a pretty on the ear and contains many subtle surprises. Among the highlights are Clay's flute playing on Red Mitchell's Rainy Night and Geller's long-fingered graceful lines and chords on one of Mitchell's finest originals, I Thought of You.
Clay showcases his Rollins-inspired technique on Miles Davis' Out of the Blue, Clifford Brown's Sandu and the standard Cheek to Cheek. Clay also plays a gorgeous flute on Rollins' Paul's Pal. Mitchell's playing, as always, is studio sharp and straightforward. Higgins is fabulous, and it's clear from his confident and dynamic playing on this, his initial studio date, that he's going places.
This album is by no means a jazz classic. It's simply a pretty piece of work that captures four excellent musicians at a critical moment in their careers.
JazzWax tracks: Presenting Red Mitchell is available here. The CD hasn't been remastered yet, but the sound is perfectly fine.
Lorraine Geller's recording, Lorraine Geller at the Piano, is available here as a Japanese import. She also can be heard on a compilation CD with Herb Geller that includes the album, The Gellers, here. She also is featured with Maynard Ferguson's dynamic big band of 1955 on this compilation here.
James Clay's work prior to the Red Mitchell date with drummer
Lawrence Marable as well as four tracks from Presenting Red Mitchell and one from the KABC-TV date are available on a Fresh Sounds release here.
All three tracks recorded by the Red Mitchell Quartet at KABC-TV in Los Angeles can be found on Memorial, a super rare Lorraine Geller CD here from Fresh Sounds. The CD also includes Lorraine Geller at the Piano and four tracks with Herb Geller.