The beauty of jazz is that there's always a great musician you've never heard of lurking in the e-bins of online jazz stores. One of these fabulous phantoms was trumpeter Dick Collins, whose horn had a pert, lyrical sound that wasn't too hot or too cool. During the 1950s, Collins recorded as a sideman with various San Francisco artists and with Woody Herman and Les Brown up until 1962, when he presumably disappeared into the studio orchestras of the West Coast. Unfortunately, Collins recorded just two albums as a leader. His first, Horn of Plenty (1954), is drop-dead great.
Born in Seattle, Collins' first recording was for Fantasy in 1946 with the Dave Brubeck Octet. In 1948, the year of the second musicians' strike, Collins was in Paris recording for Swing Records with a group called the Be Bop Minstrels, featuring Kenny Clarke on drums. Additional Swing dates in Paris included one with the Kenny Clarke Orchestra and another with French alto saxophonist Hubert Fol.
In 1950 Collins recorded again with Brubeck's octet, which by then included alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. West Coast recordings with Charlie Barnet (1951) and alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano (1953) followed before Collins signed on with Woody Herman in early 1954.
Herman's band members often broke off in sections to record sessions, which occurred in January 1954 when Nat Pierce assembled a date for Fantasy that included Collins. Later that month, Collins began recording extensively with Herman, including a 1954 tour with the band to Paris, where he recorded on a breakout septet album, The Herdsmen Play Paris.
Following a New York session with Herman on May 21, 1954, Collins and seven other members of the Herman band spent the next two days recording Horn of Plenty for RCA. The group included Collins (trumpet), Med Flory (alto sax); Al Cohn [pictured], Dick Hafer and Bill Perkins (tenor saxes); Jack Nimitz (baritone sax); Nat Pierce (piano); Red Kelly (bass), and Chuck Flores (drums).
Nat Pierce arranged half of the album's 12 songs, with the other half penned by Cohn. Pierce and Cohn also contributed one original each. Since this is 1954, the blowing is all out, and the reed section is as sweet as can be. You put Med on top, Nimitz on the bottom with Cohn, Perkins and Hafer in the middle, and you have an incredible collective sound.
As for Collins, this album is pure bliss. Collins delivered a soft round sound on held notes and could run triplets with humility. Even on the high notes, Collins bent notes ever so slightly to ease the edge, making the instrument sound like a cornet. If I were forced to pick two tracks that are out of this world, they would be the opener, I'd Know You Anywhere (arranged by Pierce), and Why Was I Born (arranged by Cohn). You can't believe how swinging the writing is on the latter tune, and the reeds have that Early Autumn sound throughout.
Curious about Collins, I gave Med Flory a call yesterday:
"Wow, I haven't heard that album in years. Dick's nickname was Bix. Not because he could play like Beiderbecke but because he was a country boy who could play jazz. He didn't do anything outrageous. He just played great. He was the real McCoy. And a nice guy. No one ever said anything bad about Dick. His sound had a real pretty punch." [Photo of Med Flory by Mark Sheldon]
JazzWax tracks: Dick Collins' Horn of Plenty (RCA) is available as a Spanish BMG import here. I don't know Collins' whereabouts today nor did Med. His last known recording was a live date in 1978. This is one of my favorite discoveries of the year. The second album Collins recorded as a leader was King Richard, the Swing Hearted (RCA, 1954). I have not heard it yet but will soon. It's available here.