Lennie Niehaus' arrangements for Stan Kenton's band in the late 1950s and early 1960s are superb. So are his too-brief solos with the band. But if you really want to hear Lennie's musical genius at work, you have to dig his small-group recordings of the mid-1950s. Kenton, like many bandleaders in the LP era, was smart enough to know that the best way to hold onto star soloists was to let them record on their own during the band's downtime. Lennie took advantage of Stan's policy by recording five fabulous albums for Contemporary Records as a leader.
On these quintet and octet albums, you hear Lennie's search for a new linear sound. The infectious piano-less quartet that Gerry Mulligan had formed in 1952 quickly became an economical model for West Coast jazz musicians in the 1950s eager to record cost-efficiently for fledgling record labels. Yet Lennie's approach was a bit different than most. He arranged for small groups using techniques that made them sound much larger, and the musicians he used were chosen not only for their sterling sight-reading skills but also their artistic intellects and instrumental sounds.
In Part 4 of my five-part interview series with Lennie, the alto saxophonist, arranger and composer talks about his small-group sessions and sideman dates during the 1950s:
JazzWax: You recorded five albums for Contemporary and one for EmArcy as a small-group leader in the 1950s.
Lennie Niehaus: When I got out of the army, I had offers from three labels—Pacific Jazz, Contemporary and Stan Kenton Presents. I was stuck and wasn't sure which way to go. So I said to Shelly Manne, “I don’t know what to do. Dick Bock at Pacific Jazz has a good stable. And Stan uses the guys from his band on his label but I’m not sure how well it will go. And then there's Les Koenig at Contemporary.”
JW: What was Manne's advice?
LN: Shelly told me to go with Contemporary. He said, “Les Koenig will let you do anything you want. He’ll just record you.” At the time, I wanted to record a new sound. I loved the concept of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, with its contrapuntal exchanges. But I wanted a richer, more textured result in my small groups.
JW: Your first Contemporary album, in 1954, was a quintet session.
LN: On that album, I found a way to voice the three saxes—me, Jack Montrose on tenor and Bob Gordon on baritone—so that we sounded like six saxes.
JW: How did you do that?
LN: I wrote a voicing that resulted in a special sound. First I’d find the notes in a chord that I wanted to use. Then I’d voice those notes so they produced overtones.
JW: How so?
LN: It's similar to what happens when you hit a note on the piano and hold it down with the sustaining pedal. You first hear the initial note. Then as the note rings, you start to hear the overtone, or other notes that color it. The notes I wrote for the saxes resonated like that.
JW: What does the average ear hear?
LN: By picking the right notes, I wound up with a fuller sound. The overtones create the sensation that there are three more saxes on the date. In other words, by spreading out the three saxes just right, your ear thinks it hears notes that aren't there. As a result, you think additional saxes are playing—without the density that would occur if six saxes were playing.
JW: What did this voicing and use of space do for the soloist?
LN: Instead of voicing closely, I did close voicing. Which just means a little less close [laughs]. I spread the chord open. This open feeling gave the person improvising more freedom. In the past, small groups had everyone play a line and then each of the musicians took turns soloing. To me, that was a boring formula. Instead, I wanted a light line leading up to a solo, then the solo followed by an interlude with all saxes playing before the next soloist started. This created a more swinging feel.
JW: Did you have Gerry Mulligan or Dave Pell’s octet of 1953 in mind?
LN: No. I was developing my thing separately. I loved Gerry’s group, and Dave’s octet was interesting. But I wasn’t thinking about anyone else except what I wanted to do. You have to understand that the linear sound in small groups was prevalent back then. I wanted to find a way to make what I was doing different.
JW: Was there a method to your choice of sidemen? You used different horn players on each session.
LN: I tried to get the best players I could for what I wanted to do. I always used Shelly Manne on drums and Monty Budwig on bass. The unifying factor was that the sidemen had to be great sight-readers and have a special sound with the ensemble and while soloing.
JW: On your first octet album in 1954, you used Lou Levy on piano.
LN: Lou was a great player. At one point in 1951 he decided to leave the music business and go into real estate back home in Minnesota. When we toured the state with Stan in 1954, Lou would hang out with the band. A year later he came out to Los Angeles to see about playing opportunities. I liked what he was playing around town so I asked him if he wanted to record. The first album he did when he returned to L.A. was my first octet recording in 1954.
JW: In 1955, you began to use tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins in your small-group sessions.
LN: Perk had the perfect sound for what I wanted to do. He, too, was interested in finding a new sound, and he liked playing forgotten tunes, like Rockin' Chair and things like that. He had a beautiful sound. Many tenor saxophonists on the West Coast back then had a soft, Lester Young sound. Perk had a soft, velvety sound, but he could play that sound hard.
JW: Yet Perkins didn't maintain that sound throughout his career.
LN: Over time Perk played more in line with what Wayne Shorter was doing. Even in the 1990s, people would ask him to play Yesterdays like he did back in 1955 with Stan Kenton on Contemporary Concepts. That would irk him. He’d ask me, “Why do they want me to sound like I did 40 years ago?” But when he played with me on dates in the 1990s, he’d unconsciously revert to playing like he did back then. You can hear him do that on Live at Capozzoli’s, which we recorded in Las Vegas in 1999 for Bob Lorenz. I didn’t tell Perk how I wanted him to play on that date. He just followed me. I think he felt it was right for the situation.
JW: Some of your sideman dates in the 1950s were out there, like Duane Tatro’s Jazz for Moderns in 1954.
LN: [Laughs] Duane was a friend of producer Les Koenig’s. He went into engineering but quickly grew tired of that and realized he wanted to be a musician. So Les hired him. When we recorded that album in 1954, the music seemed off the wall. But as time went by, it sounded more and more like classical music. It still sounds pretty modern.
JW: Did that type of modal music come easily to you?
LN: Yes. In music school I studied 12-tone music with Ernst Krenek. It was a relatively small class, and Krenek taught me to be more creative harmonically and to get a 12-tone row without implying a chord. That was always the challenge with 12-tone rows—to create three-note interval lines without making it sound like a chord. I had always loved Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, so 12-tone music seemed natural to me.
JW: You also wrote for the Hollywood Saxophone Quartet in 1955.
LN: This was built on my contrapuntal sax soli concept [saxes playing in unison]. But the group wasn't comfortable without a rhythm section. So we added a bass and drums. I didn’t want a piano because it was just going to get in the way of all the moving parts. I wrote one whole album plus four tunes for another album.
JW: In March and April 1955, you recorded what I feel was your finest Contemporary small-group LP, The Quintets & Strings (Vol.4).
LN: When I started recording for Les, he said, “Do anything you want—just keep recording albums.” So it was my choice. I had always wanted to incorporate strings into the linear format. But not the way strings had been customarily used, as accompanists. I wanted them running lines, the way a saxophone would. I had attended music school with violinist Christopher Kuzell. I called him and said I wanted three violas and a cellist for the date. Chris played one of the viola parts and brought in the other three string players.
JW: But the strings had to have a jazz feel since they were an integral part of your small-group sound.
LN: That's right. I arranged the strings as though they were part of a sax section with me on top on alto. It was the first time I had written for strings since music school. To get the sound right, we rehearsed at my home. For a jazz feel, I told the string players not to read the eighth notes like eighth notes. Otherwise they would have played them too stiffly.
LN: I told them to play two eighth notes as though they were a quarter note and an eight note, with a No. 3 over it, more like a triplet. I wrote in parenthesis: “two eighth notes = a quarter note and an eighth note." Then I added a "3" over the top to indicate that the notes were to be played like triplets. All of this is technical stuff. The result was a hipper, swinging feel.
LN: After we rehearsed, yes. Then I asked Monty Budwig to come and rehearse with us so the strings had the feel of playing against the time-keeping of the bass. Shelly Manne just came to the date and recorded his part perfectly.
JW: The instrumentation on your second octet album in 1956 came close to the Miles Davis’ nonet.
LN: I wasn’t out to copy Miles Davis’ group. But I liked that feel for my octet. However, I dropped the piano and trumpet, which Miles had, and added a tenor sax, which wasn’t in his nonet. French hornist Vince DeRosa couldn’t play jazz but he could play with a feeling that I liked and wanted.
JW: Why did you record just four tracks on this octet date?
LN: When the 12-inch LP arrived in 1956, Contemporary began reissuing its earlier 10-inch LPs on the new larger format. But the 12-inch LP had more room. So Les Koenig asked me for four more tracks to add to the new 12-inch release, to stretch it out. At first, instead of longer tracks to fill an album, producers just wanted more tracks. Each had to be three to four minutes long.
LN: Radio airplay was still a big consideration then. Which was fine by me [laughs].
Tomorrow, in the final part of this interview series, Lennie talks about how he met Clint Eastwood in the army, his first break writing for the movies with Jerry Fielding, and his scores for many Eastwood films.
JazzWax tracks: Unfortunately, none of Lennie Niehaus' small-group recordings are available as downloads. On CD, you'll find Zounds! The Lennie Niehaus Octet! (Vol. 2) here and Quintets and Strings (Vol. 4) here from Concord Records. Or you can buy Lennie Niehaus: Complete Fifties Recordings (LoneHill), volumes 1-4 starting here. I hear that all are available through eMusic.com.
Lennie recorded two small-group sessions for Woofy Records. Live at Capozzoli's (1999), a quintet date with tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins, is available on CD here. The Lennie Niehaus Octet: Sunday Afternoon at the Lighthouse Cafe (2004) with Tom Peterson (tenor sax), Jack Nimitz (baritone sax), Bob McChesney (trombone), Ron Stout (trumpet), Bob Florence (piano), Trey Henry (bass) and Dick Weller (drums) is available on CD here.