Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and guitarist Tiny Grimes recorded together six times over their long careers. Both musicians were showmen at heart—Hawkins as an imposing and chameleon-like improviser and Grimes as a blues master and r&b showboater. Their first two sessions were in 1944. A third came backing Billie Holiday during a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1946. Then there were two Prestige dates in 1958 and 1959. The last session in 1961 was with the Swingville All Stars, a Prestige studio ensemble. Of these dates, perhaps the most unusual for Hawkins is the little-known Blues Groove.
Recorded in 1958, Blues Groove (Prestige) placed Hawkins in an r&b setting. While the virtuoso saxophonist could play any genre with enormous dexterity and bravado, on this album he becomes a blues riffer and wailer. Hawkins here is forced to show off his true blues stuff, and you hear a grittier player egged on by Grimes' taunting blues guitar. The results are as impressive as they are somewhat out of character for the jazz reed giant.
Billed as a joint session, Blues Groove features Musa Kaleem (flute), Hawkins (tenor sax), Ray Bryant (piano), Grimes (guitar) Earl Wormack (bass) and Teagle Fleming (drums). The Philadelphia rhythm section worked regularly with Grimes during this period, and this recording features the mastery of Bryant throughout.
Blues Groove is saturated with blues, but in the r&b riff vernacular that was popular at the time. Hawkins at first sounds like a stranger in a new land. The blues here isn't the stuff of swing and bop but of early rock and roll and Ray Charles soul. But soon enough Hawkins finds his footing, and these tracks are all the evidence you need to know that Hawkins was a fast study.
Marchin' Along, the Grimes-penned opening track, crystallizes the purpose of the date. The march-time boogie-woogie blues runs 17:37, and you hear why Grimes is considered an r&b maverick. You also experience Hawkins as you may never have heard him before—honking and wailing and running a wide range of modern blues lines. Hawkins was constantly trying to adapt to new forms of music—partly out of curiosity and partly to out-fox those who smugly thought they played it well.
A Smooth One is credited to Benny Goodman but it's really a reworking of Love Is Just Around the Corner, featuring Kaleem on flute. Who was Kaleem? Quoting from Ira Gitler's original liner notes:
Blues Wail is a cool, walking blues written by Grimes that gives the guitarist a chance to show off. Dig his mandolin technique 2:15 into the track. Rather than follow suit and run off a glassy Body and Soul-like solo, Hawkins bears down and turns bear-like and bossy. On the comeback, Grimes retains his blues poise.
April in Paris is taken at a skippy pace and opens with Grimes adding a blues touch to the standard's melody line. Soon enough you realize they are playing organist Wild Bill Davis' [pictured] hit arrangement for Count Basie's orchestra in 1955.
The album-ender, Soul Station, is another Grimes original, this time a walking blues. Interestingly, it was the first track recorded that day, and Grimes does some fine pecking here, supported by Hawkins' gruff blowing.
Hawkins was in a blues mode in early 1958. A day before Blues Groove was recorded, he was in Columbia's studio with blues vocalist Jimmy Rushing [pictured]. Two months later he recorded Coleman Hawkins Meets the Big Sax Section with Count Basie's New Testament stalwarts Marshal Royal, Frank Wess, Frank Foster and Charlie Fowlkes (I wrote about this terrific album here). In each case, a different Hawkins showed up to blow the blues.
JazzWax tracks: Tiny Grimes and Coleman Hawkins' Blues Groove is available on Prestige. You can sample and buy it on CD here. The album may also be available as a download at other e-retailers.
JazzWax note: This Sunday (December 20th), radio sensation Sid Gribetz will host a five-hour retrospective on the career of Tiny Grimes. The show starts at 2 p.m. (EDT). Just go here anywhere in the world.
JazzWax clip: Who was Tiny Grimes? To give you a sense, here's a recording from 1953, when Grimes fronted a kilt-wearing r&b group called the Rockin' Highlanders. Add Hawk's sound and you have a sense of what Blues Groove is all about...