The story of jazz is filled with behind-the-scenes guys who contributed mightily to the music but are little known today. One of these invisible hands was Duke Pearson. In addition to being a fine composer, hard bop pianist and Blue Note record producer, Pearson briefly led a compelling big band in the late 1960s. Top musicians like Lew Tabackin, Frank Foster, Pepper Adams, Benny Powell, Burt Collins, Bob Cranshaw and others were only too happy to be part of Pearson's orchestral experiment.
Pearson had a magical touch on the piano. His fingers operated so softly and smoothly on the keyboard they often sounded as though they were gliding across notes rather than depressing them. But Pearson also could voice chords with the best of them. That's Pearson playing piano on Grant Green's Idle Moments, Bobby Hutcherson's The Kicker and Stanley Turrentine's The Spoiler.
Pearson recorded several big band albums as a leader for Blue Note. They included Now Hear This (1968) and How Insensitive (1969), an album with a large group of singers. But the first album in this series was Introducing Duke Pearson's Big Band. Five of the nine tracks were Pearson originals, and the pianist wrote all of the band's arrangements.
The moods and rhythms vary. The funky tracks—Ground Hog, New Time Shuffle and Mississippi Dip—are period pieces that are a little too tricked out, like those over-hip rock attempts by Buddy Rich's band during the same period. But the others—New Girl, Bedouin, Straight Up and Down, Ready When You Are C.B., A Taste of Honey and Time After Time—are beautifully sophisticated and sharp.
Take New Girl for example, which has shades of Thad Jones' writing style. The song opens in waltz time with Jerry Dodgion and Al Gibbons on descending flutes. But the fluttering is short-lived as the song shifts immediately into a walking swinger with muscular solos by trumpeter Burt Collins and tenor saxophonist Tabackin. To my ear, the song is distinctly reminiscent of Pearson's best-known jazz composition Jeannine—which was recorded most notably by Cannonball Adderley on Them Dirty Blues and by Donald Byrd (with Pearson on piano) on At the Half Note Cafe. Hence the title—New Girl. Somehow, the CD's liner-notes writer missed the connection.
Or how about A Taste of Honey with a My Favorite Things flavor? Catch that echoing intro and meaty walking bass line by Bob Cranshaw. And if you want to hear Pearson's piano in full flower, dig Ready When You Are C.B., which playfully references and tickles Count Basie and arranger Neal Hefti. But the barnburner on the date was Straight Up and Down, with a growling baritone sax solo by Pepper Adams.
Duke Pearson may have arrived on the scene a little late in 1959 (and died all too soon in 1980), but he certainly left his mark as a big band arranger. It's a shame his exploration was so short-lived.
JazzWax tracks: Introducing Duke Pearson's Big Band is available on CD here. The band included Randy Brecker, Burt Collins, Joe Shepley and Marvin Stamm (trumpets); Garnett Brown, Benny Powell and Julian Priester and Kenny Rupp (trombones); Jerry Dodgion and Al Gibbons (alto saxes and flutes); Frank Foster and Lew Tabackin (tenor saxes); Pepper Adams (baritone sax and clarinet); Duke Pearson (piano); Bob Cranshaw (bass) and Mickey Roker (drums).
Six tracks have been added to the CD from Pearson's other two big band sessions.
JazzWax clip: How pretty and shrewdly arranged is New Girl? Hear for yourself...