One of the most swinging and inventive arrangers of the 1950s was Manny Albam. In addition to being a gifted writer, he had a knack for attracting the most superb big band musicians of the period to his recording sessions. Like Ernie Wilkins and Al Cohn, Albam could create charts that were packed with sudden excitement and loads of swinging wallop and twists and turns. As Johnny Mandel said to me recently, "Manny didn't know how to be dull."
Of all Albam's recordings—and there were many—one of the finest and least-known is The Drum Suite. Recorded on March 5th, 6th and 7th of 1956 for RCA, the recording featured six movements, each with a different drum-related title. The arranging and conducting duties were split by Albam and Ernie Wilkins, with each handling three movements. Wilkins brought in Dancers on Drums, Cymbalisms and The Octopus while Albam contributed Bristling, Chants of the Witch Doctors and Skinning the Valves.
But don't be deceived by the album's title. This isn't one of those albums that's dominated by long, drawn-out drum solos—the kind percussionists love but everyone else can't stand. The album is called Drum Suite because it ambitiously featured four drummers playing at once—Gus Johnson, Osie Johnson [pictured below], Don Lamond [pictured above] and Ted Sommer. While the concept may sound gimmicky or crowded, the album is neither. You'd never know there was a quartet of drummers in the studio except for the fact that all the tracks have the kick of a mule. It's evidence of Albam's genius (and Wilkins', for that matter) that this record works so well.
At this point it's probably wise for me to tell you who was in the band for the first session: Conte Candoli, Joe Ferrante, Bernie Glow, Joe Newman [pictured] and Ernie Royal (trumpets); Urbie Green, Tom Mitchell, Fred Ohms and Chauncey Welsch (trombones); Hal McKusick and Sam Marowitz (alto saxes); Al Epstein and Al Cohn (tenor saxes); Sol Schlinger (baritone sax); Marty Wilson (vibes); Hank Jones (piano); Freddie Green (guitar) and Buddy Jones (bass). Plus the four drummers mentioned earlier.
There are subs on the other two dates (Nick Travis replaced Glow, Jimmy Cleveland replaced Green, Eddie Wasserman replaced Schlinger, Eddie Costa replaced Hank Jones, and two French horns were added: John Barrows and Jimmy Buffington.
The idea for the date was the album's producer, Jack Lewis, who was infatuated with Voodoo Suite, the drum-centric album that he and RCA's Herman Diaz Jr. produced with Perez Prado and Shorty Rogers a year earlier. When Lewis turned to Albam with the idea, Albam brought in Wilkins to lend a hand. But unlike Voodoo Suite, which is built on Latin rhythms, Drum Suite is all swing—and an East Coast response to the West Coast Latin-jazz effort.
On Drum Suite, the drums were carefully choreographed to avoid tripping over each other. All the drum parts were written out by Albam or Wilkins [pictured], and none of the drummers had a solo that extended beyond eight bars. Which is why the stickmen here aren't just jazz drummers but sharp-shooter studio readers. Amazingly, the album works perfectly, no matter how many times you listen to it.
Albam began his recording career in 1944 on baritone saxophone in the bands of Georgie Auld, Herbie Fields, and Les Elgart. He also was in the reed section of Neal Hefti's 1947 orchestra that recorded Repetition for Clef with Charlie Parker soloing.
Starting in 1949, Albam devoted all of his time to arranging for Charlie Barnet, Jerry Wald, Stan Kenton (Samana), Count Basie (Slow But Sure, Soft Drink) and other bandleaders. Interestingly, Albam and Wilkins were teamed a year prior to The Drum Suite as arrangers on Al Cohn's The Natural Seven and Joe Newman's All I Want to Do Is Swing. Wilkins died in 1999 and Albam in 2001.
"Manny was serious but fun, very intense and into the music," Hal McKusick [pictured] recalled yesterday. "I think he loaned his baritone to Al Epstein and never got it back." What was it like to have four drummers playing at once on the Drum Suite session? "Gee, I don't remember exactly. I guess I was too busy reading the music," Hal said with a laugh.
JazzWax tracks: Believe it or not, Manny Albam's Drum Suite is available as a download at iTunes and Amazon for under $6. You'll find it here. Or if you want The Drum Suite on CD, it's part of Manny Albam's The Jazz Workshop, another great album here. The Drum Suite is a must-own.
And if you dig The Drum Suite, grab Albam's The Blues Is Everybody's Business and West Side Story, two masterpieces.