When saxophonist Benny Golson and trumpeter Art Farmer decided to form a sextet in late 1959 with trombonist Curtis Fuller, they were stuck for a name. So Benny asked Fuller if they could use "Jazztet," a name the trombonist had come up with for a Savoy album date he led in August. Fuller agreed, and the first album the group recorded in February 1960 was Meet the Jazztet, a powerful outing that included Benny's I Remember Clifford, Blues March, Park Avenue Petite and Killer Joe.
The album remains such a strong, all-chips-in outing that the group's second album, Big City Sounds, often is overlooked, left hiding in the first album's large shadow. Recorded in September 1960, Big City Sounds was in fact a stunning followup that requires a careful re-listen.
Benny and Fuller were formerly of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, but the Jazztet concept that Benny and Farmer had in mind wasn't quite hard bop. There was a new sophistication and lighter feel to the Jazztet's approach. Benny's writing and arranging had a greater finesse and sophistication than the beat-heavy hard bop groups of the time. Benny's melody lines and harmonies were more refined, influenced to some extent by the delicate and poetic stylings of Tadd Dameron.
The Jazztet's first album was a tough act to follow. Killer Joe was a big jukebox hit, and the Jazztet was named best new small band in the Down Beat Critics' Poll. But after the first album gained speed, Fuller decided to leave the group, largely over financial issues related to the pay of sidemen. Both Benny and Farmer had been making sizable incomes before forming the Jazztet—Benny with his writing and Farmer with his prolific sideman dates. Both needed the bulk of the Jazztet's income to sustain their focus and participation. Bassist Addison Farmer and drummer Lex Humphries also decided to depart, along with McCoy Tyner, who joined John Coltrane.
So Benny needed to hire four replacements. The new Jazztet featured Tom McIntosh on trombone and Cedar Walton on piano, Tommy Williams on bass and Albert "Tootie" Heath on drums. The tracks were The Cool One, Blues on Down, Hi-Fly, My Funny Valentine, Wonder Why, Con Alma, Lament, Bean Bag and Five Spot After Dark.
Four of the tracks were Benny's compositions—The Cool One, Blues on Down, Bean Bag and Five Spot After Dark. Each is different from the other, but all exemplify the cooler, sculptured sound Benny was striving for with the Jazztet. In addition to the music and orchestral arrangements, the sound of Farmer's Melba-toast tone against Benny's serpentine lines and breathy phrasing makes for a rich result.
The Cool One has a Killer Joe feel and pace but it is a tad lighter. Blues on Down is given a funk feel. Bean Bag, an up-tempo tune, features voicings that lead you to think there are many more instruments playing. And the sly Five Spot After Dark has a drive that never feels heavy. Of the remaining tunes, Randy Weston's Hi-Fly and Dizzy Gillespie's Con Alma are particularly precious. And Farmer's reading of My Funny Valentine is a showcase for the trumpeter's sterling technique.
Benny and Farmer would record separately for their next two Argo dates in 1960—Benny with Take a Number from 1 to 10 and Farmer with Art backed by a quartet. The Jazztet reunited in January 1961 with John Lewis. As the Big City Sounds clearly illustrates, the concept was too good not to pursue. [Photo of Art Farmer and Benny Golson by Don Schlitten]
JazzWax tracks. You'll find Big City Sounds as a download at iTunes or here. The album also was included as part of Mosaic's The Complete Argo/Mercury Art Famer/Benny Golson/Jazztet Sessions, now out of print and selling for around $350.
JazzWax clip: Here's The Cool One from Big City Sounds. Dig how Benny colorizes his solo, soaring one moment and zigzagging the next. Farmer follows with an absolutely lovely series of round, taut statements. This was a magical group...