In 1966, at the height of the British Invasion, jazz was fast splintering between spiritual, free form and jazz-pop. Jazz budgets at most record labels were being slashed while producers were being pushed to find young folk and rock talent. Two holdouts on the recording scene from the 1950s were producer Sonny Lester and arranger Manny Albam. When Lester started his Solid State label in 1966, the first album he recorded was Albam's Brass on Fire. The emphasis at Solid State was on fidelity, and this album was geared to showcase the sonic range of a big band with an emphasis on the trumpet and trombone sections. [Pictured: Manny Albam in 1966]
The band featured Danny Stiles, John Frosk, Ernie Royal and Joe Newman (trumpets); Wayne Andre and Eddie Bert (trombones); Bob Brookmeyer (valve trombone); Tony Studd (bass trombone); Jimmy Buffington, Earl Chapin, Howard Howard and Al Richman (French horns); Barry Galbraith (guitar); Richard Davis (bass); Mel Lewis (drums); Ted Sommer (bongo), with Jimmy Maxwell and Thad Jones replacing Ernie Royal and Joe Newman on a few tracks. [All photos from the session by Lionel Izquierdo]
As you can see, the reed section was dropped and replaced by French horns. The result was interesting writing by Albam, who scored the band to focus on meshing brass textures rather showcasing high notes and speed. So I Get a Kick Out of You is taken in waltz time with trumpets going one way, trombones another and French horns tying them together. Just One of Those Things is taken at a walking tempo. The writing here is so interesting that Just One of Those Things' melody line doesn't become apparent for some time.
According to the original album liner notes:
"Solid State is a long-time dream of veteran producer and artists and repertoire man Sonny Lester, who has been turning out a continuing series of hit albums over the past decade. Lester's associates in developing Solid State and in creating the finished product are Phil Ramone, the Audio Director, and Manny Albam, the Musical Director... [Pictured: From left, Phil Ramone and Sonny Lester]
"Brass on Fire by Manny Albam showcases naked brass. Absolutely nothing is presented to detract from the exciting sound of these instruments. There are no woodwinds. There is no piano. Brass on Fire magically blends the brass and rhythm sections and, in a few rare instances, bongos."
All true. And for those who are too young too remember (me included), solid-state stereo equipment such as amplifiers and integrated receivers were built entirely from solid materials rather than vacuum tubes. Since solid-state equipment did not have moving parts and could not be disrupted with a bump, buffs argued, the fidelity was consistently better.
Regardless of the technology hocus-pocus, this album features smart writing and inventive use of French horns, punctuated by insistent trumpets and commiserating trombones. While not quite as swinging or as rich as Albam's Steve's Songs (1958), Brass on Fire will be a delight for those who appreciate arranging, especially given what Albam does with three different horn sections.
JazzWax tracks: Brass on Fire was not released on CD, but much of the album can be found on the Manny Albam CD Sketches of Jazz Music from the Book of Life, which can be downloaded. Tracks 11-18 are from the original album (from the song My Heart Stood Still through Jada).
The first half of the CD is Albam's Soul of the City, a superb recording with an even larger orchestra that includes strings. The band featured Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, Phil Woods and Hank Jones. It's also a Solid State release.
You'll find Manny Albam's Sketches of Jazz Music From the Book of Life here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Manny Albam's That Old Black Magic from Brass on Fire. Dig the trumpets swinging in and out of the bleating trombones and roaring French horns...