Don't feel bad if the name Gene Estes doesn't ring a bell. Most jazz listeners aren't familiar with him. Though Estes started his recording career in the mid-'50s bands of Harry James, Billy May, Shorty Rogers and Henry Mancini, he also was an in-demand studio percussionist who wound up on studio recordings by the Monkees (Theme), Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), Frank Zappa (Lumpy Gravy) and many other rock groups of the '60s and '70s. But as Estes' 1976 album Westful: Jazz in Hollywood shows, the West Coaster never lost his taste for large ensemble swing bands and straight-ahead arranging.
Yesterday I spoke with alto saxophonist Med Flory, who played on Westful:
"Gee, I don't recall that recording specifically but I do remember that Gene was an excellent guy. He wrote East Coast, don't you think? Man, he could write and arrange. He reminded me of Bobby Brookmeyer in that regard—swinging, harmonic and upbeat. Gene had it going. A sweet guy. We hung out together a lot. [Photo of Med Flory by Mark Sheldon]
"Gene worked often in the studios playing all kinds of percussion instruments. Hey, there's a lot of stuff in that trap case [laughs]. By the '60s, many rock and jazz sessions wanted more texture and there was plenty of work out here to keep you busy. After Gene formed this rehearsal big band in the early '70s, we played a few gigs at the Three Rings out in the San Fernando Valley on Ventura Blvd. As a personality, Gene didn’t leap out and push himself on you, but he was solid on drums and vibes, and, man, he had it going. Whenever his arrangements were done, we’d all get together and play them. The best part is Gene's charts were always easy to play and always sounded great. They weren’t skull-busters. And man they could swing." [Pictured: Gene Estes, center on vibes, with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, right, in 1967]
Swing, indeed. Then again, the band on Westful: Jazz in Hollywood may have had something to do with it: Ollie Mitchell, Ralph Osborn and Conte Candoli (trumpets); Bob Enevoldsen [pictured] (valve-trombone); Herbie Harper (trombone); Dick Leith (bass-trombone) Med Flory and Meyer Hirsch (alto sax), Tom Scott and Jay Migliori (tenor saxes); Bill Hood (baritone sax and bass-clarinet); Joyce Collins (piano); Alan Estes (vibes); Jim Hughart (bass) and Gene Estes (drums, vibes).
Every track here hydroplanes with finger-snapping energy, except for the last one, of course—the ballad Goodbye. But rather than give you a detailed rundown, here are the album's liner notes written by Estes...
"Two years of beautiful loyalty. Guys coming to Sunday rehearsals after their Saturday gigs. So few charts in the early days. I write slow. Copy slower. But it isn't the scratching that makes the sound. It's the players—catching bad notes, setting phrasings. Charts I didn't even like. They made me like 'em—the soloists:
"Herbie Harper on Sharly My Boy and All About Henry. Bob Hardaway on Sharly, Pot Luck and D.A.V. Conte Candoli on everything. Jay Migliori on All About Henry and Besame Mucho. Med Flory on Pot Luck. My brother Alan on Poca Nada. Bob Enevoldsen on Poca and Lump. Meyer Hirsch on Lump. Joyce Collins on Big "P." Tom Scott on Besame. Herbie and Eno together on Goodbye.
"During the years we've had many different good players and always a good band. This is the best. The right combination of good playing, interest and enthusiasm. Pulling together. It isn't even like trying to prove anything with writing or playing. It's just a matter of having a ball. I think the band has ended up being that kind of band. Just having fun."
Sharly My Boy, All About Henry, Poca Nada, D.A.V. and Sweet Lump were written by Estes. Big "P" is by Jimmy Heath and Pot Luck by Johnny Mandel. Besame Mucho was by Consuelo Velázque and Goodbye was by Gordon Jenkins. All of the arrangements on the album were by Estes.
This is an insider's recording. Appearing on the small Nocturne label out of Hollywood, few know about this date or even remember it. What Med recalled most about Estes, however, was his upbeat spirit and drive. And on this album, it shows. Estes died at age 64 in 1996.
JazzWax tracks: Gene Estes' Westful: Jazz in Hollywood (Nocturne) unfortunately isn't available on CD. However, I notice that eBay has a few copies on LP, and the album may be available at download sites.