As modern as Stan Kenton was in 1950, he wasn't modern enough for Shorty Rogers. Rogers, like many members of Kenton's band at the time, was a big fan of Count Basie and his orchestra's dynamic ability to swing hard. While Kenton was obsessed with modern classical music in 1950, Rogers and others like Bud Shank, Art Pepper, Shelly Manne and Bob Cooper wanted a hipper sound that merged the blues feel and swing of the East Coast with the cool, linear harmony of the West Coast.
So in the fall of 1950, Rogers formed a band that someone wittily named "the Giants." The group was really a holding company, of sorts. Unlike touring bands led by Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and other stars that retained the same personnel, Rogers chose his Giants based on who happened to be available. In this regard, the Giants was a prefabricated unit that could be broken down into small groups like sextets, octets and nonets or built up to form a large, towering orchestra.
The first Giants session was a nonet that Rogers assembled to back vocalist June Christy in September 1950 (the A Mile Down the Highway session). Unlike Miles Davis' nonet in New York and Dave Brubeck's octet in San Francisco, Rogers' group wasn't interested in modern classical theory. Instead, the Giants was a smooth blending of horns that was akin to a barbershop vocal group—except with instruments. Kenton's brassy bluster wasn't Rogers' model, but Woody Herman's tightly voiced reeds and lyrical horns was.
Early on, Rogers kept his Giants compact. He had that luxury, since he had a gift for arranging small groups so they'd sound twice or three times their size. In March 1953, Rogers finally assembled a bona fide big band and recorded Cool & Crazy for RCA. There was plenty of swing and powerful brass. But in the middle of it all, Rogers would solo in the simplest, most melodic terms. It was almost as if he had purposely started a riot so he could come in a play peacemaker. That was certainly one way to stand out.
In 1957, Rogers began using a big band again. Perhaps one of the finest Giants recordings of this period was Portrait of Shorty, which was recorded in July 1957. By then, most of the best musicians in Hollywood were no longer attached to bands. They were making a fortune freelancing in recording and movie studios, and had become highly polished. The band on Portrait of Shorty is a staggering group of mighty West Coast muisicans, and the trumpet section alone is frightening:
Shorty Rogers (tp,flhrn) Al Porcino, Conrad Gozzo, Don Fagerquist, Conte Candoli, Pete Candoli (tp) Frank Rosolino, George Roberts, Harry Betts, Bob Enevoldsen (tb) Herb Geller (as,ts) Richie Kamuca, Jack Montrose, Bill Holman (ts) Pepper Adams (bar) Lou Levy (p) Monty Budwig (b) Stan Levey (d).
Gone is the mannered writing of earlier Giants bands. Here, Rogers maintains his signature voicings and steady build. But he also has no trouble throwing it into sixth gear, letting the band wail, grow soft and offer swinging, searing solos. The big addition from a tonal standpoint is Pepper Adams, who adds a solid seal bark in the reed section.
Every single track is outfitted with distinct West Coast sensibility, ambitious swing and Hermanite harmonies on a grand scale. Saturnian Sleigh Ride is a layered piece that continuously rises and plateaus. Martian's Lullaby is smoothly sculpted, with lines sliding in and out like screen walls. Or dig the long fanfare introduction to Play! Boy. And Bluezies is a barn burner that features Herb Geller and Pepper Adams going at it.
Portrait of Shorty is about as good as the West Coast jazz sound gets—cocky, harmonious and as wide open as a convertible. So who painted the portrait on the cover of Portrait of Shorty? Sergei Bongart [pictured], a Russian painter who settled in Los Angeles. According to the album's liner notes, Bongart painted Rogers' image "as an artist inspired by an artist."
JazzWax tracks: You can find a copy of the CD here. Or it's available at iTunes for $5.99.
A special JazzWax thanks to James Harrod and David Langner. For more on Sergei Bongart, go here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Shorty Rogers on flugelhorn in a scene from the Peter Gunn TV series, featuring vocalist Lola Albright. "Hiya Shorty!"