Among the least known but most fascinating jazz recordings of the early 1960s are five albums recorded by a quartet co-led by clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and accordionist Tommy Gumina. The first album was recorded for Decca in 1960 while the balance were done for Mercury through 1964. For some odd reason, none of the albums have been reissued on CD, and mint copies of the LPs go for double-digits at eBay. [Pictured: Buddy DeFranco and Tommy Gumina, courtesy of Tommy Gumina]
What made these recordings special was their sophisticated approach. Both DeFranco and Gumina were monster swingers and technicians. They also were fully aware of the pitfalls of combining a clarinet and accordion. Together, the instruments' pleasing personalities pull naturally toward commercial pop, which was the kiss of death for true jazz artists.
So Buddy and Gumina came up with a way to keep the music interesting: They played in a polychordal style— meaning Buddy would run the chord changes to a song on the clarinet while improvising. Gumina would voice the song's chords in such a way that he'd be playing in a different key. The resulting sound was provocative without ever losing the melodic quality of the songs. [Pictured: The Buddy DeFranco-Tommy Gumina Quartet, courtesy of Joyce and Buddy DeFranco]
I spoke with Buddy, 88, last week about this nearly forgotten, short-lived quartet and what they were trying to achieve:
JazzWax: When did you first meet Tommy Gumina?
Buddy DeFranco: I met Tommy through my drummer Frank DeVito. In late 1959, I was looking for a piano player for a weekend gig at a club in California. I called Frank for a recommendation. He called me back and said he couldn’t find a pianist, that everyone was working that weekend. But he said he knew of a terrific accordion player.
JW: What did you think?
BDF: I thought no way. An accordionist in 1960 was the kiss of death. It was a fast way to sound like a lounge act. When I mentioned this to Frank, he protested. He said, “No, no, Buddy, this guy is different.” I needed a keyboard for the date, so I went ahead and hired Tommy.
JW: How did it work out?
BDF: That night, when we first played together, we clicked. Most accordion players, even the ones who claim to be jazz players, didn’t really know how to function in that space on a sophisticated level. Many could swing, but their voicings were fairly predictable. Tommy was different.
JW: How so?
BDF: He was an experimental musician. He had a special accordion made with a row of bass line chords as well as root 7 and root 10 chords. That gave enormous depth to the bottom of what we were doing. Tommy had an ear for swing but also an unbelievable technique. He was very different from everyone else. He was technically advanced beyond most people on the instrument.
JW: Was the quartet always going to be about polytones?
BDF: Yes, it was. Tommy and I had already been fiddling around with polytonal music on our own. So was Nelson Riddle. We were kind of gearing toward it. But instead of sticking with polytones—notes played in two different keys—we changed it to polychordal.
JW: What is polychordal?
BDF: As I’m playing in one key, Tommy was playing unusual structures of chord progressions so it sounded like a different key. I was able to play along, traveling in any of the chord structures he put together. To the average ear, the joy is in the clash of these two keys. The result was a texture that sounded both off kilter and just right. A little messy but right on target.
JW: A dumb question—was Spud Murphy’s "equal interval system” related to what you were trying to achieve with Gumina?
BDF: That’s not a dumb question at all. Spud’s system was indeed the beginning of that. Tommy and I—and Nelson Riddle—elaborated on it.
JW: How soon before you both realized you had a good thing going?
BDF: Almost immediately. It was incredible. It was a combination of being able to swing and having knowledge of polychordal devices, being able to play with those upper-structure triads. With what we were doing, you had a basic chord and then two or three other chords placed above that structure.
JW: How could you play with such complexity and speed?
BDF: What do you mean?
JW: The music sounds hard to play yet travels fast and never loses its swinging jazz feel.
BDF: If you have an ear for it and a tendency to play that way, you wind up with a free feeling. We had an unlimited source of harmonies. To the average ear, you sense something sophisticated is going on but you can’t quite figure it out. Mind you, this had nothing to do with free jazz. We were playing within a structure.
JW: Is it fun to play clarinet with an accordion behind you?
JW: Yes. The instrument has such a rich personality, especially when it swings.
BDF: Oh, my yes. The sound is full, like an organ, but it inhales and exhales, providing a thick base for me to operate from creatively. More important, with Tommy, he was doing complex things back there, which made the experience for me more challenging.
JW: And yet with the accordion, you must have been constantly walking a fine line between jazz and pop.
BDF: That’s true, but it was never a concern. We were operating on a complex level. We never slipped into that obvious clarinet-accordion feel. And that’s probably why we never caught on [laughs]. People saw a clarinet and accordion and expected a very specific sound. What they got was much more challenging musically. Maybe 10 years earlier, what we were doing would have been more accepted. Instead, we were a bit too complex to catch on commercially.
JW: How would you two work together?
BDF: Tommy always used his left hand to play root 7 and 10 chords, so we never lost the basis of the entire composition. He was so good he was able to function in two or three keys above that. I was playing in and out of upper-structure triads. The concept was to play freely, not contrived. He got the whole tonality thing.
JW: Did you work out the arrangements in advance?
BDF: A lot of what we did was worked out, but it wasn’t contrived. One thing led naturally to the next. Tommy would get a bright idea and then I would pick up on it and develop it. Or sometimes I would play something that would bring him into another dimension. Everything always seemed to flow. We didn’t think about sticking to a rigid formula. We just did it. We both had an ear for tonality.
JW: And yet Decca took a chance and signed the group for its first album in 1960.
BDF: At most of the record companies, the a&r guys bought what we did. They had ears and liked what we were developing. They saw how different it was.
JW: Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year from the Polytones LP is a particularly beautiful arrangement.
BDF: That was basically Tommy’s arrangement. Tommy Dorsey used to say, “There’s a tempo for every song.” Tommy’s arrangement for Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year was taken at the perfect tempo. I had a good flair for polytonality, so I had fun on there. Tommy had an exceptional talent for understanding two or three tonalities at the same time, and you could hear it all on that song.
JW: Did the quartet tour?
BDF: We toured quite a bit, all over the country. But it was hard to stay afloat financially. Many weeks Tommy had to go into his bank account to keep the group going. The audiences were so hard to predict. Sometimes we’d be in some obscure town and the club would be packed with people who’d jump up and down. In other towns, big ones, we’d play and get almost no reaction. We had our fans, though, even some fanatics, too. Movie composer David Raksin followed us around whenever we were in California. He loved us.
JW: Did you get bad requests?
BDF: What do you mean?
JW: You know, like some drunk guy insisting you play Marie?
BDF: [Laughs] Most of the time the requests were worse than Marie. Sometimes they’d ask for a Lawrence Welk song. Tommy had a little temper. Plenty of times I had to talk him out of throwing his accordion at them.
JW: Why did the group break up in 1964?
BDF: We ran out of places to play. Rock and roll reared its ugly head. Theaters closed, clubs closed, radio programs folded. When the Beatles came from England and played, a true musician couldn’t believe it. It was impossible to fathom how that music was so popular and why it was putting so many great musicians out of work.
JW: Looking back, what do you think about this quartet?
BDF: I still feel great about what we did. We had some pretty good times. Once in a while we’d hit it just right. Most of the club owners knew what they were buying when they hired us. They were mostly jazz clubs and the owners could relate to our experimentation.
JW: Which album was the high point?
BDF: I like Polytones best. We really hit our stride on there.
JW: When you boil down Gumina’s playing, what was so appealing about it from your perspective?
BDF: Tommy had a technique like Art Tatum's. That brush of notes energizes me. It was special, and for a player, exciting. It challenged me to try to new things, to take risks. It was both inspiring and competitive. That quartet was one of the highlights of my career. It’s still pleasing to the ear without selling out.
JazzWax tracks: Between 1960 and 1964, Buddy DeFranco and Tommy Gumina recorded five albums. They are: Pacific Standard Swingin' Time (1960), Presenting the Quartet (1961), Kaleidoscope (1962), Polytones (1963) and The Girl From Ipanema (1964).
My favorite is Presenting the Quartet. Unfortunately, none of the LPs has been released digitally, making the five albums a prime candidate for a Mosaic Select release. Some of these albums may be available at download sites.
JazzWax note: For more on Tommy Gumina, go here.
JazzWax clip: Now would I write this long, enticing post without leaving you with a taste of what this brilliant group sounded like? Of course not. Here's Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year, from the quartet's Polytones LP. Dig the polychordal mashes of Buddy DeFranco and Tommy Gumina, that swell intoxicating tempo and the swirl down at the end...