When most jazz fans think about Gerry Mulligan in the early 1950s, two recordings come to mind: his March 1950 session with the Miles Davis Nonet (later coined Birth of the Cool) and his influential August 1952 pianoless quartet date in Los Angeles with Chet Baker, Bob Whitlock and Chico Hamilton, which marked the birth of a more laid-back West Coast sound. But nestled in between the two was an equally important recording session in New York that fused both the cool jazz that had been and the contrapuntal jazz that would soon be.
This album was recorded for Prestige in September 1951 and was known originally as Mulligan Plays Mulligan, later reissued as Gerry Mulligan: Historically Speaking. It was the baritone saxophonist's first album under his own name and one of his most expressive and inventive.
But the tentet recording is notable for several other reasons. First, all of the songs were spirited Mulligan originals. Second, Mulligan arranged them all in a style that made it seem as though twice as many musicians were in the studio. Third, the tracks featured what are arguably tenor saxophonist Allen Eager's finest and most fluid solos. And last, Mulligan's girlfriend Gail Madden played maracas.
Why is the last point notable? The following spring, Madden would be Mulligan's road companion as the two hitched from New York to Los Angeles. According to Matthew Ruddick's unpublished Funny Valentine: A Biography of Chet Baker:
"In the spring of 1952, Mulligan's drug addiction was starting to get out of control, and he was struggling to find regular work. He decided to sell his horns, and hitchhike to California with his girlfriend.
" 'I did some playing along the way using borrowed horns, mostly tenors, and I remember playing in a cowboy band in a roadhouse outside Albuquerque for a while,' he said. 'I was lucky because I knew a guy who was teaching at the university there, and he helped me keep body and soul together.'
"Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Gail Madden introduced Mulligan to her former boyfriend, the arranger Bob Graettinger. Graettinger was in the process of recording City of Glass, his most famous composition, with Stan Kenton’s orchestra. Mulligan evidently impressed Kenton, and was invited to write for the band."
But we're getting ahead of the story. Mulligan Plays Mulligan featured Jerry Lloyd and Nick Travis (tp), Ollie Wilson (v-tb), Allen Eager (ts), Gerry Mulligan and Max McElroy (bar), George Wallington (p), Phil Leshin (b), Walter Bolden (d) and Gail Madden (maracas).
Tracks are all rip-roaring swingers with a bebop heart and contrapuntal finish. On Mullenium, for example, Mulligan arranged for just the two baritones and tenor plus the rhythm section, ostensibly to distinguish the result from his chart of Mullenium for Elliot Lawrence's big band.
On the Mulligan recording of Mullenium, the two baritones are hard-charging, but they swing in and out of each other's lines, with Eager's tenor sailing in for an unbroken solo and Wallington adding keyboard drama. On Funhouse, Mulligan and McElroy open the minor-key tune without accompaniment. The intro features a fugue-like duel that was pretty much new to jazz at the time. Instead of heat, there was cool collaboration with understated cockiness. Oddly, Madden's light maracas offer a quaint, beat touch that works throughout the album like an eternal high hat.
Each track on this Prestige release represents a bridge Mulligan was building between the cool jazz of the late 1940s and the pianoless concept he had been developing at the Red Door rehearsal space in New York in 1950. Remarkably, all seven tracks were cut in one session, and they would become the basis for Mulligan's small-group concept when he arrived in Los Angeles the following year.
I suspect we have Gail Madden to thank in part for encouraging the pianoless concept in New York as well as the California journey. Another one of jazz's silent actors.
JazzWax tracks: Mulligan Plays Mulligan is available as a download at iTunes or here.