Boston-based alto and baritone saxophonist Boots Mussulli never quite achieved the kind of poll-winner fame in the 1940s and '50s that Lee Konitz and Art Pepper did. Mussulli had the misfortune of coming up at a time when the alto and baritone saxophone scene was jammed with extraordinary playing-arranging band talent itching to break out in leadership roles. Mussulli instead was most comfortable as a section player, returning to the Boston area in the mid-1950s as an educator for much of his brief but intensive career. [Photo at top courtesy of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University]
In his early years, Mussulli recorded as a member of one of Stan Kenton's finest orchestras (1944-1947), when the band featured a half ton of reed muscle, including Vido Musso, Al Anthony, Bob Cooper and Bob Gioga. Mussulli also was a member of the Kentones, a short-lived 1945-46 experiment featuring a select septet accompanying new band vocalist June Christy. He also toured with Kenton in 1952 and '54.
Mussulli is credited on quite a few Kenton arrangements during this period, including The Man I Love, Conversin' with the Brain, Everytime We Say Goodbye, Tico Tico, Blow Jack (all 1944), I Surrender Dear, Body and Soul (both 1945) and Saxonia (1954).
In 1946 and '47, Mussulli recorded with a band led by Vido Musso. In 1948 he toured with Gene Krupa, and in 1949 he was with Charlie Ventura's septet, recording at the famed Just Jazz Concert in Pasadena, Calif., in May 1949. In 1957, Mussulli was in Herb Pomeroy's superb session band, recording Life Is a Many Splendored Gig (Roulette).
But Mussulli's finest recordings were a handful of little-known small-group dates that provide up-close examples of why he was exceptional. The first was The Fable of Mabel (Storyville), recorded in March 1954 and produced by George Wein. Joining Mussulli were Serge Chaloff (bar) Russ Freeman (p) Jimmy Woode (b) and Buzzy Drootin (d). Here you get to hear how agile Mussulli was when paired with a musical monster like Chaloff. His instrumental trapeze work shines on tunes like Zdot, Love Is Just Around the Corner and Easy Street—all breathtaking examples.
As George writes in the album's original liner notes: "To watch a jazz man of Boots' caliber sight-read Serge's difficult arrangements was an experience for me."
Stan Kenton Presents Boots Mussulli (Capitol) followed in June 1954, with Mussulli on alto and baritone sax along with Ray Santisi (p) John Carter (b) and Peter Littman (d). Here, Mussulli is completely exposed, blowing on standards and originals. Listening to the complexity of Four Girls, it's no wonder the Mussulli original was recorded only once.
Or the searing run that opens Diga Diga Doo and the man-chases-tail pace that follows—both are something else. And then there's one of the finest and most inventive and flexible recordings of You Stepped Out of Dream and Lullaby in Rhythm.
Mussulli was paired again with Chaloff on Boston Blow Up (April 1955), which featured Herb Pomeroy (tp) Serge Chaloff (bar) Ray Santisi (p) Everett Evans (b) and Jimmy Zitano (d). These two together defy gravity, especially with Pomeroy added. Dig the thrashing of tails in Sergical. Or the intensity of Unison. Or the cool swagger of Yesterday's Gardenia, with perfect trumpet work by Pomeroy and swinging drumming by Zitano. An incredible session on every level.
From the mid-'50s on, Mussulli taught in the Boston area, co-founding the Milford Youth Band in 1965 with producer and friend Leo Curran. The band appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1967. Mussulli and Curran also opened and co-managed a club in Milford, Mass., in the '60s called The Crystal Room. Mussulli died in 1967 of cancer.
JazzWax tracks: Sadly, typing in "Boots Mussulli" produces zero at iTunes and a scant few at Amazon. So I did a little digging. If you want a taste of June Christy with the Kentones, see June Christy Through the Years at iTunes or Amazon. On Make Love to Me (1945), you'll hear Mussulli blowing obbligatos behind the singer.
The Fable of Mabel is available as a download at iTunes and at Amazon. Boston Blow Up is available as a download at iTunes and at Amazon. Charlie Ventura's Complete Pasadena Concert is available at iTunes and at Amazon. There's also Serge Chaloff: Boss Baritone (Proper), a box that reader and blogger Dave Sampson points out includes the Mussulli tracks.
Unforunately, Stan Kenton Presents Boots Mussulli, probably Mussulli's finest recording, doesn't appear to be available. However, Lullaby in Rhythm is on an odd compilation at Amazon called Sunday Morning Jazz.
JazzWax clips: So what are we missing by not having access to Stan Kenton Presents? Here's Boots Mussulli playing Lullaby in Rhythm.
What's interesting here is that Mussulli's opening riff in '54 is identical to Sonny Rollins' Pent-Up House, which was recorded for the first time two years later in '56. Which came first? I have a message in to Sonny...