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Pete Fountain Live in Santa Monica

SOURCE: Published: 2008-05-09
Pete Fountain Recorded Live at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on March 16, 1961

“Anytime we got that gang together with Pete, you know, we all laughed and scratched and had fun. We never knew how long it would go or where it would end up, but everybody seemed to like it. It was a ball. And Pete? Everybody loves Pete!" That's super-drummer Jack Sperling, speaking of ad-lib, off-the-top concert in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on March 16, 1961. The gang, besides Pete and Jack, included Stan Wrightsman, piano, Godfrey Hirsh, vibes and Morty Corb, bass.

During the two years Pete worked for Lawrence Welk, they played together all over the Los Angeles area. No arrangement, no sketched-out routines, just, “What'll we play next" and the sheer joy of musicians so closely attune that every riff, phrase or twist fed the next one. You'll never hear a happier session than this one: nor a more innovative approach to old chestnuts.

As for Pete Fountain, whose sound is unique and immediately identifiable, he says, “My style is a cross between New Orleans and swing. My two clarinet players that I really liked when I was growing up were Irving Fazola and Benny Goodman and I used to listen to George Lewis, who was pure New Orleans."

Pete has this view of the clarinet, “It's a love-hate instrument. Some nights when you get a good reed and it's singing, you know, there's just no better instrument in the world. But when you don't or the reed's starting to die out or you can't find a good one, it's a miserable instrument."

The read is surely singing in every possible way in this superb program and reflects Pete's long and almost seem-less career, starting at age 15 when he substituted for Fazola at strip shows when Irving was ill. Fountain is still a big favorite on riverboats, records (more than 100 albums recorded) and jazz concerts as well as at his always successful jazz club (He calls it a “saloon") in his home town.

In Morty Corb we had a double bass player who could and did play anything, anytime, with unfailing time and, in solos, articulate, melodic and uncluttered. With Jan Savitt, Louis Armstrong, Bob Crosby or in the movie studios, he was an uncomplicated pleasure with whom to work. Some of his very best playings is right here.

Godfrey Hirsh became best known in home town New Orleans. He was an all-round percussionist, with technique on vibes that reminds of Lionel Hampton in his days with Benny Goodman. Back home, he doubled as a caterer.

As for Stan Wrightman, he came out of Oklahoma to settle in Los Angeles, record with Artie Shaw, Mugsy Spanier, Bob Crosby and Wild Bill Davidson, to mention a few, and is heard on the soundtrack of “The Five Pennies". To this writer, he sounds like pianist Bob Zurke crossed with Joe Sullivan and Jess Stacy. No small potatoes.

As of 1998, only Pete and Jack Sperling were the surviving members of this congenial group. Although Jack started with Les Brown. Jack is considered the guy to call for any demanding concert or recording session. He's a perfect time-keeper and can be as subtle as he can be dynamic, depending on the situation. (Sperling passed away 2004).

The Numbers

The music begins with a natural opener played quite differently, with a stop-time Fralish before the familiar main refrain of “Tiger Rag" leads to some very traditional New Orleans filigree. It's Pete all the way, sweet and swinging. “After You've Gone" lets Stan Wrightsman show off his best Bob Zurke groove. Pete returns with Jack on brushes and then a wonderfully coherent solo by bassist Morty. Before the ride-out, the vibe work of Hirsh delights.

Stan opens “Tin Roof", telling us here's the bluest of the blues. Pete, with just the right mournful vibrato, takes many choruses, each somehow topping the other. I'm Gonna Stomp Mister Henry Lee" is another blues, credited to Jack Teagarden who first recorded it back in 1929. Stan Wrightman makes this is showpiece. It's full of unexpected pleasures and bears repeated listening.

“Up A Lazy River" has been recorded by Pete Fountain many times and is a staple in his live appearances, so it is the one and only piece done in his standard routine: slow intro, double-time, solos by all and ride-out like gangbusters. What makes this version different are the soloists. They include Morty Corb and Stan Wrightsman and the interpolation of “With Plenty of Money and You", which neatly fits the same chord pattern.

“Avalon", on the other hand, is an homage to Benny Goodman, especially in the descending riff on the resolving bars of the tune pairing clarinet and vibes that tore up Carnegie Hall at that fabled January, 1938 concert (Goodman and Hampton). Pete even uses Benny's patented coda to his opening theme, “Let's Dance". “A Closer Walk With Thee" is a required New Orleans tradition. It's is distinguished by Pete's low register work and the trading of melody and obbligato between Fountain and Hirsh. The overall tenor is humble and respectful.

Finally, “Hindustan" is the ultimate delight in this album and Jack Sperling is responsible. He opens with spaced rim-shots on tuned tom-toms. Jack says, “At the time, I used three or four torn-toms. I always tuned them the same but sometimes coincidentally it would work with the melodic pattern of a tune. In “Hindustan", this time, Pete would state a phrase, a bar or two, and I'd echo it on the drums... or the other way around. It was never precise, but I could approximate the tonality, either up or down. We picked up ideas from one another all the way." And Jack never, never lost the beat. The rest of the band joins in briefly, but it's mostly clarinet and drums. You'll never hear this tune again without remembering this concert version.

The flavor herein is Dixie-Swing, but, with Pete out front, there's a strong Crescent City exuberance and marching band vitality that propels everything. And, obviously, the musicians hate to bring any tune to a close. And how do you define Pete Fountain in summation? He simply says, “I liked Benny for his drive and technique, and Fazola for his warm sound and his blues and for the really New Orleans style, you know, George Lewis. So you put that together and you got... me!" Lucky for us.


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