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Pete Fountain's Big Band Salutes the Great Clarinetists

Published: 2011-12-21
Pete Fountain Pete Fountain has reached that enviable stage at which the compilers of catalogues for use in record shops are uncertain whether to list him under “jazz" or in the “popular" category. In fact, Pete's success helps to underline the inherently false implication of this listing system that jazz cannot be popular music in the broadest sense.

His two years of national TV exposure with Lawrence Welk, his extraordinary success in albums under his own name and most recently the warm reaction accorded his group at such music meccas as New York's Roundtable all tend to prove that given the right blend of musician-ship, showmanship and marksmanship, jazz can be aimed at an almost unlimited audience.

The present collection is Pete's second big band album. Bud Dant, who helped to produce and write the previous venture, the Blues set (CRL 57284), was similarly associated with the new one and used basically the same personnel.

There are three main groups. On all of them the firm foundation is a superbly integrated rhythm section composed of Stan Wrightsman on piano, Morty Corb on bass, and a familiar figure common to every one of Pete's previous Coral albums (even those recorded in New Orleans), the indomitable and propulsive Jack Sperling, whose drums provide a vital and exciting spark throughout.

To these men are added, on Petite Fleur, When My Baby Smiles at Me, Begin The Beguine and Amapola, a brass section (Conrad Gozzo, lead trumpet; Art Depew, Johnny Best, and George Thow or Jackie Coons, trumpets; Moe Schneider, Bill Schaefer and Joe Howard or Marshall Cram, trombones; Pete Lofthouse, bass trombone). The rhythm section provides the foundation, on Sometimes I'm Happy, Me and My Shadow and Let's Dance, for a five piece saxophone section with Willie Schwartz, alto and tenor; Eddie Miller, Plas Johnson, Babe Russin, tenors; Chuck Gentry, baritone.

On Woodchoppers' Ball, Frenesi, March of the Bob Cats, Green Eyes and My Inspiration the same reeds, brass and rhythm are combined for some of the most potent big band sounds ever produced by these topflight West Coast musicians.

Of the album's theme, Pete says: “This is my tribute to some of the great people who have been associated with the clarinet. It's not in any way an attempt to duplicate their individual styles." It will be noted that the seven clarinetists saluted are all men who came to prominence in the 1920s and '30s. The reason, will be clear to anyone who has followed the jazz scene: Pete Fountain is the first man on his instrument to achieve complete national success and economic security since the dying days of the swing era, when for no apparent reason the thin black horn lost its vogue.

“I have to keep in mind," observes Pete with typical frankness, “that I was lucky to have an open field on my instrument. After all, when Benny Goodman came along, most of the time he had Shaw and Herman and Dorsey and others on his back; but the fellows who came up in between that period and the present—Buddy de Franco, Tony Scott and the others—are in a different field and represent a different approach to the instrument."

I would debate this last item; despite his New Orleans associations and Dixieland background, Pete essentially is a modern musician, one who has listened to jazz with ears that are as harmonically sensitive and fingers as consistently agile as those of De Franco and the other contemporary stylists. The point has never been more clearly made than in these sides on which, as he emphasizes, the tributes are to earlier figures but the style is deliberately his own.

“The orchestra," says Bud Dant, “was supposed to be built around Pete to showcase him, rather than to be integrated with him. And in the arrangements we would use a phrase or passage here and there that might be reminiscent of the original recording, but here again there was no exact carbon copying."

Woodchoppers' Ball

(I have always felt the apostrophe should come after rather than before the, because the woodchopping clearly was a concerted effort) was the first hit recording of the Woody Herman band, cut in April 1939, some 2½ years after Woody's debut as a recording bandleader. Based on a simple repeated riff in the 12-bar blues pattern, it was rearranged for this date by Don Bagley. In addition to Pete's buoyant pied- piping there is strong support from drummer Sperling and pianist Wrightsman.

Petite Fleur

Has an ironic history. Though the late Sidney Bechet had composed and recorded it several years earlier, it went almost unnoticed until Monty Sunshine, a British musician, took it up in 1956. His recording with Chris Barber's band became a sensation, first in West Germany, then in Britain and finally in 1959 in the U. S. It was through this freak chain of events that Bechet, just before his death, found himself the composer of a song on the Hit Parade. The Fountain treatment is ingeniously scored by Bud Dant for the brass section, with some attractive and solidly swinging effects accomplished in mutes.

Sometimes I'm Happy

Was one of the first Benny Goodman recordings to penetrate to a mass public in the swing years. The famous Fletcher Henderson arrangement was cut by Benny for a 78 rpm single in July 1935. “Benny was one of my early idols," says Pete. “I used to hear him play this on the old Camel Caravan show." The Don Bagley arrangement uses saxophones and rhythm, with a deep voicing featuring four tenors (Plas Johnson has the lead) and baritone.

Frenesi

A tune Artie Shaw brought back from Mexico after the well- remembered walkout with which he abruptly ended the career of his second band, late in 1939. Artie's version, cut in March 1940, featured a large orchestra with 13 strings. Art Depew scored it for Pete with the full complement of brass, saxophones and rhythm; the performance swings all the way, touching only lightly and briefly on the Latin rhythm concept.

When My Baby Smiles At Me

Has nostalgic associations for Pete. “Ted Lewis was my daddy's idol. Dad didn't play clarinet, just a litle drums and violin, but he was crazy about Ted Lewis, and when I was about 11 or 12 he took me to hear him at a local theatre. I guess he was the first clarinetist I ever heard in person." How far the clarinet has progressed since then can be deduced from Pete's elegant, limpid- toned, rhythmically subtle delineation of the hoary melody in this Bud Dant arrangement.

March of the Bob Cats

Composed by Irving Fazola, was recorded by him in March 1939 with Bob Crosby's Bob Cats, an octet contingent from the big Crosby band. Pete, who worshipped Fazola, heard him often in New Orleans, from the time Faz left the traveling big band scene until he died in 1949. Much of the excitement and vigorous sincerity of the old Crosby band lives anew in this Morty Corb arrangement, which has solo spots by Eddie Miller and Moe Schneider as well as some of Pete's best work of the entire album.

Begin the Beguine

Was of course the biggest Artie Shaw hit of all. The brass section backs Pete effectively in a Don Bagley chart. Here the mood and pattern of the original treatment (Shaw recorded it in July 1938, by the way) are retained more exactly than on most of the tracks in this album.

Me and My Shadow

A second tribute to Ted Lewis, has Pete with a sax section backdrop in an Art Depew arrangement. The saxophone voicing is similar to that heard on Sometimes I'm Happy.

Green Eyes was one of a series of hits established in the early 1940s by the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra, which at that time served largely as a setting for the vocals of Helen O'Connell and Bob Eberly. The tune has since been used occasionally as a basis for jazz improvisation, and in this instrumental version it serves as an excellent vehicle for Pete's clarinet, with the full band featured in a Morty Corb orchestration.

Let's Dance

A swing version of Karl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance, has been popular for more than two decades as Benny Goodman's theme. In this Morty Corb score Pete introduces the melody to a background of five saxophones led by Willie Schwartz's alto. Again Jack Sperling's drums are a major incentive to the soaring Fountain horn.

My Inspiration

Another of the compositions recorded by Irving Fazola during his two-year tenure in the Bob Crosby orchestra. Crosby cut it with the full band in October 1938 and another clarinetist who was a member of the Crosby crew at that time, Matty Matlock, wrote the new arrangement used here as a setting for Pete Fountain. The minor- key melody sounds as beautiful as ever after 22 years. Melodically and harmonically it's a superb piece of material for Pete. After a Sperling break the tempo doubles to bring the performance to a compelling climax.

Amapola

Like Green Eyes, was a vocal vehicle in the Jimmy Dorsey band, and coincidentally it has a melody strikingly similar in pattern. Art Depew wrote the Fountain arrangement, featuring the brass section. Jack Sperling's punctuations drive the final chorus along engagingly and Pete uses a Goodmanesque flourish to bring the album to a swinging close.

In concept and execution I believe this is the most successful Pete Fountain album to date, one that will serve to remind many fans of a point made by Bud Dant when we were discussing Pete's accomplishments. “Pete hasn't only helped to bring the clarinet back in front where it should be," said Bud, “he's also managed, with his musicianship and his colorful personality, to make many new friends for jazz in general."

Editors note: Though largely out of print most tracks are on The Best of Pete Fountain Decca Records CD (1996)
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