From 'Rambo' to 'Lo-Fi'


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In July 1956, Frank Wess recorded Trombones & Flute, a gorgeous album for Savoy featuring his swinging flute backed by four punchy trombones and a sterling rhythm section arranged by Frank Foster. I recently posted about the album here. One of the album's highlights is Lo-Fi, which is credited to Foster. But as reader Nate Larson points out, the song's main melody line appears to be a clone of Rambo, which was written by J.J. Johnson (above) and Count Basie and recorded by the Basie band for Columbia in Feb. 1946.

Notes Nate...

“This neat little four-bar phrase was presented as a blues on the Savoy album, whereas J.J.'s original is a 32-bar form. This is certainly why the tune was not credited to J.J. Given the informality of this recording, and the small moneys involved in this venture, I'm sure J.J. wouldn't have minded if he was aware (which he probably was)."

Johnson wrote and arranged Rambo for Basie in 1945 during his brief stay in the band's trombone section between '45 and '46. Before Basie, Johnson had played in Benny Carter's topflight band, where he also wrote and arranged. Johnson's Rambo for Basie was a flag-waver, with the trombone section taking the lead, followed by Basie's glorious reeds. Then Basie, Johnson and tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet take solos before the band's run-down at the end. 

What's rather interesting about Johnson's solo is his bebop lines. If you listen carefully, you'll hear what appears to be a tag of Gil Fuller and Ray Brown's Ray's Idea (Gillespie wound up with a co-credit on the song but Fuller was actually the song's co-writer). But was the song really Gil and Ray's idea? Or did the line begin as J.J.'s idea only to be picked up and developed by Fuller and Brown for what would become Ray's Idea.

Here's why: Rambo was first recorded by Basie in Sept. 1945 during a live Jubilee radio broadcast in Hollywood by the Armed Forces Radio Service. Ray's Idea wasn't recorded until July 1946, when it was performed live by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra at New York's Spotlite Club. Given Rambo's popularity at the time thanks to radio airplay and widespread distribution, it's conceivable that the bop line Johnson used halfway into his trombone solo became the seed for Ray's Idea.

What isn't clear is how Rambo's bluesy melody line wound up stuck in Foster's head then as a song for the Savoy date led by Wess. One explanation might be that Johnson passed along the line to Jimmy Cleveland when both were recording Jay & Kai Plus 6 in April 1956. Then three months later, when Cleveland was on the Trombones & Flute date, he may have suggested it to Foster (above), who developed the line for Lo-Fi. Or any number of other explanations, including someone humming it to Foster at a bar or Foster listening to Rambo on the radio a few weeks earlier. It's anyone's guess.

However Rambo in '46 wound up as Lo-Fi 10 years later, it's just further evidence that jazz has a long history of being borrowed, stolen and shared by other musicians to produce fresh results.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Rambo on the four-CD set Count Basie: America's #1 Band, which features the orchestra's Columbia recordings from the late 1930s and 1940s, here. You'll find Lo-Fi on Frank Wess's Trombones & Flute here.

JazzWax clips: Here's Count Basie's 1946 recording of J.J. Johnson's Rambo...


Here's Frank Foster's Lo-Fi...


And here's Dizzy Gillespie's 1946 studio recording of Ray's Idea, which may have been inspired by a line Johnson uses in his solo on Rambo...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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