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Johnny Carisi: Jazz Workshop


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Some of the smartest and most innovative East Coast jazz recordings made in the mid-1950s were for RCA's short-lived Jazz Workshop series. They albums were recorded just as the 10-inch LP began to fade and were replaced by 12-inch discs. The larger album had been used for classical music since 1948, when the LP was first introduced by Columbia. Classical music required more vinyl to accommodate symphonies and operas, and classical buyers tended to have more money and could afford the higher price tag.

Jazz and pop were confined to the 10-inch LP for the first eight years after the 33 1/3 speed was introduced for two significant reasons. First, production costs for jazz and pop were prohibitive at the 12-inch size given what the marketplace could afford to pay. Second, the copyrights on standards that appeared often on pop and jazz albums were costly. But in 1955, as production costs declined, copyright fees no longer were as onerous. With the proliferation of the 12-inch LP, labels found they needed more tracks and longer ones to fill the larger discs—preferably original material that didn't require royalty payments. The call went out to superb, fast arrangers.

The person behind the fledgling 12-inch Jazz Workshop LP series was Jack Lewis, an A&R executive at RCA. Lewis was a fan of Miles Davis' “Birth of the Cool" nonet sessions in 1949 and 1950 for Capitol, which featured mostly original material. For the Jazz Workshop series, Lewis first recorded tenor saxophonist-arranger Al Cohn, who was plugged into the New York scene and contracted many of the best players and arrangers for Lewis' project. Lewis also tapped into alto saxophonist-arranger Hal McKusick.

I spoke to Hal about the Jazz Workshop series back in 2009...

“After leaving the scene briefly in the very early 1950s, George Russell invented a new approach to music and improvisation built on modal scales. During this period, he earned money by working in a Greenwich Village drugstore, where I ran into him by accident in 1956. 

“When I asked George what he was doing there, he told me he had a wife to support and that nothing was happening for him in the music business. Then he said he had hit upon something called the Lydian Theory. He asked if I wanted to hear it. I agreed, so I met him at his apartment nearby the next day.

“When I got there, George sat down at his upright piano and showed me that if you played in the key of C, it could have an F sharp instead of an F major, and so on. We went through all his altered modal scales. I dug what he was doing and he asked if I wanted lessons. I told Barry Galbraith about it, and the two of us took three or four lessons with George until we got it.

“I asked George if he wanted to write a couple of songs for my quartet. He said sure. So he wrote Lydian Lullaby and The Day John Brown Was Hanged. When I ran into Jack Lewis, who was RCA's A&R guy at the time, I told him about George. Jack asked me if I was sure I wanted to get involved with George, who hadn't really recorded anything significant in some time. I told Jack that George's material was fresh and that he had a good thing going.

“I told Jack to come out and hear the group. When he did, he was blown away. Soon afterward we recorded George's The Jazz Workshop for RCA in March 1956, and then RCA signed George. It's funny, our chance meeting at that drugstore put George back in the music business."

There were seven Jazz Workshop albums recorded in all:

Al Cohn (May 1955)
Manny Albam (December 1955)
Hal Schaefer (October 1955)
Billy Byers (December 1955)
Hal McKusick (March 1956)
George Russell (March 1956)
John Carisi (April 1956—not issued)

All of the Jazz Workshop albums were superb, but Johnny Carisi's was particularly special for its arranging power. Though the album was scheduled for release in '56, it was never issued. It's unclear why not. Could it have been a lack of enthusiasm by RCA bean counters? A changing of the guard in RCA's executive suite? Or was it the length of the material? The tracks' total time was just shy of 23 minutes, providing only enough material to fill one side of a 12-inch LP.

Whatever the case, trumpeter Carisi was easily one of the finest arranger-composers in New York in the 1950s and '60s. His aborted Jazz Workshop album says it all.

JazzWax tracks: Though Carisi's Jazz Workshop album was never released, the tracks turned up on a CD called The RCA Jazz Workshop: The Arrangers in 1990.You'll find used copies here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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