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Johnny Hodges and Will Bill

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Exceptional jazz musicians win us over with a warm tone, lyrical lines, a feel for the blues, respect for space, sheer speed or stamina—to name just a handful of winning traits. But not all exceptional jazz musicians work well together and only a bunch of couplings have produced dazzling results. Perfect partnerships that come to mind include Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Lester Young, Max Roach and Clifford Brown, John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, Blue Mitchell and Horace Silver, Sonny Stitt, Don Patterson, Jim Hall and Paul Desmond, to name a handful. Add alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and organist Wild Bill Davis to the list.

Hodges had an insistent, sweet sound that gave the Duke Ellington Orchestra its polite sensuality. Davis, by contrast, had a pushy, swinging sound with meaty big-band expressions. What they shared in common was an intimate feel for the blues—though Hodges's attack was a more mannered, 1930s articulation while Davis's blues was R&B flavored.

Despite these stylistic differences, Hodges and Davis knew they sounded great together. You can hear the mutual respect in their playing, as each artist feeds off the other. They made eight small-group albums together in the 1960s, mostly for Verve. This list includes Blue Hodge (1961), Sandy's Gone (1963), Mess of Blues (1963), Joe's Blues (1965), Wings and Things (1965), Blue Pyramid (1965), Con Soul and Sax (1965) and In Atlantic City (1966).

All of these albums are on the money. On paper, the pairing never should have worked. One might have concluded that Hodges's alto would be too mannered for Davis's rambunctious organ, or that Davis wouldn't take to Hodges' satin-slipper approach. But like many great pairings, Hodges and Davis clearly appreciated the other's sound and found inspiration in what they heard, working to maximize the combination. The result is a pairing that worked, album after album.

JazzWax tracks: Unfortunately, Universal hasn't yet released the Verve albums digitally or as a set, so we're stuck with a series of incomplete Lonehill issues (here) that are no longer in print. Memo to Mosaic: time for The Complete Johnny Hodges and Wild Bill Davis Small-Group Sessions?

JazzWax tracks: Here's the title track from Joe's Blues...



Here's Stolen Sweets from Mess of Blues...



And here's Drop Me Off in Harlem from Con Soul and Sax...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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