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Tom Talbert: Bix, Duke, Fats

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I tend to avoid tribute albums. Barring a handful of gems, among them Louis Armstrong's salutes to Fats Waller and W.C. Handy, most miss the mark because they try too hard to one-up or mimic the subject of their adulation. One of the rare exceptions is Tom Talbert's Bix, Duke, Fats. Recorded in 1956 for Atlantic Records, the album features dynamic arrangements by Talbert for three different studio groups that included trumpeters Joe Wilder and Nick Travis, alto saxophonist Herb Geller, pianist George Wallington and bassist Oscar Pettiford.

I spoke with Joe Wilder yesterday about this fabulous session, and I'll have his reflections in a moment.

Talbert is little known today but in the mid-1950s, he was an up-and-coming small-group and big-band arranger with enormous taste. Unfortunately for Talbert, he always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time professionally. He moved from the West Coast to New York in the late 1940s just as California was becoming the cradle of new linear music. In New York, he gained traction but eventually found himself up against a new breed of lightning fast arrangers, and work increasingly meant formulaic pop record dates. By 1960, he retired, only to reappear on the West Coast scene 15 years later.

Talbert was born on August 4, 1924, in Crystal Bay, Minn. He was a self-taught musician who was inspired by the bands of Chick Webb, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Jimmie Lunceford. Drafted during World War II, Talbert arranged music for a military band that performed for War Bond Drives in California.

Following his discharge from the army, Talbert remained on the West Coast to arrange forJohnny Richards' orchestra. Talbert also led his own big and small bands between 1946 and 1949 that included Gene Roland, Hal McKusick [pictured], Dodo Marmarosa, Art Pepper and Wes Hensel.

After a record contract failed to materialize in California, Talbert moved to New York and became influenced by European classical music and modern classical composers. In 1956, he arranged two albums for Atlantic: vocalist Patty McGovern's Wednesday's Child and his own Bix, Duke, Fats.

In the years that followed the release of his Atlantic albums, recording opportunities in New York dried up for Talbert. Then he quit the music business in 1960 to help run a family business in rural Wisconsin. In the mid-1970s, he returned to Los Angeles to write for television and the movies. He also began recording again, becoming an educator in the 1980s and 1990s. Talbert's last album, This Is Living!, was recorded for Pipe Dream Records in 1997. Talbert died in July 2008.

Bix, Duke, Fats is a gorgeous instrumental love letter to three of Talbert's favorite composers. As Talbert wrote in the album's liner notes:

“They all worked the country's saloons where jazz grew up. This is a world apart from the Broadway, West End or Hollywood composer who has only the current show on his mind."

The album features warm and deep-felt trumpet playing by Joe Wilder and Nick Travis, and the beautiful piano voicings of George Wallington [pictured]. Throughout is the big, thumping bass of Oscar Pettiford. Talbert's music has a spring-loaded Euro-classical feel that's reminiscent of Gil Evans' approach. Talbert's concept of mounting a trumpet on top of an ever-shifting jazz-orchestral sound may well have influenced Evans' own thinking for Miles Ahead: Miles Davis + 19, his first Columbia session with Davis a year later.

And Talbert chose perfect compositions to arrange for the date, including Fats Waller's Clothesline Ballet, Bix Beiderbecke's Candlelights and Duke Ellington's Prelude to a Kiss. As with Gil Evans, Talbert's graceful modern orchestral treatment latches onto yourear and won't let go.

Here's what Joe Wilder [pictured] told me yesterday:

“The songs were so beautifully written by Tommy. He was one of the nicest guys I ever knew. Whatever I played on those sides was inspired by his writing. It was all there for me. Tommy really understood the different instruments. Everything laid there so well.

“As a composer and arranger, Tommy was one of the most efficient guys you could work for. There was no arrogance or ego with Tommy.Tom and his wife were a great couple. They had an apartment on the East Side for whenever they'd come to town. They used to take me to lunch or dinner and were so kind. They were a wonderful couple. Handsome people.

“I soloed on the Bix pieces and really had a feeling for him. The first big band I played with in the early 1940s was led by Les Hite. Louis Armstrong had played with Les earlier. Les had a black band, but we played mostly society dances in white communities. One time we played in Kansas City, and a white lady came up to me at intermission. She said, 'You know, you remind me of a trumpet player my husband used to play with.' When I asked, 'Who?' She said, “Bix Beiderbecke." When I asked her name, she said, 'Mrs. Frank Trumbauer.' “

“Mrs. Trumbauer asked me and the bass player if we'd like to come by her house after the show for some refreshments and to hear some records. When we went over, she played us In a Mist and a few other records by Bix. After we left, I kept in touch with her and her family for years. So when I played those songs Tom [pictured] arranged by Bix [on Bix, Duke, Fats], I had a great feel for what Bix was doing, and I had first-hand knowledge of the kind people Bix had known."

JazzWax tracks: Tom Talbert's Bix, Duke, Fats is available on a LoneHill CD of the same name. Also on the CD is a 1954 album called Basically Duke, featuring Clark Terry, Joe Wilder (trumpets) Jimmy Cleveland (trombone), Dave Schildkraut (alto sax), Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet and tenor sax), Danny Bank (baritone sax), Earl Knight (piano), Oscar Pettiford (bass) and Osie Johnson (drums). There's also a track from Oscar Pettiford's Winner's Circle from 1957. You'll find the CD here.

Tom Talbert's 1946-49 recordings were way ahead of their time. They're a silky, swinging mix akin to the approach taken at the time by George Handy and Gil Evans. A fine compilation of Talbert's recordings during this period is available on CD here.

JazzWax pages: Bruce Talbot interviewed Talbert at length and published an oral history as Tom Talbert: His Life and Times. It's available here.

JazzWax notes: For more on Talbert, go here to an NPR series of interviews. Also, Doug Ramsey had a memorial post when Talbert died in July 2008 along with an insightful comment from jazz critic Larry Kart.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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