Warne Marsh: Music for Prancing


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In the 1950s, tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh sounded like Stan Getz with parts missing. A pioneer of the Lennie Tristano-influenced cool jazz movement of the late 1940s and early '50s, Marsh was born in Los Angeles and gigged and recorded there as a leader between 1952 and 1957 before shifting to New York for a few years and then moving back to L.A. in the mid-'60s.

Getz's cool sound came from his passion for Lester Young. George Wein told me recently that Getz always packed Prez recordings on tour. Marsh was similarly lyrical but less concerned with moody polish and more focused on reinventing songs through harmony. Though his sound on the saxophone  could seem uneven and breathless to the naked ear, that was the point. Like Lee Konitz on alto sax [above], Marsh purposefully worked the high end of the instrument's register and embraced jaggedness for tonal texture.

Marsh's third studio recording as a leader was Music for Prancing in September 1957, for Hollywood's Mode label. (His first was Jazz of Two Cities in October 1956 for Imperial and Modern Jazz Gallery later that month for Kapp.) What makes this album exceptional is the trio behind him—Ronnie Ball (p), Red Mitchell (b) and Stan Levey (d)—and the tempos. Warne chose four standards and two originals—Ball's Ad Libido and his own Playa del Ray. The standards were You Are Too Beautiful, Autumn in New York, Everything Happens to Me and It's All Right With Me.

Best of all, the material swings and the trio behind Marsh is taut and cohesive, providing him with a firm, bouncy surface on which to improvise. Ball's piano is delightfully West Coast despite his British background, while Mitchell's bass throbs and Levey's drums are delicate and driving—a perfect foil for Marsh's style.

If you're unfamiliar with Marsh, Music for Prancing is a wonderful introduction. Getz had a slippery soulful sound and his solos offered Houdini-like surprises at every turn. By contrast, Marsh was less of a magician and more of a rustic carpenter, letting you see the wood grain and nails. Both were gorgeous.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Warne Marsh's Music for Prancing here.

JazzWax clip: Dig Warne Marsh with the trio playing You Are Too Beautiful...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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