Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Word About Mean What You Say

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

On a long drive this morning I listened to Mean What You Say, the only studio recording ever made by the Thad Jones-Pepper Adams Quintet. Although the group (with Mel Lewis) continued to work throughout the '60s and '70s, much to Pepper's disappointment the group was eclipsed by the establishment of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

Mean What You Say is a record that I've always held in very high esteem, one that I've heard thirty or more times though not recently. What struck me today is just how spectacular a recording it is, how fresh it still seems, how original Thad Jones' small group arrangements are, how wonderful the tunes are (with two waltzes and no ballads) and how great Thad's soloing is throughout. Actually, everyon e plays brilliantly, including Duke Pearson, who, despite his Blue Note A&R gig was still a very strong soloist in mid-1966.

This is a recording of historic proportions on so many levels. It's one that should be dissected in jazz texts and wildly appreciated as one of the seminal recordings of the 1960s and in jazz history, just as Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme are discussed. Woefully, it's completely overlooked by critics, authors, jazz fans and even musicians.

First, the personnel: Thad Jones flh; Pepper Adams bs; Duke Pearson p; Ron Carter b; Mel Lewis dm.
Three Detroiters plus one honorary Detroiter in Mel Lewis (though from Buffalo, but with that wide Elvin Jones kind of beat). Add Atlanta's Duke Pearson, a close friend of Pepper's. What a band, all playing at their best! In fact, for those very familiar with Thad Jones' playing, has he ever sounded better? It's certainly the best Thad playing I've heard! With his performance it's easy to understand how revered he is by brass players, who have placed him firmly in the trumpet lineage right in there after Dizzy, Clark Terry and Miles, and before Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw.

The next thing that struck me about Mean What You Say is Thad and Pepper's phrasing. Their dynamics and time feel lock up as if they were together for many years. In fact, the band was only playing gigs on and off for about a year, but it shows.

The tunes? The title tune should be a standard of the jazz repertoire. Why aren't musicians besides Peter Leitch and Gary Smulyan playing it? Thad's "Bossa Nova Ova," one of the hippest bossas I've ever heard, is a spectacular Thad arrangement with a dazzling soli. Why isn't this being played? Can you believe Mel Lewis' amazing Latin playing on this tune? 

The uptempo Burt Bacharach waltz "Wives and Lovers?" What a great tune. Musicians are asleep on this one too. Duke Pearson's great tune "Chant," better know and which Pepper had recorded twice before with the Byrd-Adams Quintet (once with Pearson at Live at the Half Note), is another tune that should be a standard. How about Thad's outlandish arrangement on this version? 

For those who think Pepper was an extreme double-time player who couldn't play with sensitivity, check out his (and Thad's) beautiful, behind-the-beat, amazingly poignant solos on Ron Carter's "Little Waltz?" So much for that stereotype.

Thad's hip "H and T Blues?" (Does that stand for Hank and Thad, by any chance?) Thad's swinging "No Refill." Que pasa? Why aren't musicians playing these tunes? 

And how can you top the wonderful slapstick rendition of "Yes Sir, That's My Baby?" Here Thad and Pepper hilariously deconstruct the tune as if they're 11-year-old struggling jazz soloists, then re-equilibrate, as a startling contrast, and completely tear it up. Dick Katz, who was Milestone's A&R man, told me that Thad's solo is "historic." Milestone's Orrin Keepnews was horrified by the band's approach but what a way to evoke musical satire!

The only flaw I can speak to on this dazzling landmark recording is Pepper's sound on the Fantasy digital remaster. Like the original it still has far too much reverb. I'm surprised it's not repaired but, again, another lame decision made about the date without understanding its real significance. 

Significance? Yes, five of the greatest musicians of their time playing absolutely unique and brilliant arrangements by one of jazz's greatest arrangers, with soloists all at the top of their game. I want to hear from you about this recording. Isn't it a "dessert island recording" and one that's been completely overlooked?

Photo by Rick Mattingly
Mel Lewis