The RCA Victor Jazz Workshop opened its doors recently to the accompaniment of a suitable fanfare by Al Cohn and his chosen trumpets, in an album entitled Four Brass, One Tenor (RCA Victor LPM-1161). At that time we indicated that this exciting new series would be a transmission belt for new ideas in jazz orchestration, or sometimes for experiments in instrumentation.
The present set by Hal Schaefer claims both these distinctions.
Hal's background provided him with all the technical tools essential to a creative craftsman in a jazz workshop. Born in New York City, he graduated from the High School of Music and Art and was only fifteen when he first went on the road with a band led by trumpeter Lee Castle.
After almost two years in the Ina Ray Hutton band, with which he landed on the West Coast, Hal settled in Los Angeles, worked there with the Benny Carter, Harry James and Boyd Raeburn bands and spent some time as accompanist to Peggy Lee.
He had completed a year of studies with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco when he signed with RCA Victor, cut his first album and soon after, early in 1955, moved back to New York.
This initial album, entitled Just Too Much (RCA Victor LPM-1106), marked Hal's first solo session on a major label. Accompanied by bass and drums, he expressed himself as an improvising jazzman, playing On standard tunes and a couple of originals.
On his next album, Hal decided (and RCA Victor's Jack Lewis had a major hand in shaping the decision) he would take the opportunity to spread himself. The RCA Victor Jazz Workshop provided the ideal occasion for a fuller display of his talents.
"In my mind," says Hal, "this was to be predominantly an arranging and composing album, designed primarily to exhibit my writing rather than my playing. Later on, of course, I'd like to make another piano album, but for this set I really worked hard on getting everything written for maximum effect and maximum sustained interest. Every note had to be perfect; every musician had to understand and enjoy what was intended in the writing."
Three sessions were involved, each with an instrumentation as unusual as the writing style applied to it. On one date there were three alto saxophones: Hal McKusick, Sam Marowitz and Fudd Gumjaw; Hal (Schaefer) on piano; Osie Johnson on drums, and Milt Hinton on bass. "Dancing in the Dark" is the most extraordinary product of this session: fromthe wild first chorus with its Latin rhythm and its wrong-but-oh-so-right notes, through Hal's fiery solo and McKusick's great jazz, right down to the surprising simplicity of those concluding triads, it's a wild and exciting ride. Imagination lives up to its title, too, with Marowitz' lead heard first, McKusick's written obbligato added, then a third alto part inserted. The two Hals move brilliantly through the aptly named Cerebration, with McKusick in both lead and jazz solo roles. Of Things Gone By is a slow, pensive original, with pretty embellishments from the Schaefer piano.
On a second session the group comprised five trombones (Billy Byers, Urbie Green, Freddie Ohms, Chauncey Welsh and bass trombonist Tommy Mitchell) with the same rhythm section. This One's for Jack (Lewis, of course) shows the 'bones sustained effectively behind some swinging piano, some great jazz by Urbie, and another amusing delayed ending. A Song of Love, one of the six Schaefer compositions in the set, displays the rich coloration of the brass team. Blue Skies is noteworthy for sixteen bars of bass trombone. On Sit Right Down you can watch for the ingenious alternation of two-beat and four-beat rhythm, and for a delightful second chorus in which Hal trades four-bar phrases first with a single trombone, then with two and three and then four trombones all playing separate lines.
The third session displays Hal with two trumpets, Jimmy Nottingham and Nick Travis; plus two drummers, Don Lamond and Ed Shaughnessy; Milt Hinton on bass and Hal on harsichord. The two drum parts were written out to fulfill both rhythm and ensemble functions. This unit made the frantic Isn't It Romantic (with Nottingham's horn on top); the unusual 12-bar convolutions of New Sound for the Blues; the remarkable Spring is Here in which, at one point, you may hear Milt Hinton playing the melody under a variety of other sounds, and Real Lee, named for Hal's No. 1 fan, Mrs. Schaefer.
I'm sure you will agree that as long as it can develop such talents as Hal Schaefer's the RCA Victor Jazz Workshop is making an important contribution to the entire course of contemporary jazz.
Notes by Leonard Feather
Leonard Feather is the author of The Encyclopedia of Jazz. A feature writer for Down Beat since 1950, he also writes for Esquire and other U.S. publications, as well as for music magazines in England and throughout Europe. For the past three years he has been moderator of his own music panel show, Platterbrains, over a major radio network.