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Benny Carter, Further Definitions: Must-Have Jazz Album #1

by John Cobley

Sunday Aug 21st, 2016



Impulse Records, November, 1961. 

Benny Carter, Phil Woods, alto sax; Coleman Hawkins, Charles Rouse, tenor sax; Dick Katz, piano;  John Collins, guitar; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Jo Jones, drums.


The initial idea for this unusual but very successful album was producer Bob Thiele’s. The 39-year-old had just taken over the Impulse label, and he was looking for additions to its catalogue. He learned that California-based Benny Carter was in New York, working as Peggy Lee’s arranger, and he managed to sweet-talk Carter into doing an album with Coleman Hawkins and Jo Jones, two of his contemporaries who also happened to be in town.


It was Benny Carter’s idea to choose two young contemporary saxists (Woods and Rouse) to join himself and Hawkins. He wanted four saxes for the album because he planned to reprise two arrangements he had once recorded with four saxophones, two tenor and two alto. (Paris 1937. “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Crazy Rhythm”) There were other advantages in choosing Woods and Rouse. First, the two younger men would help to redefine and update the 24-year-old recording—hence the album title Further Definitions. Second, the music could appeal to two groups of listeners, the ones who liked the older jazz (the “Mouldy Figs”) and the moderns. Finally, there was likely to be competition between the two generations: Hawkins and Carter showing the new boys how it’s done, the new boys showing that they can match the soloing of Hawkins and Carter. All in all, it was a bold move to choose dedicated bebop alto player in Phil Woods and Thelonious Monk’s tenor player Charles Rouse. As Woods thought at the time, “This is a strange potpourri of types of musicians.”


In the same way, Thiele took some risks in setting up the rhythm section. The four musicians had vastly different backgrounds: guitarist John Collins, who had started his career 26 years earlier with Art Tatum and had spent four years with Nat King Cole; Jimmy Garrison, a young avant garde bassist currently working with Ornette Coleman and about to join John Coltrane; Dick Katz, a pianist who was working with Carter as accompanist for singer Peggy Lee; and the legendary Jo Jones, known best for his many years as drummer with the Count Basie Orchestra.


With such a wide spectrum of styles in the group, it might be supposed that a lot of accommodation and adaptation would be needed for the recording to work. Not so. All the musicians remained true to themselves. One of the primary skills that jazz players have always needed is the ability to fit in with other musicians. And this recording is a prime example of this. Every track works. There is never a moment when the music sounds wrong. Every musician maintained his individuality while contributing to the collective sound of the group.


Carter.  He contributes to this album as leader, composer of two compositions, arranger and soloist. One of his compositions, a slow ballad entitled “Blue Star,” features Hawkins playing solo for the head before Carter plays an immaculate solo. Carter’s beautiful alto sound, full and sweet and liquid can be heard at its best on this track and on “The Midnight Sun.” His solos are always melodic.


Hawkins. The mighty Hawk, though 57, is in the form of his life. I can’t think of a better record for illustrating his powerful rich tone. And as for his solos, every one of them is a gem. John Chilton, his biographer, finds in Hawkins’ playing in this recording “a confidence that borders on nonchalance.” Also interesting is his reinterpretation of  “Body and Soul.” (His legendary 1930’s recording of this number is on YouTube and has over a million hits) “Crazy Rhythm” is a good example of Hawkins in full flight.


Rouse. He had worked with Carter previously but was known mainly for his work with Thelonious Monk. His solos are always interesting and melodic. And his hard, edgy sound is a nice contrast to Carter’s liquid alto. He is given the honour of first solo on “Honeysuckle Rose,” one of the important reprise tracks, and he rises to the occasion. However, he is not given a solo on three of the slow tracks, which is a shame.


Woods. This young alto really rose to the occasion. “I had to overcome my trepidation, especially with Coleman Hawkins,” he told Ashley Kahn later. You can tell immediately that Woods was enjoying every moment of the recording date. All his solos are full of life and invention. Soloing before Hawkins on “Cherry,” he shows his own confidence with a brilliantly constructed solo. He does just as well on the two reprise tracks.


There is a strong argument that jazz climaxed in the early sixties, before being hijacked by rock. Further Definitions supports this argument. It not only brings together two of the major styles of jazz but also showcases a continual stream of brilliant solos. This 1961 album deserves a place in every serious jazz collection.


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