Listening, Party For Two: 'Bob The Robin'

Boston Blow-Up cover.

hide captionCover to Serge Chaloff's Boston Blow-Up!.

courtesy of Capitol Records

My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every week — or at least as often as possible — she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.

All this week, I'm in Boston for a conference. So I thought of a Beantown-themed sleeper favorite of mine to play for the Boss Lady, who's back home in Washington, D.C. "Bob The Robin" is the lead track off of baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff's Boston Blow-Up, and it just so happens to have been made during a curious juncture in jazz history.

"Bob The Robin," from Serge Chaloff, Boston Blow-Up! Herb Pomeroy, trumpet; Serge Chaloff, baritone saxophone; Boots Mussulli, alto saxophone; Ray Santisi, piano; Everett Evans, bass; Jimmy Zitano, drums. Boston, Mass.: Apr. 4, 1955.

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Boss Lady: It's dance music again. Wow, I'm out of breath.

me: This really strikes you as dance music?

Boss Lady: Well, I feel like people could swing to it, but they'd have to be in good shape.

me: Haha! Fair enough. But I don't think this was designed as dance music necessarily.

Boss Lady: Well, if it wasn't played for dancers, where was it first performed?

me: Well, this was recorded in 1955. And in the 1940s and early '50s, there was World War II and the advent of charismatic singers like Frank Sinatra. There were also proto-R&B, uptempo, tight acts like Louis Jordan — and that was dance music certainly.
Tastes were changing, and it was more and more difficult economically to hire big jazz dance bands
So some of the effects of this were that clubs in general grew smaller (with less room to dance in), and jazz became more of a small-group listening music
This sort of music was probably worked out in clubs/jam sessions, and even if there was dancing, that was increasingly not the point for the musicians

Boss Lady: So we have a small band, with really tight playing, and an adrenaline rush ...

me: Derived from dance music — but not necessarily for it. I also get the feeling this was tightly crafted specifically for recording ...

Boss Lady: Right, there doesn't seem to be a wasted moment.

me: This album was produced by the bandleader Stan Kenton, who was pretty famous in his day, especially for his ambitious, bold arrangements
But it's not his record: it's that of a semi-obscure baritone saxophone player named Serge Chaloff (pronounced "Surge")

Boss Lady: He's the first to solo, right?

me: Yes ma'am

Boss Lady: And the other musicians are chirping the main riff behind him

me: Exactly, and they're "chirping" other backup horn parts too

Boss Lady: I can see how the rhythm section is really important here

me: How so?

Boss Lady: Just to keep up the driving energy and to support all of those solos. It's like the drums and piano are keeping everybody in check

me: Sure. I especially like how the drummer does it all with brushes rather than sticks. A nice, smooth sound.

Boss Lady: Yes, I really like that. It makes the horns stand out more

me: How many horns do you hear?

Boss Lady: Oh no, I thought you might ask me that. 3?

me: Well, you hear them all — they all solo: baritone sax, alto sax, trumpet
The point with that is: it's just a little bit complex. This is actually the alto saxophonist's tune, and he's writing for three horns in harmony and occasionally counterpoint. (His name is Boots Mussulli.)
And on the melody, you hear how the piano chimes in? Nice touch

Boss Lady: Yes, a nice change in texture

me: The whole thing is over in well under three minutes, but a lot was said, no?

Boss Lady: Yes, as you said, it sounds incredibly compressed.
It's like editing an interview for the radio ... all the good parts get in and the slack gets left on virtual cutting room floor

me: I hear that. I presume that if they were playing this song for dancing audiences — or even just in a club — the soloists would stretch out more

Boss Lady: Now that you mention it, two and a half minutes is short for a dance number. You'd barely get to know your partner!

me: But making a record that people can listen to over and over, and fussing about sonic balance and all that ... short and sweet

Boss Lady: Remember that the next time you write a blog post

me: No comment.
Anyway, I picked this tune because it was made in Boston, where I am now. It's from an album called Boston Blow-Up

Boss Lady: That's a really thin "peg," I have to say

me: Yes, but it's a good record by someone who history has largely left behind
Mr. Chaloff came from the era of big band dance music — he was employed by Woody Herman, as a featured saxophonist
Chaloff had adopted the musical innovations of people like Charlie Parker: that fast, uptempo, four-beat virtuosic swing feel, with an emphasis on soloing
Like many of the musicians of the day, he felt stupidly that he had to do the drugs that Parker did too. Part of why he died early, at 33 or something like that

Boss Lady: It's a stereotype, but I guess it's true that a lot of musicians live and play hard.

me: Well, at the time, musicians were adopting the bad habits along with the good ones, to fit in
The point of this is, though: Chaloff was taking on this new uptempo "listening music" with a history in tightly crafted big-band arrangements. And trying to do it on his big baritone saxophone
Funny transitional point in jazz history — this was 1955 — leads to interesting records like these

Boss Lady: I like the way the big sound of the baritone sax pops out of the picture frame created by the other instruments.
I guess that happens every time we hear a solo. The piece goes "three-dimensional"

me: The best of the jazz arrangers can conjure interesting sounds that just have that "Cool!" factor. And that's enough for me, anyway

Boss Lady: I'll raise my ginger brew to that!

me: Also, you may want to show this to Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton (of All Songs Considered). This tune is called, of course, "Bob The Robin."

Boss Lady: Which is the real reason you picked it, isn't it? You always save the punch line for the end. That shows incredible patience.
And fondness for your colleagues, which I salute.

me: Absence makes the heart grow fonder

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