Your Favorite 'Great Unknowns' In Jazz

Rebecca Martin i i

Commenter Robert Zachary says vocalist Rebecca Martin deserves more attention -- and we agree. Todd Chalfant hide caption

itoggle caption Todd Chalfant
Rebecca Martin

Commenter Robert Zachary says vocalist Rebecca Martin deserves more attention -- and we agree.

Todd Chalfant

Last week, we posted a thought about "great unknown" jazz musicians, and asked y'all to tell us about your favorite artists who fly in under the spotlight. The response has been wonderful so far: plenty of passionate fans and musicians have written to us with some really insightful nominations. Thanks, folks! This has been quite helpful, and gives us some great things to think about.

In an effort to keep the conversation rolling, I'd like to play "comment ombudsman" and spotlight a few of your thoughts here, with some additional commentary on my part. Here goes:


We heard from two highly-esteemed music writers early on, in Steve Smith (blog) and Derek Taylor (blog). Smith suggested Rich Halley, who is

a tenor saxophonist, composer and bandleader who's been making excellent music in Portland, Oregon since the early '80s. Of his various releases, try to hear Cracked Sidewalks (LP, 1988); Umatilla Variations (CD, 1994); The Blue Rims (CD, 2003); and Waterloo Ice House, a 2000 CD by the Rob Blakeslee Quartet with terrific work by Halley.

That partly affirms, for me, how difficult it is to make a name for yourself in the American jazz press if you live outside of New York. You might be great, but many critics don't get to see you, and there aren't as many incredibly talented people around you. Now, Taylor recommends saxophonist Stephen Riley, who once gigged around New York, and whose MySpace page says he's in West Orange, N.J. Which also shows how difficult it is to make it anywhere. Quoth Taylor:

I've been trying to trumpet Riley's playing since first hearing his Steeplechase debut back in '05. As to why, it comes down to his singular tone & phrasing which roots in a Don Byas-by-way-of-Paul Gonsalves vernacular and results in a striated, breathy sound that resists easy description. Comparisons to Lucky Thompson and Charlie Rouse also work on certain levels, but there's a very "contemporary" thing going on with what Riley does as well. He's recorded steadily for the label since that debut (6 to date) but still has scant documentation on stateside imprints (though that's hopefully about to change). I can heartily recommend them all as well worth checking out in detail.

Man, first Rich Perry, now this: I need to get on top of what's going on at SteepleChase Records!

I heard from quite a few musicians I know of and admire too. Moppa Elliott, of the band Mostly Other People Do The Killing among other projects, nominated

Tony Marino, a bassist from Northeastern PA. He has been a member of Dave Liebman's groups for over a decade now, but his playing is phenomenal in any context. Hands down my favorite living bass player.

High praise from a fellow bassist. Meanwhile, reedman Sam Sadigursky, who knows a thing or two about soloing in a big band, wrote in to mention

Scott Robinson, the fellow on the other end of Maria Schneider's saxophone section. He played absolutely breathtaking clarinet feature at Newport on a Peruvia lando influenced piece of Schneider's that felt historic listening to. His playing on the recorded version on her last album is remarkable as well.... Not to mention his brilliance on numerous saxophones and trumpet (yes, trumpet!!).

Reeds, brass and really every other wind instrument, and even others, if you remember this Wall Street Journal feature on Robinson. I could have easily have written a similar discussion prompt based on what I heard of Robinson's clarinet playing at Newport.

YouTube

Since I kicked off this whole discussion with a mention of Rich Perry, a lot of folks also used that as a jumping-off point. A few of you mentioned the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, now the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, of which Perry has been a long-time member. Gene Markiewicz wrote that "a lot of the names have past through the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. My favorite 'unknown' is Sir Roland Hanna. A great jazz pianist. I also am a fan of Rich Perry, Dick Oatts, and Gary Smulyan." And commenter savagemusic also wrote in that

The entire rest of the sax section of the Vanguard Jazz orchestra makes up a 'great unknown.' Dick Oatts, Ralph LaLama, Billy Drewes and Gary Smulyan (although Smulyan is more well known because of the fact that there are fewer players solely dedicated to bari) are all fantastic players. That section alone has become legendary. ... Also, speaking of VJO, Scott Wendholt is fantastic, another name a lot of people don't know.

The composer/arranger/saxophonist Bill Kirchner, who is also a jazz historian and producer of radio documentaries (for NPR, among other places), took the prompt from another angle, in thinking about Rich Perry's generation of musicians. He wrote me via e-mail to say that

Rich is a prime example of jazz's "Lost Generation" — those of us in our late 50s and early 60s who came up in the 1970s. While a few of us (e.g., Dave Liebman, John Scofield, the late Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny) have attained "stardom" (an amorphous term in the jazz sense), most of us live comfortably but under the radar. Our achievements are at best underheralded, at worst unknown. If not for a handful of small European labels, we would be largely unrecorded.

Kirchner also wisely points out that age has something to do with how you're perceived, especially if you never cracked wide attention in your relative youth: "My friend musician/producer Bob Belden once remarked that one of the most important decisions a jazz musician makes is: what happens after you pass 40?" As if it weren't hard enough already ...

One player who made an important decision in his 40s is alto saxophonist Bobby Watson. In 2000 — he would have been 46 or 47 — the former Jazz Messenger moved back to his native Kansas City for a teaching position. (A Blog Supreme is working on an interview with him, actually — stay tuned.) Perhaps it's partially because of this that Jazz Aloha writes in:

He's been around for a while and played with Art Blakey, but I don't think he gets the credit he deserves. For one thing, he's a terrific soloist — one with an instantly identifiable sound (not something you can say about a lot of jazz musicians). But I really love Watson's compositions. Imo, he belongs alongside other jazz composers like Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Herbie Hancock and maybe even Wayne Shorter. It baffles me why his tunes aren't more well known or covered more often ... Watson lead Horizon, which, imo, was one of the better jazz bands in the 80s/90s. The interplay of the group was really fantastic and imo this group really carried the torch of the Jazz Messengers; they made jazz a kind of fun, party music — without dumbing it down.
YouTube

Philadelphia is a lot closer to New York is than Kansas City, but we got a few comments from Philly readers. Roger Morgan writes that "two jazz musicians, pianist, Jimmy Amadie, and tenor saxophonist, Larry McKenna, have the chops to hold their own with anyone." Bart Miltenberger also nominates trumpeter John Swana and altoist Bobby Zankel, and also leaves this comment:

Seems like the history of jazz is peppered with tons of unknown giants – there’s players in every town that could have held their own with the acknowledged giants. Philadelphia has always had some monster musicians but the ones people have heard of generally had to leave Philadelphia to gain their renown.

If it's hard for a U.S. musician to draw headlines, imagine what it must be like to be a European trying to find a U.S. audience. Andreas Limmert, ostensibly from Germany, nominates:

1. Albert Mangelsdorff - trombone; he died a few year ago - was one of THE leading figures in European Jazz and innovated a new style for his instrument
2. Christof Lauer - tenor and soprano sax - w/out exaggeration one of the great improvisers not only on ("my") side of the continent

Mangelsdorff is a serious technical and stylistic innovator — yet stateside, his name circulates only in trombonist and aficionado circles. Aaah!


There are plenty of other names you all threw out there. Hannibal Marvin Peterson (whatever happened to him?), Frank Glover, Steve Allee, Bill Reichenbach, Douglas Ewart, Ben Wendel, Jaleel Shaw, Larry Smith, Brad Terry, Connie Evingson, Jeff Haas, Alex Levin, Junior Cook (talking historically now). We could go on for a while. Commenter Robert Zachary gave me the name of singer Rebecca Martin, whose upcoming album of stripped-down standards (with only Larry Grenadier, bass and Bill McHenry, tenor sax) I just heard and quite enjoy.

I did want to raise one more issue in all this name-dropping — for now. Someone who I have every reason to believe is the drummer Matt Wilson gave us a whole bunch of names I'd never heard of, then wrote: "The importance of the regional jazz musician has seem[ed] to diminish but audiences need more than the occasional national act that may come through town. I believe the support and recognition of these folks should be a priority."

I'm going to stew on that for a while — I hope you do too — and then bite off another chunk related to the idea of the "regional jazz musician."