Fred Rich Didn’t Need To Play Jazz

Jazz’s social cachet is powerful enough to reincarnate yestercentury’s pop ephemera as today’s history and art. King Oliver thought he was just making dance music but today’s cultural guardians know better. Dancing to “Harlem Air Shaft” is usually an afterthought when Ellington’s composition comes up in academic dissertations.

Purists assume that actual dance music, on the other hand, is meant for oblivion: produced rather than created, intended for undiscriminating mass audiences and containing little-to-no improvisation, they will dig through all that pop pap just to find the jazz, be it a whole record, an eight-bar hot solo or an intriguing chord substitution. For seekers of authenticity, Bunny Berigan’s solo with Fred Rich’s orchestra on a sugary love song must feel like Beef Wellington:

Berigan is, of course, brilliant on his own terms: warm, fulsome tone, phrasing that makes an event out of a Tin Pan Alley tune, just enough variation to make it Berigan’s own and rich, lyrical high notes that would be the envy of even the staunchest modernist. Rich’s band, locked into an arrangement and dainty rhythms, is merely the commercial backdrop one puts up with to get to Berigan’s jazz. Hip listeners know to skip past it.

It might be difficult to make a case for Rich’s orchestra for its jazz content, but a group of twenty or so players not just reading a chart but performing it with good intonation, tight blend and unified phrasing, all with perhaps minimum rehearsal (maybe even sight-reading it) is in itself spectacular. If that ability can be taken for granted, it is a monument to the musicians, not antiquated circumstance.

As for what Rich’s musicians are playing, their simple but beautiful harmonic cushion is what makes Berigan’s flights pop and sweep into grandeur. The tightly muted trumpets leading into Berigan’s vocal add a brief but effective “sweet” contrast to Berigan’s hot opening cadenza and closing solo/coda. Adrian Rollini’s bass saxophone bottoming out the parts is a subtle but powerful touch. For a moment it sounds like someone is doubling bassoon. These are not the justly-celebrated rich, dark colors of an Ellington voicing but a lighter instrumental as well as emotional hue, another approach to musical texture, perhaps not thesis-worthy or even groundbreaking, but novel and imaginative on record. It is not improvised, perhaps not “jazz,” but analyses that stop there leave out a lot of musical content.

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