For most dance bands—orchestras of reed, trumpet, trombone, and rhythm sections playing fast numbers, ballads, and whatever else dance-loving general audiences craved—improvisation was another device rather than the whole toolbox. Yet, at some point, solo-hunting became the norm when appreciating their recorded legacy. Straight melody statements, arranged ensembles, and (most of all) vocals were now filler between eight bars of up-tempo improvisation or a faint obbligato. Supposedly, those few precious moments showed the musician breaking through written charts and mass appeal to play something unique from their heart.
Whether it came out of professional obligation or a creative outburst, Larry Abbott’s lead alto on “Milwaukee Walk” with an Irving Mills group leaped out at me despite my being less than attentive. The saxes get the first chorus after the verse introduces Andy Razaf and James P. Johnson’s tune, and even without improvising, Abbott’s sound made me stop the car to find the personnel.
One of the joys of these twenties tentets and similarly sized big(ger) bands, with their brass and reed trios prefiguring the four-to-five-person trumpet, trombone, and saxophone sections of later big bands—is their transparency. It’s not just their smaller size leaving room for each player’s voice. Lead altos like Abbott, Chester Hazlett, and Benny Carter played with a lusher, more rounded, and more enveloping—as opposed to penetrating—timbre that didn’t have to compete with four other players in the section and up to ten brass players. This isn’t a criticism of any approach or an attempt to paint things too broadly. It’s a beautiful example of difference as opposed to hierarchy and degrees rather than extremes. In this case, it created a unique space to savor Abbott’s sound.
Along with a bright buttery tone, Abbott exemplifies melodicism and practicality. Record dates were usually intended to popularize a tune. The lead alto carries the main theme here, so Abbott keeps his sax prominent and “sings” that melody. The harmonies from the second alto and tenor still add body, but they emerge more like a decorative lattice than a reinforcing fence. Abbott’s slight anticipation of the beat on this blue note-inflected melody makes the tune dance. His phrasing demonstrates rhythmic responsibility beyond just reading a chart.
The incredibly knowledgeable Javier Soria Laso shared some biographical information about Abbott, including prolific bandleader Sam Lanin having “discovered” him. Abbott’s range (and presumably his professionalism in terms of efficiency, reliability, and demeanor) earned him gigs with other popular bandleaders such as Bob Haring and Adrian Schubert and sax pioneer Bennie Krueger. He had plenty of other work with dance bands, film orchestras, and anywhere else that valued musical proficiency. Abbott’s reed portfolio included lead alto; hot solos on soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxes and clarinet; and filling the need for bass clarinet and flute.
If this was a day’s work, how bad could it have been? Of course, we have no idea how Abbott felt as a soloist, section player, creative artist, or commercial musician. A few erudite readers have pointed out that applying hard-earned musical skills to make a fair wage playing pleasant music may have been quite satisfying for these musicians. I sometimes even wonder if the phrase, “If I have to play one more hot solo today…” was ever uttered in the studio.