Flauting Tradition

Bud ShankThe Pacific Jazz Bud Shank Studio Sessions (1956-61)(Mosaic)

Bud Shank is best known for popularizing the flute in modern jazz. That's not what he wanted to be famous for, but it's his own fault. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1946 at the age of 20, he quickly developed a hard-hitting alto sax style based on the mature recordings of Lester Young and the early recordings of Charlie Parker. But he just as quickly hid that style.

On studio recordings, he tended to play in a sweetly melodic manner that he now calls "introverted." He explained to Doug Ramsey that he was simply shy, perhaps because of an eye problem: "I was cross-eyed," he says in the liner notes to The Pacific Jazz Bud Shank Studio Sessions, "and I would never look anybody in the eye because I knew this eye was going that way, and I played the same way." By his own strict standards, he played tentatively, nudging melodies along rather than ripping through the chord changes; he pulled back from the emotional commitment of the blues when part of him wanted to let go. Only gradually, during the years covered by the five-disc Mosaic set, was Shank able to play the whole of himself on the alto. But by then, fans had become intrigued -- too intrigued, for Shank -- by his flute playing.

By 1956, Shank had already become known as a multi-instrumentalist who played passable tenor and baritone sax, as well as the flute. His biggest hit was a 1954 session with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars for the Contemporary label. The album's title, Oboe/Flute, told the story of its appeal. It was a response to something that had already been happening in Shank's live performances at the Lighthouse and elsewhere: He noticed that the audience responded best when he picked up the flute. He didn't know whether it was just the novelty of the thing, or the contrast it made with the rest of the playing, but he didn't like it. Thirty years later, he would dispense with the flute altogether, but it's heard on these mid-'50s sessions. And it still sounds great.

Shank was born in 1926 in Dayton, Ohio. Raised on a farm, he says that he picked up a tin clarinet when he was 10; four weeks later he was playing a solo -- all quarter notes -- at a school recital. ("It had to be horrible," he opines.) He had decided to become a professional musician by the time he was 12; after high school, he worked in a band led by boogie-woogie pianist Ike Carpenter, who advertised him as "The Coleman Hawkins of the South." There was no truth in that advertising. Shank wasn't a southerner, and he was part of a new generation of young saxophonists who found Coleman Hawkins' heavy, vibrato-laden style, with its careful registering of harmonic changes, old-fashioned. He was a Lester Young fan all the way.

Shank briefly attended the University of North Carolina. After dropping out, he talked his parents into lending him money to buy a flute and decided to try his luck as a jazz musician in Los Angeles. In 1947 he joined Charlie Barnet's big band, playing tenor sax and later lead alto sax (the band also included future "Tonight Show" band leader Doc Severinsen). Two years later, he joined the ear-splitting progressive band led by Stan Kenton. With his customary pomposity, Kenton called it his "Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra." Kenton already had a great alto saxophonist in Art Pepper, so Shank played Kenton's sometimes devilishly difficult music as a lead altoist -- and flutist. "That's what made a flute player out of me," he later said.

After Kenton and a brief stint with a rhythm-and-blues band, Shank was back in Los Angeles, working at the Hermosa Beach clubs The Lighthouse and The Haig. Those two clubs were centers for what came to be called West Coast jazz, and his playing in these clubs launched Shank's wider career: He played on Laurindo Almeida's 1953 album Brazilliance, which pointed toward the bossa nova craze of the next decade, and he also participated in several of the jam sessions recorded with Lighthouse players. Those successes, along with Shank's growing reputation, resulted in those Pacific Jazz sessions led by Shank and often featuring pianist Claude Williamson.

The Mosaic box includes the music from seven LPs, from 1956's The Bud Shank Quartet through 1961's Barefoot Adventure. The set also includes five numbers previously found only on anthologies, sessions not easily available for years, and one album -- 1958's Bud Shank in Africa -- that was previously issued only in South Africa. They're indispensable for those interested in the history of jazz on the West Coast.

However, the collection begins rockily, with the 1956 number "Bag of Blues." Shank is hesitant even when stating the theme, which he does in a Lester Young whisper. The first chorus of improvisation sounds thoughtful, even planned, and less rhythmically interesting than Shank's usual playing; the swirls of another chorus sound like an unacknowledged source, Jimmy Dorsey. Shank only starts to become inspired when playing the prearranged theme of an unexpected jazz vehicle, "Carioca," which he must have learned from the 1939 recording by his clarinetist hero, Artie Shaw. It's as if the joy of wending his way through a complicated arrangement releases the improviser: When he starts his solo choruses, Shank erupts over the suddenly swinging beat of underrated drummer Chuck Flores and plays chorus after chorus of ripping bebop with the fluency and rhythmic ingenuity of his best work. Pianist Claude Williamson takes some equally rollicking chances: He's given to two-handed chords and, when excited, approaches Fats Waller's exuberance.

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