Prime mid 50s Cool School horn action from altoist/ arranger Lennie Niehaus, featuring...
Peter Marsh 2002
Though probably not as well known as other West Coast members of the Cool School, ex Stan Kenton star Lennie Niehaus's string of 50s dates for the Contemporary label are gems of compositional and improvisational flair.
This 1956 Sextet session followed various experiments with strings, Octets and more conventional lineups; following Gerry Mulligan's lead, Niehaus dispenses with piano, relying on lush, complex counterpoint from baritone, tenor, trumpet and his own alto. The sound Niehaus gets from his band is much greater than the sum of its parts, thanks to intelligent, sensitive horn charts that (in true Cool School style) substitute subtlety for bluster.
Niehaus's alto is firmly in post Charlie Parker mode, though Parker's urgency is replaced with relaxed, behind the beat phrasing (reminiscent of Lee Konitz) and a woody, almost clarinet like tone. This combination of languid, expressive playing and agility is best heardon Niehaus originals like "Knee Deep" and "Take It from Me", where his fleet lines suggest a gentle subversion of bop cliché.
A young Jimmy Guiffre is on baritone duty, occasionally adding some bluesy grit, particularly on "Take it From Me"; here too trumpeter Stu Williamson contributes an agile valve trombone excursion.
Tenorist Bill Perkins is a less memorable soloist (firmly in Lester Young mode), but the supple, translucent ensemble horns are a joy throughout (check the opening to "Three of a Kind" for evidence). Perkins does contribute some lovely flute to "Ill Wind", which features some of Niehaus's finest arranging (and soloing).
Longtime Niehaus associate Shelly Manne is his usual quietly inventive self, while bassist Buddy Clark is solid and lyrical by turns. An unashamedly enjoyable record and proof that though Niehaus's more recent achievements as favoured composer for his old airforce buddy Clint Eastwood (Bird, The Unforgiven) have earned him much success, his contribution to Cool School jazz was no less important. Lovely stuff.