West Coast cool and East Coast hip collide as the baritone stylist meets Ellington's...
Peter Marsh 2003
In the late 50's Gerry Mulligan recorded sessions with three of the most important saxophonists of a slightly older generation; Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges. Hodges' work with Duke Ellington was a formative influence on the young Mulligan when he took the alto chair with Claude Thornhill's band, and remained when he made the switch to baritone.
By this time Mulligan's place in jazz history was assured, mainly due to his work with Chet Baker in the famous pianoless quartet, which became a cornerstone of the West Coast sound. Meanwhile Hodges (twenty years Mulligan's senior) was still making vitally important contributions to the Ellington Orchestra.
According to Nat Hentoff's sleevenote a fair amount of pre-planning went in to this session, and it's certainly not the usual run through a set of blues and standards that you usually find on such one-off meetings. Having said that though, there's a casual, informal vibe to the proceedings too.
Though the sound of the band is pretty typical of the West Coast style, Mulligan avoids the kind of intricate counterpoint that characterised his recordings without piano or meetings with contemporaries like Stan Getz or Paul Desmond. He's content to keep out of Hodges' way and even sits out on "What's The Rush", the album's only ballad. Here 'The Rabbit' demonstrates his mix of poise andbluesyemotingthat makes him one of the most instantly recognisable alto players of the 20th century.
Meanwhile Mulligan wears his influences proudly, so much so that at times you could be listening to Hodges or Lester Young pitched down an octave or so. Maybe that's just a consequence of hearing him in close proximity to one of his heroes, but the two men's styles do seem like different sides of the same coin. As the title suggests, this is a meeting rather than a cutting contest, and it's all the better for it. Lovely.