Sunday, September 1, 2013

"This Rhythm Section Will Not Be Repeated!"

Lionel Hampton
– by Hal Smith

Between 1937 and 1941, the great Jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton was featured on 23 sessions for the Bluebird label.  Though he played drums or piano on a few sides, the majority of the recordings feature his exuberant vibes playing.

Many legendary Jazz musicians participated on these recording dates, and some of the combinations are mind-boggling -- such as  one front line that consisted of Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry and Ben Webster!

The rhythm sections on the Hampton sessions are equally impressive, with a variety of groupings including Charlie Christian, Jess Stacy, Sid Catlett, Allan Reuss, Sir Charles Thompson, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Nat "King" Cole, John Kirby and Cozy Cole.

One rhythm section in particular stands out; the group that recorded on Dec. 21, 1939: Joe Sullivan, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Artie Bernstein, bass; and Zutty Singleton, drums.  This quartet was one of the most dynamic rhythm sections ever to be recorded!  They played with the power of a fast freight train, but with a wonderful instrumental blend.  The front line on this date was formidable too, and included three of the greatest reedmen in Jazz history: Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax), Edmond Hall (clarinet) and alto saxophonist Benny Carter -- playing trumpet!  Their playing deserves a separate blog, though the rhythm section managed to steal the show on this session.  Even Hampton's extroverted vibe playing takes a back seat to the powerhouse rhythm!

Joe Sullivan
Artie Bernstein
Joe Sullivan was a pioneer of "Chicago Style" Jazz.  He developed a unique, instantly recognizable style based on the influences of Fats Waller, Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong.  He had just left the Bob Crosby Orchestra and was freelancing in New York City when he got the call from Hampton. 

New Yorker Artie Bernstein was a member of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and had played on two previous Hampton sessions (Oct. 12 and 30, 1939).

Freddie Green joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1937.  He redefined the role of rhythm guitarist in a big band and his playing was a hallmark of the Basie sound.

Freddie Green
Zutty Singleton started drumming in New Orleans, made a splash in St. Louis, an even bigger one in Chicago, then moved to New York City in the late '20s.  His drumming style was propulsive and swinging; a perfect bridge between the Hot Jazz of the '20s and the Swing Era of the '30s.

Zutty Singleton
Without a doubt all these great players were at least acquainted with each other before the Hampton session.  And though they had not recorded together as a group, some of them had meet in the studio previously…

- Sullivan and Singleton with Billy Banks' Rhythmakers (Henry Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, Jack Bland, Al Morgan) in 1932

- Sullivan and Bernstein with Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (Manny Klein, Charlie and Jack Teagarden, Dick McDonough, Gene Krupa a.o.) in 1933

- Green and Singleton with Pee Wee Russell and his Rhythmakers (Max Kaminsky, Dickie Wells, James P. Johnson, Wellman Braud a.o.) in 1938

- Green and Sullivan with Billie Holiday in a group that also included Lester Young, Walter Page and Jo Jones just a week before the Hampton date.  (The Holiday session produced sublime versions of "Night And Day," "You're Just A No-Account," "You're A Lucky Guy" and "The Man I Love").

As professional musicians, Sullivan, Green, Bernstein and Singleton would have been prepared for any musical situation and it is doubtful that they needed more than a brief run-through of the material -- if that -- before the masters were cut.  The first number recorded was "Dinah."  After a four-bar introduction by Hampton, the band immediately began swinging.  Sullivan's left hand, Green's even 4/4, Singleton's bass drum and Bernstein's big-toned string bass produced a rhythmic pulse that is breathtaking.

Next, the band made another attempt at "Dinah."  This performance swung harder, and once again, the rhythm section played with a controlled urgency.  Click HERE to view "Dinah" Take two.

"My Buddy" followed the second take of "Dinah."  Sullivan's playing was looser, utilizing chordal "vocalization" behind Hawkins' solo and triplets in response to Hampton's percussive solo.  As before, Green, Bernstein and Singleton played a driving 4/4 beat.

The final selection recorded that day was "Singin' The Blues,"  taken at a slower tempo than the classic Beiderbecke/Trumbauer recording.  Sullivan was the only rhythm man who was given a solo on the date.  He made the most of the opportunity, playing a lovely, sparkling half-chorus.  Green's guitar was very audible during the piano solo and, as usual, his sound and time are absolutely perfect.

It is tempting to theorize that on the first two sides, Joe Sullivan was playing a sparse, "Basie" style, to fit the flowing 4/4 of the rhythm section.  However, when he recorded with Green, Page and Jones the previous week, he played his usual style and it was a great fit with the "All American Rhythm Section."  On the Hampton recordings, Sullivan was most likely simplifying his style and cutting back on the treble licks just to stay out of the way of the vibes.

Zutty Singleton was an inventive and exciting ensemble player and soloist, though on this session he also played as simply as possible; mainly quarter notes, using brushes, on the snare drum and ride cymbal plus his signature pulsating bass drum.

Sullivan, Green, Bernstein and Singleton brought together the geographical influences associated with Chicago, Kansas City, New York and New Orleans and blended everything into a distinctive, hard-driving approach to swing.  This writer has never found any additional recordings -- live or commercial -- with the same rhythm lineup, so it must be assumed that this was their first and last time together in a studio!  The fact that this was a "one time only" rhythm section is a real shame.  But we can be thankful that they had this one opportunity to record, and they played with joyous abandon -- almost as if they knew that "This Rhythm Section Will Not Be Repeated!"