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Noteworthy Recordings

How the West was Swung: Westerns Jazz

Way Out West coverMost jazz histories now accept and acknowledge the existence and influence of western swing, but what's less known is that back in the dark closets of a few jazz and swing musicians can be found a much rarer artifact: westerns jazz. I don't mean West Coast Jazz or even country and western jazz. I mean jazz versions of music from westerns.

Now there have long been tunes like "Rose of the Rio Grande" or "On the Alamo" that get picked up now and again by jazz and swing bands. But it's the rare courageous (or foolish) jazz cat who will don a Stetson and a pair of six guns and stand out with the cactus and tumbleweeds like Sonny Rollins on his great album, Way Out West. The following specimen are offered for your further research.

Dave Pell Quintet, Swingin' at the Old Corral, (RCA Victor)
Pell's easy-going combo sidles off to the OK Corral and takes a polite whack at a dozen numbers straight off the ranch. Musically, they take to the material easily, but one quintet alumnus has recalled that the cover shoot was a farce, with trumpeter Don Fagerquist and guitarist Tommy Tedesco struggling to stay aboard their steeds.

Jack Marshall, The Marshall Swings (Capitol)
The cover shows Marshall, apparently still wearing the same golf cap, vest, and tweed jacket from Soundsville!, being fitted for a noose by two babes in Western gear. On the vinyl, Marshall takes a chamber jazz approach to a set of Western standards, but the album's highlight is an up-tempo take of Marshall's own theme for the TV series, "The Deputy," featuring some strong electric guitar work by Marshall himself.

Marty Gold, Swingin' West (RCA Victor)
OK, so Marty Gold isn't a jazz musician, but he brings a solid big band orientation to this lively set of western tunes.

Pete Brady, How the West was Swung (RCA Victor)
Brady's album is kith and kin with Gold's, taking "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and other numbers, arranging them for big band orchestration, and giving a strong swing to the straight forward 4/4 times.

Tak Shindo, Far East Goes Western (Mercury)
Probably the oddest of the batch, this album has Shindo applying the formula from his Capitol albums to Western songs like "The Last Roundup" and "I'm an Old Cowhand." Which means that Shindo starts with a basic big band orchestration, then spices it up with a cornucopia of Oriental instruments. "An arresting potpourri of exotic and unconventional sounds," as the liner notes put it. Tex Ritter might not have enjoyed "High Noon" with koto accompaniment, but you will if you ever locate a copy of this hard-to-find album.

Jimmy Giuffre, Western Suite (Atlantic)
Giuffre was one of jazz's most avid experimenters, and this album comes from the late 1950s, when he was leading a series of percussion-less trios and quartets, often featuring Bob Brookmeyer on trombone and Jim Hall on electric guitar, and himself often playing clarinet (sticking to its lower register) rather than sax. Many big band traditionalists were disappointed when Giuffre, one of Woody Herman's famous "Four Brothers" sax section, started playing around style, instrumentations, and rhythms, but Western Suite is tame compared to his dissonant trio work with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow a few years later.

Sonny Rollins, Way Out West (Contemporary)
Recorded in a quick session while Rollins was appearing in Los Angeles, Way Out West demonstrates the penchant Rollins had in the late 1950s for covering unusual pop tunes. This time, working with Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums (hot off a session with Andre Previn), he cuts "I'm an Old Cowhand" and "Wagon Wheels," along with his own original title tune.

Stan Kenton, Stan Kenton! Tex Ritter! (Capitol)
Right up there with Kenton/Wagner as evidence that Stan could boldly go where no man should go. This was actually no hare-brained knock-off, but a project Kenton tried for years to develop with another country singer, Red Foley. Even Kenton admitted, though, that the main comment most listeners had about this album was, "What in the hell were you thinking?"

Randy Weston, Destry Rides Again (United Artists)
A card-carrying member of the hard bop school, Weston wanders far from the 'hood on this album, supplementing his trio with a side of four trombonists, led and arranged by Melba Liston, playing music composed by Harold Rome for a Broadway musical based on the great Jimmy Stewart-Marlene Dietrich movie.

Jazz Themes from "Shotgun Slade" (Mercury)
One of Gerald Fried's odder assignments as a studio composer was to write a series of jazz-influenced Western themes for "Shotgun Slade," a failed attempt to combine the successful private eye and jazz style of "Peter Gunn" and "Staccato" with the popular Western gunslinger format of "Have Gun Will Travel" and "Maverick," starring Scott Brady. Shotgun Slade's career more resembled those of real Western gunslingers, though, as the network gunned it down after a short and brutish existence.

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