Before & After: Bud Shank

This B&A appeared in JazzTimes in 2007.

(© Larry Appelbaum)

Saxophonist and composer Bud Shank has a sixty-year career in music with credits as long as your arm. He came to prominence in the 1940s and 50s with the big bands of Charlie Barnet and Stan Kenton, worked with the Lighthouse All-Stars in the mid-1950s, led his own groups for a decade and then free-lanced in the TV and film studios in Los Angeles. Always open to new sounds, Shank made one of the first Brazilian-Jazz fusion records with Laurinda Almeida in the 1950s and later studied Indian music in the 1960s. From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, he toured the world with the L.A. Four, then spent years living in Port Townsend, WA, leading workshops and mentoring many of today’s leading musicians. Though always a first-rate flutist, Shank gave up that instrument in 1986 in order to concentrate on the alto saxophone.


1. Duke Ellington

“Isfahan” (from The Far East Suite, BMG). Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Duke Ellington Orchestra. Recorded in 1966.

Before: [chuckles] well, that’s obviously Johnny Hodges with Duke’s band. I’ve become more aware of Johnny Hodges in the latter part of my life than I did when I was a kid. I’m more appreciative of what he did. One of the reasons is because I worked with Phil Woods last year and he’s got a lot of Hodges popping out of him now. I’m such a fan of that sound and what he did. I just love it. It’s all emotion and getting that emotion across. It’s beautiful. I had the pleasure of sitting beside him twice. I did a film score with Duke Ellington [Assault On A Queen) and Duke offered me a job in his orchestra. I was just not in a position to be able to take it: family problems, work problems, it broke my heart. Can you imagine what it would have been like to sit next to him for a long time? Duke was interested in what I could do with the flute, cause that was a new voice for him. It’s one of those things that should have happened but didn’t happen. That’s one of those lovely Duke Ellington pieces. It’s tailored for Johnny Hodges to play. I’ve never played it but I should. I’ve been playing Warm Valley lately. This is gorgeous.

After: Oh, “Isfahan.” Of course.

2. Greg Osby

“Mob Job” (from Channel Three, Blue Note) Osby, alto saxophone; Matt Brewer, bass; Jeff “Tain” Watts, drums. Recorded in 2005.

Before:  This is an interesting combination of gospel blues and contemporary. I can tell you that I like it. It’s a piece of unstructured music, which is fun to do. I believe there should be some structure there for the audience and the musician both to latch onto to. I don’t mean you have to be playing “Stardust” all the time or anything like that. It sounds like A minor to me. There’s a lot of G7 going on there too. He’s doing things that I do all the time too–that growling and that high F sharp. It’s a very good saxophone player. He’s a well-studied player. I compliment him for that. So many times the guys who are into unstructured music forget how to play the saxophone. They don’t learn the instrument. I can accept anything that anyone plays as long as they know how to play the instrument. We’ve had a terrible problem in Europe with people who don’t know how to play the instrument and they say, look at me, look at what I’m doing, honking and squealing. They’re painting a picture with one bristle on their brush. Ha ha. I like this.

After: Oh, Greg Osby. I know who he is. We’ve had some kind of contact in the past. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize him. Tain Watts. Excellent.

3. Oliver Nelson

“Alto-Itis” (from Screamin’ The Blues, Prestige/New Jazz). Nelson, Eric Dolphy, alto saxophones; Richard Williams, trumpet; Richard Wyands, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Roy Haynes, drums. Recorded in 1960.

Before: Double trouble, ha ha. [listening to Dolphy’s solo] We’re getting a little carried away now. I don’t know who either one of those guys are. The second alto player was more restrained. The first guy just lost it. I don’t see the necessity of that, I mean just a total freak out, flip out, wig out, whatever term you want to use. Very good saxophone players, both of them. The second guy I like better. It would have helped if they’d tuned up. They’re not together on the ensemble. The structure of the tune is traditional with the “I Got Rhythm” changes.

After:  That was Oliver and Eric? I’ll be a son of a gun. Oliver I never would have guessed. Actually, I worked with Oliver a whole bunch when he was writing for Universal and I was doing studio work. I’ve really not heard him play alto that much. I think I would have recognized his writing more than his playing. As a person he was a great man and a marvelous composer. He came to L.A. at a busy time and he got the attention of Stanley Wilson, who was the Musical Director at Universal. Stanley, Oliver and the contractor, a man named Bobby Helfer, all three died of heart attacks within a very short period. A terrible loss, all three of them. All of us liked Stanley. We didn’t necessarily like the contractor. But who can like a contractor? Everybody liked working for Oliver. He kept it as musical as he possibly could. He never shucked. He put all of his thought and effort into every one of those scores that he did. And that was not true of everybody out there.

4. Jamie Baum

“All Roads Lead To You” (from Moving Forward, Standing Still, OmniTone). Baum, alto flute; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; Doug Yates, alto saxophone; Tom Varner, french horn; George Colligan, piano; Drew Gress, bass; Jeff Hirshfield, drums. Recorded in 2002.

Before: I love the composition. Excellent. Here’s somebody who’s been listening to Bartok and Stravinsky and applying that to our jazz world. There’re textures in there that come from classical composers, and yet it’s still swinging–the pulsations, not necessarily from the rhythm section, but the pulsations from the guy’s writing, whoever it might be. I do not especially like the flute player, playing alto flute.  [hears saxophone solo] Who’s this? I like this guy, whoever he is. The piano player is dynamite [laughs] He’s putting some wild things down. That’s good writing and good playing. I love it.

After: She’s the composer? Hurray for you lady. Good bunch of kids. I’ve never heard any of them. She’s all right. Bartok would have loved this. Write more, play flute less. [laughs]

5. Nat “King” Cole

“You’re Looking At Me” (from The Complete After Midnight Sessions, Capitol). Cole, piano, vocals; Willie Smith, alto saxophone; John Collins, guitar; Charlie Harris, bass; Lee Young, drums. Recorded in 1956.

Before: I’m trying to think of what alto player would have been around when Nat was making his quartet records. I’ve never heard this before. Benny Carter? I can’t imagine him doing something like this but it’s in that groove. It’s nice. It fits; it’s perfect for this. This is natural Nat. I made some records with him, but never any solos. He was a great player. I made a record with him and Stan Kenton, “Orange Colored Sky” or some silly thing like that. But, right before he died, they took a group of us up to San Francisco to make a record with him called “L-O-V-E.” It’s not Willie Smith, is it?

After: It was Willie! This has got to be early 50s. I loved what he did with Harry James. That was an important part of the evolution of the big band, having a good soloist be the first alto player. That wasn’t happening very often in the 50s. I’ve also heard the things he did with Jimmy Lunceford. I’ve always enjoyed Nat and Willie both. These are people who need to be listened to.

6. Freddie Redd

“Who Killed Cock Robin” (from Music From The Connection, Blue Note). Redd, piano, composer; Jackie McLean, alto saxophone; Michael Mattos, bass; Larry Ritchie, drums. Recorded in 1960.

Before: [after 2 choruses] He found the groove finally. I like this, whoever it is. He’s a Charlie Parker fan, and a very good player. It’s a hard tune, hard changes. That’s why it took him a couple of choruses to settle down. At first I thought the drummer was the leader cause he was dominating everything. Yeah, I like this guy whoever he is. [chuckles] That’s a very complex tune, the chord changes and the structure of it. It ain’t your regular AABA song. And there’s a lot of II 7’s and V 7’s going through there, modulations and whatever. I haven’t got it figured out yet. Very interesting [laughs]. Good player. Who is it?

After: Oh Jackie! Jesus. I should have known that. No wonder I liked him. What confused me is that he played more Charlie Parker licks than he normally does. I never heard him play like that. It’s great.

7. Charlie Parker

“Cherokee” (from The Quintessence, Frémeaux & Associés). Parker, alto saxophone; Efferge Ware, guitar; Little Phil Philips, drums. Recorded in 1942.

Before: Where’d you find this? I never heard this one before. It’s got to be Charlie Parker, right? How could he play like that with that kind of rhythm section? [laughs]. This rhythm section doesn’t bother him one bit. Just straight ahead. It’s amazing, just running through those changes of that bridge. Ha ha ha. That’s wild. I never knew the existence of that.

After: To have him play that well with that kind of rhythm section. Yeah, that’s wild. And to grow up at that young age on the bridge of Cherokee. [laughs] What a great way to grow up. After that everything becomes easier. He had to have been in his teens, right?

8. Ornette Coleman

“Latin Genetics” (from In All Languages, Caravan of Dreams). Coleman, alto saxophone; Don Cherry, trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. Recorded in 1987.

Before: [after four choruses] I like the drummer and the bass player. [at conclusion] So, what the hell was that? Cuba? No? Bass player and drummer were marvelous. Trumpet player and saxophone player were nothing. I like the piece of music. It was very interesting. Their performance of it didn’t sound too good. They don’t know how to play their horn or they sound a little old or a little tired or something. The intonation was bad and the wrong notes were bad and the bad chops. Was it Don Cherry and Ornette? I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch. That’s wild, cause I always thought Ornette played better than that. But the piece of music was great. I loved it.

After: [checks the personnel] Oh, it was Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. No wonder they sounded good.

9. Yusef Lateef

“Come Sunday” (from Every Village Has A Song, Rhino/Atlantic). Lateef, flutes; Kermit Moore, cellos. Recorded in 1972.

Before: Another alto flute. Is it Hubert [Laws]? He’s got that big wide vibrato like Hubert. It’s interesting writing. Damned interesting writing. I don’t like flute players who use that wide vibrato. And I don’t play flute anymore so I can say anything I want about flute players [laughs]. The writing was complex with all those tight harmonies. You start messing around with string players, especially cello players with tight harmonies like that and it’s usually a disaster. These guys did an excellent job. The intonation through the whole thing was very, very good. Who did the writing? What is it? I’m curious now.

After: Really? All right! That was very well done. I didn’t realize he was that good on flute. The wide vibrato is a matter of taste. The vibratos of the two celli and the two flutes never did match. The harmonies were excellent. Extremely well played.

10. Lee Konitz

“You Don’t Know What Love Is” (from The Lee Konitz Duets, Milestone). Konitz, alto saxophone; Joe Henderson, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 1967.

Before: [immediately] Lee, you’re crazy. I love Lee. Sometimes I think he’s half nuts but he’s got the courage to do things like this. He came into the Iridium when I was there three weeks ago and he played the whole last set with me. It was fun. It always is with him. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen next or which Lee is gonna show up. This is extremely adventurous. Who was the other saxophone player?

After: Really? Amazing. I never knew Joe could play like that.

You were chuckling throughout that. What was funny?

What Lee was doing, and a couple of things that Joe did too. All of a sudden he was way up here. Composers have been doing this for centuries. And they’re being composers right there. That kind of freedom to me is really interesting. The structure was there when they played the little fragment of melody. I was fascinated by what happened here. Two composers, spontaneous.

11. Benny Carter

“Body & Soul” (from Further Definitions, Impulse). Carter, Phil Woods, alto saxophones; Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophones; Dick Katz, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; John Collins, guitar; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded in 1961.

Before: Yeah, this is Benny Carter’s saxophone section. Was that first alto Woods at an early age? His sound is totally different now. Yeah, this is Benny. I don’t know either one of the tenor players. Don Byas? No, Coleman Hawkins. There were a couple little mistakes in there, phrasing wise. But they were there to play solos, not as a saxophone section.

After: Benny Carter and Woods are two of my favorites. Oh, Charlie Rouse. Gee, Dick Katz and I went to the University of North Carolina together, haven’t seen him since. I went right past Coleman Hawkins to Lester Young. Downbeat printed his Body & Soul when I was a kid. I used to practice it and I had the record. But I went right straight to Lester. I just liked what Pres was doing, laid back, the way he played, the way he swung. Hawkins was a hell of a saxophone player. He had really mastered the instrument. He gets over his horn beautifully. All I can say is that if you match him up next to Pres, I’m gonna go right to Pres.

12. Vijay Iyer

“Song For Midwood” (from Reimagining, Savoy Jazz). Iyer, piano, composer; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Stephen Crump, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums. Recorded in 2004.

Before: [listens intently for several minutes] I’m hearing a good saxophone player. It’s very adventurous. The piece of music I haven’t figured out yet, but it‘s very interesting. Somebody’s been searching. I like it. I wouldn’t play it when I was in bed with my wife [chuckles], but I would play it if I had it. There are some extremely interesting compositional things. Is it in 7/4? I really liked the saxophone. Is it Turkish? Yeah I like this stuff. He can play the saxophone. Who is he?

After: Now that’s amazing. I was heavy into studying Indian music back in the 60s. I recorded with Ravi Shankar. We did a film soundtrack together. But this kid is good. That’s very interesting for me.

Your three favorite records of all time?

Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite w/Leonard Bernstein conducting, Bill Evans at the Vanguard, and any Zoot Sims record.


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