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John Handy III

Three Classic Albums Plus

Track details at the end of review.

AVID JAZZ AMSC1357 [79:28 + 79:40]

 

John Handy initially came to notice, on this side of the Atlantic at least, when he began to work with Charles Mingus at the end of the 1950s. His first significant recording success as a leader came with his album Recorded Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, 1965 (released in 1966). Further successes, critically speaking, followed with albums such as New View (1967), with a group including vibes player Bobby Hutcherson and guitarist Pat Martino. Two albums which were especially successful musically, Karma Supreme (1975) and Rainbow (1980) involved distinguished Indian musicians such as Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Dr. L. Subramaniam (violin). My own sense is that Handy’s best recorded work is to be found either on his albums with Mingus or on the aforementioned albums recorded between 1965 and 1980. Handy was always inconsistent, however. In the same period he recorded the rather dull Hard Work (1976), undistinguished in its treatment of Rhythm and Blues idioms and the lightweight and commercial Carnival (1977).

This set of 2 CDs from Avid concentrates on Handy’s earlier recordings, made before what now seem to have been his best years. Three of the four albums reproduced here were recorded under Handy’s leadership, the ‘plus? of the reissue’s title being those tracks ?which is all but one ?on which Handy played on Mingus Ah Um.

Excluding the Mingus album, there’s nothing here which approaches the interest and excitement of, say, Live at Monterey, New View or Rainbow. The three albums led by Handy can scarcely be called classics, not being essential to any collection of modern jazz. On the first of them, In the Vernacular, some tracks are, for me, marred by Handy’s over-large and somewhat rubbery vibrato, which should probably be described as a taste that has to be acquired. Vibrato as wide as this seems to speak of the influence of Albert Ayler, but Handy doesn’t have Ayler’s well-nigh spiritual power and, for me, it soon becomes wearisome. Nor does it sit at all easily with the relatively straightforward ‘hard bop?of the rest of the group, in which the rhythm section of Hanna, Tucker and (mostly) Haynes is every bit as good as one would expect from those names. This was Handy’s first recording under his own name and he gives the impression of being a musician dissatisfied with the ‘mainstream?idiom of the day but yet sure how to create his own transformation or renewal of that idiom. He wasn’t an inexperienced musician, having worked with Randy Weston as well as Mingus. The anonymous (as reproduced by Avid) sleeve notes of the original vinyl issue talk of Handy as a “daring?musician. Fair enough, I suppose, but perhaps not quite daring enough? The unnamed writer, who had clearly interviewed Handy, describes the saxophonist as being “strongly influenced by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Louis Jordan? Clearly Hardy wasn’t yet able to digest fully such heterogeneous influences. And surely Eric Dolphy was a more immediate influence? Despite my reservations, I have to say that there are some successful moments: the essentially modal ‘Suggested Line? for example, works quite well and proves to be an effective vehicle for Handy’s lyricism. There is also some good blues playing on ‘Blues in the Vernacular? and ‘Problem Too?contains some interesting textures and colours. When given the opportunity (as on ‘First Time? pianist Roland Hanna and ?to a lesser degree ?trumpeter Richard Williams contribute some worthwhile solos. Overall, however, this is the album of a promising and ambitious musician who hadn’t yet found a fully coherent style of his own.

The next of Handy’s own albums, chronologically, was No Coast Jazz , recorded in 1960. The setting this time is just Handy’s alto sax and another fine rhythm section. In his sleeve notes for the original release, Ted White puts his emphasis on the assertion that Handy is an independently-minded musician, not one of the “thinkalikes?who are, inevitable, always plentiful. White goes so far as to say that in terms of present-day (i.e.1960) jazz “currently the three leading individuals are Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and John Handy? One wonders why John Coltrane’s name isn’t mentioned and (admittedly with the advantage of hindsight) it is puzzling to find Handy coupled as an innovator with figures of the stature of Coleman and Dolphy. Forecasting the future is, of course, always a tricky business, but one imagines that within a year or two of writing it, Mr. White must have felt somewhat embarrassed by another of the statements he makes here when he writes that “Ornette has received most of the publicity, but I believe in the long run Dolphy and Hardy may have more to offer. At the present certainly Handy’s music is the furthest developed towards maturity? That last sentence isn’t, of course, a prophecy but White’s judgment on the state of things in 1960. Even at the time many must surely have read it as a serious overestimate of Handy. We can now see that the prophecy which precedes it was sadly off-target. Truth to tell, No Coast Jazz is perfectly pleasant listening, a competent and mildly interesting piece of work, without being anything like as challenging and innovative as both Coleman and Dolphy were. Handy has certainly proved to be the least influential of Mr. White’s triumvirate of names. But, as suggested above, this is I very listenable album, in which Handy’s vibrato is deployed more sparingly and to more purpose. The best things on the album ?in which all 6 compositions are Handy’s ?such as ‘Boo’s Ups and Downs?have some genuine emotional substance and directness of communication. The title tune, ‘No Coast Jazz? has a sense of drama that packs quite a punch. Handy is well supported throughout, with bassist Bill Lee (not a particularly well-known figure) especially impressive. Don Friedman, as so often, comes across as a quietly interesting pianist who never fully found a voice of his own. Lex Humphries, as always, does his job well ?he was one of the great reliables of the time.

The simply titled Jazz was recorded 2 years later in 1962. Again it is just Handy and a rhythm section. By now Handy seems to have been better able to sustain such an exposed role. Jazz is an enjoyable and interesting album, though not as revolutionary as its publicity suggested. ‘From Bird?is what its title says, deeply grounded in Parker, without being merely derivative. Elsewhere Handy’s slightly off-centre lyricism is engaging ?notably on ‘East of the Sun? But even on this ?his most assured album to date ?one sometimes has the sense that Handy is trying a little too hard (perhaps too self-consciously?) to avoid the expected. When he relaxes and ‘blows?his work has more weight.

The tracks from Mingus Ah Um take us to a different level, however. Here is a ‘classic?album. The compositions of Mingus (their structures and arrangements, paradoxically both very sophisticated and utterly direct) provide Handy with a richness of context his own sessions didn’t yet have. Still, Handy, though sharing the front line with such figures as Booker Ervin, Shafi Hadi and Jimmy Knepper, doesn’t sound seriously outclassed. On these tracks we also get the chance to hear Handy playing the tenor sax, not just his usual alto, to good effect, most notably in his solo on ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat? Handy appeared on 4 other albums under Mingus’s leadership ?Jazz Portraits:Mingus in Wonderland (1959), Mingus Dynasty (1959),Blues and Roots (1960) and Right Now: Live at the Jazz Workshop (1964). Mingus’s writing, the energy of its controlled passion which also allowed personal freedom, served Handy very well, and on the whole he was heard to better effect on these albums than on the early recordings made under his own name.

It has, then, to be said that most of Handy’s best recorded work is to be found on other discs. This interesting if less than fully satisfying 2 CD set is primarily valuable as documentation of Handy’s development rather than as fully-achieved ‘art?(save for the material from Mingus Ah Um).

Glyn Pursglove

CD1
1-8: In The Vernacular
1. I’ll Close My Eyes
2. First Time
3. Suggested Line
4. Problem Too
5. Quote, Unquote
6. Blues In The Vernacular
7. Dance To The Lady
8. I’ll Never Smile Again
9-14: Jazz
9. From Bird
10. Blues For M.F.
11. East Of The Sun (West Of The Moon)
12. No Smiles Please
13. Strugglin?
14. Afternoon Outing

CD2
1-6: No Coast Jazz
1. To Randy
2. Tales Of Paradise
3. Boo’s Ups And Downs
4. Hi Number
5. Prettyside Avenue
6. No Coast

7-14 Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Hum (incomplete)
7. Better Git It In Your Soul from Mingus Ah Hum
8. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat from Mingus Ah Hum
9. Boogie Stop Shuffle from Mingus Ah Hum
10. Self-Portrait In Three Colors from Mingus Ah Hum
11. Bird Calls from Mingus Ah Hum
12. Fables Of Faubus from Mingus Ah Hum
13. Pussy Cat Dues from Mingus Ah Hum
14. Jelly Roll from Mingus Ah Hum

In The Vernacular : John handy IIII (alto sax), Richard Williams (trumpet),

Roland Hanna (piano), George Tucker (bass), Roy Haynes (drums, except track 2),

Bobby Fuhlrodt (drums, track 2 only) Rec New York, late 1959.

Jazz: Handy (alto sax), Walter Bishop Jr. (piano), Julian T. Euell (bass),

Edgar Bateman (drums) Rec New York, 1962

No Coast Jazz : Handy (alto sax), Don Friedman (piano), Bill Lee (bass) Lex

Humphries (drums) Rec NYC, Summer 1960.

Mingus Ah Um , (One track, ‘Open Letter to Duke??on which Handy does not play ?has

been omitted: Handy (alto sax, 7,11-12; 14, clarinet, 13; tenor sax, 8), Shafi Hadi (alto sax, 7,11,14;

tenor sax, 8-10, 12-13), Booker Ervin (tenor sax), Jimmy Knepper (trombone, 7, 11-14), Willie

Dennis (trombone, 8-10), Horace Parlan (piano), Charles Mingus (bass) Dannie Richmond (drums)

Rec. NYC, May 5 7 12, 1959.


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