By Sanford Josephson
Shortly after Gerry Mulligan died in January 1996, Los Angeles Times writer Don Heckman wrote that Mulligan, “appears to have been taken for granted by the jazz world.” The reason, he said, was because of his “versatility. Soloist, bandleader, composer, arranger, and songwriter, he touched all the important musical bases, inspiring other musicians from the beginning.”
On Sunday, October 27, at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts in Toms River, NJ, the Gerry Mulligan Tribute Quintet — four of whose members played or recorded with Mulligan — successfully covered all of those bases. The quintet performed Mulligan compositions such as “Rocker”, “Line for Lyons”, “Festive Minor”, “Song for Strayhorn”, “Noblesse”, and “Walkin’ Shoes”. They also highlighted songs written by others that are associated with Mulligan — Bernie Miller’s “Bernie’s Tune” — which “we played every night,” said drummer Ron Vincent — and George Wallington’s “Godchild”, one of six tunes arranged by Mulligan (he wrote three of them) for the historic Capitol Records Birth of the Cool album.
Heckman also wrote that Mulligan’s sound on the baritone saxophone was, “immediately recognizable, a rich, warm inviting timbre. Smooth and flowing in ballads, overflowing with energy and vigor in up-tempo, it was a sound that spoke, always irresistibly, in the dialect of the urgent, propulsive swing that is at the heart of jazz.” At the Grunin concert, baritone saxophonist Jay Brandford — the only member of the quintet who did not perform or record with Mulligan — did a masterful job of transmitting the Mulligan spirit without trying to imitate him, particularly on “Festive Minor” and “Noblesse”. The latter was dedicated to bandleader Ray Noble. Mulligan, bassist Dean Johnson pointed out, “liked to dedicate songs to people he respected.” Other examples at the concert were “Theme to Jobim”, dedicated to Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, and “Song for Strayhorn”, in honor of Billy Strayhorn.
Johnson and Vincent were members of Mulligan’s last quartet. Pianist Bill Mays played with Mulligan in the ’80s, and flugelhornist Marvin Stamm performed on Mulligan’s 1990 GRP Records album, Little Big Horn. Mays explained that he was initially apprehensive of playing with Mulligan because of the baritone saxophonist’s success with a pianoless quartet and concert jazz band. “I learned to be more concise,” he said, “and I learned the mechanics of how to lead a band and how to structure a set.”
After the band played “Godchild”, Vincent recalled Mulligan’s 1992 GRP Records Re-Birth of the Cool album that he and Johnson performed on, along with such jazz legends as pianist John Lewis, alto saxophonist Phil Woods, and the original Birth of the Cool tuba player, Bill Barber. Vincent once told me that, “As time goes by and I listen to more older music, I realize just how incredible he [Mulligan] was.” The crowd, which gave the quintet a standing ovation, clearly agreed. As Dave Marowitz, Professor of Jazz Studies at Ocean County College, commented afterwards, “This concert was over the top.”
The New Jersey Jazz Society is a proud media sponsor of the Grunin Center’s JAZZ on a SUNDAY afternoon concert series. On December 1, Swingadelic will present a tribute to Fats Domin