June 19, 2015


Pete Christlieb / Warne Marsh: Apogee

Tenor sax duos have long held an honored place in jazz.  Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt (egged on by Dizzy; see ATJ #7), Dexter Gordon and Wardell on "The Chase", Johnny Griffin and Lockjaw Davis, and countless jam sessions from New York to Kansas City to Los Angeles.  Often these encounters are described as "battles" or "cutting sessions" with the sense that the participants are combatants, striving to vanquish the competition.  And, often, that perception is correct.

Apogee features two great tenor men, Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh, going toe-to-toe, but this album is a conversation, not a brawl.  What makes this recording so interesting is the contrast in sounds and styles: Christlieb, an alumnus of the Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show band and the tenor soloist on pop hits such as Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues" and the Nat Cole/Natalie Cole "Unforgettable," is a musical extrovert, preaching to the audience with a propulsive, bluesy and rhythmic attack.  Marsh, a student of jazz iconoclast Lennie Tristano and frequent collaborator with alto player Lee Konitz, played with a more introverted and intellectual tone and style.  His solos often sound like the inner monologue of a person working through a problem in his head, with ideas flowing in eddys, switchbacks and lunges forward.  And if Pete's sound sound can be described as robust, like a big Napa Cabernet,  Warne's is as astringent as straight gin.  

Although this album is about as straight-ahead as jazz can get, it owes its existence to the leaders (and, in reality, only members of) Steely Dan, one of the most popular rock groups of the 1970's and '80's.  Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, two self-confessed music nerds and jazz fans, featured Christlieb on "Deacon Blues" (from their phenomenally successful Aja album, which also featured tenor heroes Wayne Shorter and Tom Scott) and decided to use their commercial muscle at Warner Music to release this Christlieb/Marsh pairing.  According to some on-line stories, the relationship did not go well.  Becker and Fagen were used to over-producing...to put it mildly...their recordings, while jazz guys like Pete, Warne and pianist Lou Levy, were used to a looser recording atmosphere and less control from the producers.  In fact, Christlieb later said that after the session in LA, Becker and Fagen took the tapes to New York for post-production, and Pete never heard anything until the album was released.  Certainly the sound on the album, especially the LP version, is more compressed and manipulated than a typical acoustic jazz record.  While Levy's piano does not quite have the Fender Rhodes sound of the electric keyboards used by Steely Dan, it doesn't quite sound like an acoustic grand piano either.  I'm not a fan of the overall sound of the album, but the over-dubbing towards the end of "Magna-tism" which gives the impression of 4 saxes playing is kind of cool and reminds me of  Supersax (ATJ #22), a group that Pete and Warne both played with on occasion.

All of the cuts here are worth repeated listening.  The opener,  "Magna-tism" (based on the chord changes of "Just Friends"), starts with the two saxes improvising together, without accompaniment, leading into the head.  This kind of open improvisation happens often throughout the record, and it is amazing how, at times, Marsh and Christlieb end up improvising in harmony.  Pete solos first, followed by Warne, so it is a good chance for you to get their respective sounds and styles in your ears.  "317 E 32nd" is a winding Tristano tune (based on the changes of  "Out of Nowhere").  Marsh opens with the head and solo, followed by Lou Levy and then Christlieb.  "Rapunzel" is Becker/Fagen's stab at writing a bebop/hard bop tune (based on the changes of Burt Bachrach's "Land of Make Believe"...a song I do not know)..  The head is ok, but they are better at rock hooks, and should leave this stuff to Benny Golson and Horace Silver. "Rapunzel" does feature a nice solo by bassist Jim Hughart.  (A note about the rhythm section here...although all 3, Levy, Hughart and drummer Nick Ceroli are all fine players...especially Levy...I don't think their playing here is up to the level of the sax players.  I've been listening to this album since it came out more than 35 years ago, and before writing this review, have never found myself rewinding to hear something from the piano, bass or drum.  Maybe it was their job here just to lay down the groove and to stay out of the way of Marsh and Christlieb, but a little more from the trio would have elevated this from a merely terrific album to an all-time great.)

"Donna Lee" is the cut that got me hooked on this record back in high school...Charlie Parker's re-working of "Indiana" is one of the great bebop anthems.  Here Pete and Warne play the head just a step off beat from each other, which seems incredibly complicated if you try to play or sing along with it, but comes off naturally, and breathes new life into the tune.  They then each play great, and totally in-character, solos, with Pete going first, all ballsy and hard-charging, then Warne, sly and snakey.  The LP ended with Pete swinging his way through the ballad "I'm Old Fashioned."  But the CD version contains 3 more excellent cuts, all of which are the equal of the primary 6 songs....I'm not sure whether this says more about the time limits of the 33 rpm or the tastes of Becker and Fagen.  The bonus track "How About You?" may be one of the best cuts of all.  A great tune with two great stylists playing their butts off.

As I was listening and preparing this post, it provided inspiration for 2 upcoming ATJ's: a review of Aja, which despite being one of the most critically-acclaimed rock albums of the '70's is filled with jazz and jazz influences; and a review of Gary Chen's "They Call Me Stein on Vine," the rollicking memoir of a Taiwenese immigrant who becomes an employee, and later the owner, of the iconic music store and gathering spot for jazz musicians in Los Angeles. Stay tuned.

Posted by at June 19, 2015 6:44 AM

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