Review: Robert Fowler plays Gerry Mulligan

Along with a packed house, Gordon Jack is delighted by a fresh and different reading of the music of Gerry Mulligan from tenor sax player Robert Fowler

As a writer, Gerry Mulligan made a profound contribution to one of the most influential albums of post-war jazz – The Birth Of The Cool. Later as a soloist, he helped liberate the baritone from the relative obscurity of the saxophone section. In recent years, though, he has become a somewhat overlooked figure, making Robert Fowler’s decision to revisit the CJB repertoire all the more welcome.

Robert’s primary instrument is the tenor, which he plays with the swagger and swing of a latterday Al Cohn, but as he proved in the comfortable surroundings of the Watermill Jazz Club in Dorking, he is equally at home on the baritone. Most of the CJB charts inevitably have that instrument front and centre throughout and he handled his demanding role with the aplomb of an expert. (A good example of his fine baritone playing can be heard on his Flow CD – DDRCD014.)

I was fortunate to attend an afternoon’s rehearsal prior to Robert’s first appearance with his tribute band later that evening. His relaxed and collaborative approach created a stress-free atmosphere for his musicians, who were clearly enjoying themselves even though they were seeing the music for the first time. At a break for refreshments, I complimented Alan Barnes on the ensemble’s ability to sight-read such difficult charts. He shrugged and said “It’s what we do.” He was right of course, because Robert has assembled a band of seasoned professionals able to perform a chart correctly on first reading. Perfect results were achieved after a second run-through, which allowed the ensemble to interpret numerous dynamic markings.

An air of eager anticipation was apparent from a packed house as Robert counted the band into Gerry’s short theme – Utter Chaos – before launching into a hard-swinging examination of You Took Advantage of Me. For someone doubling on the instrument, he achieves a full, rich sound coupled with a melodic approach that sometimes calls Gil Mellé to mind. The band was packed with stellar soloists and everyone (except bass trombonist Sarah Williams) had a turn in the solo spotlight during the evening. Alan Barnes, who had the Gene Quill role (mostly on clarinet), had an inspired alto statement on Motel which also featured the impressive Steve Fishwick. Robert was particularly expressive on Harry Warren’s charming Sweet And Slow which benefited from some attractive writing for the woodwinds. Simon Allen had the Zoot Sims feature – Apple Core – pretty much all to himself. A Love Me Or Leave Me contrafact with a great sax solo and exciting stop-time section, Simon had one of the biggest audience reactions of the night for his inspired performance. Robert told me that if he can keep the band together, he would like to have Scott Hamilton guesting on Apple Core.

Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of Manoir De Mes Reves with its slowly moving harmonies was another highlight. Mulligan’s witty homage to Johnny Hodges – 18 Carrots For Rabbit – had some delicate alto from Mark Crooks and robust baritone from Karen Sharp. Bernie’s Tune was a surprise as it was never performed by the CJB although it is always associated with Mulligan. It is a Bill Holman chart rescued by Robert, complete with the patented Entry Of The Gladiators quote in the final middle eight. My Funny Valentine, which Gerry along with Chet Baker rescued from obscurity back in 1952, was a vehicle for the leader at his most lyrical. Big City Blues was book-ended by Barnes on clarinet leading to some fine Clark Terry-like plunger work from Bruce Adams. I Know Don’t Know How climaxed with a chorus of contrapuntal interplay between the leader and the excellent Mark Nightingale. The trombonist is particularly sympathetic to this device as he has often shown when performing with Andy Panayi’s pianoless quartet.

Special mention should be made of Iain Dixon and Adrian Fry for their accurate transcriptions of some very intricate arrangements. Adrian also had his solo moments on Black Nightgown, Motel and Go Home.

Hopefully Robert will be able to keep this band together because it definitely has something fresh and quite different to offer.

Photo by Gordon Sapsed

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