The Al Cohn Quintet

In writings about jazz, two presumptions stand out to claim the sore thumbs award. One is that history repeats itself, the other is that the best jazz is slowly losing its identity and being swallowed up in art music. Apart from providing good entertainment and rewarding listening, these numbers by the Al Cohn Quintet, with Bob Brookmeyer, help to dissipate such notions. They are traditional and modern. They can be danced to or listened to. A variety of moods are presented, from bumptious humor to ballad-blown sentiment, unified in a forceful style characterized by driving rhythms and suspense in swing—the element of surprise that Al Cohn blandly calls a striving for “originality with logic.”

As the cool front in jazz succumbs to climatic influences of the environment, frigid, sometimes frost-bitten sounds give way to blowing that varies from lukewarm to hot, though in the lexicon of some fans (and even some musicians) the latter term implies a subjectively emotional creative license. This would seem a misuse of the word. Certain of Louis Armstrong’s choruses of 1927-28, for example, are as objective as one would want, and too hot for any other trumpet man to handle. So much for terms. In this lead-off set of Coral’s Quintet series, featuring al Cohn and Bob Brookmeyer—each of whom contributes three originals and six arrangements0—there is an awareness of tradition and a sureness of style linking these men and this group to Louis, Pres, Count Basie and others, and any narrow application of terms becomes meaningless.

Modern jazz, if it is to deserve the name, does not base its claim to musical distinction on scalar-harmonic affinity to Debussy or even to the more avant garde composers, but on a freshness of treatment in interpreting and adding to discoveries in jazz itself. And jazz begins with swing, a subtle sense that involves the unceasing presence of a non-notable rhythmic and tonal distortion. Technical pre-conditions to swing may, of course, be written—as in Fletcher’s arrangements for Goodman.) “Neither bob nor I try to be different for the sake of being different,” Al insisted, and in this he spoke the simple truth. These men have a dynamic approach to jazz, of whatever period or style, that is reflected in a remark made by Brookmeyer, in an interview with Leonard Feather (Down Beat, 9/7/55): “Count Basie was my only influence—not Basie on piano but the general feel, the spark generated by the orchestra.” That’s a whole lot of tradition, wrapped up in one band!

In his use of harmonic and rhythmic devices (in writing for instruments,) Al remarked that he didn’t necessarily go by the book, which might be said of Bob as well. Both have technical training but in jazz, as in other of the arts, lessons most worth learning are often extra-curricular. Born in Kansas City, Bob got his first horn in 1948. “That was the year Gerry Mulligan and Kai Winding came to town with a combo;” he recalled (ibid) “Kai was very kind, very encouraging.” He played piano with bands led by Beneke, McKinley and Louis Prima; with Thornhill he shifted to 2nd piano and trombone and somewhat later played trombone for a few weeks with Woody Herman. There was a frustrating interval on the West Coast playing with groups that assayed a type of music that seemed to him at times more dead than dead-pan. (That there were other types of jazz on the Coast goes without saying; it was his luck to run into what was, for his endeavor, a mess of musical smog.) In New York, as he explained in the interview quoted, “There are plenty of wonderful musicians to work with, starting with Al Cohn and all the way down the line. I’m really very happy.”
Al Cohn played in and sometimes arrange for the Erasmus High School Band in his native Brooklyn, N.Y. He studied clarinet and piano but never studies tenor sax. Though he did not take special course in orchestration his grasp of musical theory prepared him for work in this field, from stints for radio shows to big-band arrangements for Georgie Auld and Woody Herman. He was with bands led by Joe Marsala and Georgie Auld, both well known for their reed work. Among favorite tenors he lists Zoot Sims, Sonny Stitt, and, of course, Lester Young. His own style is extremely adaptable, a swinging style as expressive in a powerhouse attack as in delineating the lyric line of a ballad.
Having a mutual respect for good jazz, of whatever school or era, a knowledge of and appreciation for craftsmanship in playing and in arranging, and a creative sense of swing, Al and Bob hit it off musically from the first jam session they played together. It is gratifying to be able to say of a five-piece outfit—other men have featured spots but these notes concentrate on Cohn and Brookmeyer—that it has exhilarating drive and swing. Not on every piece, of course, but on the ones where you’d expect it, if a big band was on the job.
The arrangements, admittedly subordinate to performance according to Al Cohn, nevertheless deserve mention. In the use of unusual harmonies, chord changes and, occasionally, a breaking up of the 4/4 rhythmic pattern, and particularly in a freshness of phrasing in background licks and so forth that avoids cliché, the writing appears to this listener more than casual. Details that might otherwise go unnoticed, contribute structurally and hold new sounds for tired ears. In treatment of ballads (which are so often presented as schmaltz with window dressing) latent musical values are assessed in thoughtful writing that blends unobtrusively with choruses. The latter, Al pointed out, were the big thing. Yet the backgrounds contribute to the realization of form that also distinguishes the best choruses. They give breadth and depth to the composition of each performance, the focal points of which are the solos since, to quote Al Cohn, “The most important thing on this job was blowing.”
The following are brief comments that spell out one listener’s reaction. In this venture in personal expression in jazz, Al and Bob had excellent support, as you’ll note in listening, from Mose Allison, piano; Nick Stabulas, drums; and Ted Kotick, bass.

Charles Edward Smith
The Lady is a Tramp
Good SpiritsListen!
A Blues Serenade
Lazy Man StompListen!
Ill Wind (You're Blowin' Me No Good)
Chloe (Song of the Swamp)
Back to Back
So Far So Good
I Should Care
Bunny HunchListen!

Bob Brookmeyer, valve trombone
Al Cohn, tenor saxophone
Mose Allison, piano
Ted Kotic, bass
Nick Stabulas, drums