Playboys CD, Original recording remastered, Import
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The bottom line: six original Jimmy Heath tunes orchestrated and executed beautifully by a three-horn front-line and supported by a state-of-the-art rhythm section (you just can't do better than pianist Carl Perkins and bassist Curtis Counce). The downside: the necessary reduction of solo space, especially for Perkins' inimitable but under-recorded piano, and a sense of sameness in the arrangements.
Ignore the pin-up photo and the title. This is challenging music, despite Chet's reputation as a "natural," who never bothered to practice and took pride in being unable to read music. (Certainly the picture of Chet "reading" music on the preceding edition--"A Picture of Heath"--albeit in a seated position--belies much received wisdom about his musical illiteracy.) Moreover, Chet and Pepper--two of the most identifiable and expressive voices in jazz--sound like "merely" proficient players on this occasion. Chet employs an uncharacteristically extrovertish, brassy sound, and Art negotiates chord changes as he did in the Kenton big band. The album at least reveals the scarce-recorded Phil Urso to have been a player capable of rising to practically the same level as his two celebrated peers. Of the tunes, Heath's "For Minors Only" is the only one that caught on as a jazz standard.
Musically, this could have been a five-star session with the subtraction of one, possibly even two, of the horn players. I'd love to see Chet's horn being placed to the fire, bringing some earnest sweat to his brow, and this is a rhythm section made for the part.
Of almost as much interest as the music is the story of the album itself. As Jimmy Heath has stated in interviews and in a recent autobiography, all of the tunes were smuggled out of prison by Jimmy (who at this time was known as "Little Bird" among musicians). Initially the pictured album was issued as an LP with a "sexy" cover and the title "Playboys," and only the names of Chet Baker and Art Pepper appearing on the cover. Hugh Hefner's estate refused to give the necessary permissions, and so the album never saw release. Instead it was issued in a CD format, as "A Picture of Heath," in the 1990s. Then only recently in the present millennium the album was again released, this time as originally intended: "Playboys," under the co-leadership of Baker and Pepper.
Finally, there's no small amount of irony that this tribute to Jimmy Heath (a masterful musical comrade imprisoned on drug charges) would come from four ill-starred musicians who left us 30 to 50 years ago while Jimmy is still going strong in 2013. Four of the six musicians producing a "Picture of Heath" were themselves apparently anything but a "picture of health," physically or mentally. (The fifth, the under-sung Phil Urso, passed away just several years ago in the present millennium.)
[2nd Time Around: After the first track, the tunes and sequence of solos begin to sound the same, reminding me of small ensemble workshops I took as a student at Berklee. It appears the group was highly sympathetic toward Jimmy Heath, who wrote the arrangements of his old tunes while doing time on a controversial drug charge. Certainly one or two of the arrangements merit a place on the album, but six of them is at least 4 to many. The picture of a bored Chet Baker on the original cover says a lot. What annoys me as a listener is the "formulaic" pattern of the solos--1 or 2 choruses of improvising by each of the horns, than a single chorus forl members of the rhythm section. Besides too many similar Heath compositions/arrangements, there's at least one horn too many. Any single member of the frontline could have had a ball, especially with this rhythm section, while conveying the same free and joyous spirit to the listener.
The rhythm section is 2/3 of the best powerplant in West Coast jazz. Only Chambers, Philly Joe, and Red could equal it. Counce has a bouyant and more "forward" pusle than, say, Percy Heath, who's a solid, middle-of-the-groove, player. Counce keeps the pulse "alive" (there are recorded moments when Paul Chambers "lets up," taking Jimmy Cobb right with him). Moreover, all of Curtis" solos are "walking bass" choruses in which he plays the most beautiful lines, with inventive harmonic intervals, of any "walker" (including Mingus) of the period. As for the pianist, Carl Perkins' playing is so creative and unique--I describe it as an amalgamation of the styles of Errol Garner and Bud Powell--that limiting him to no more than a single chorus on every single tune is a shameful, thoughtless waste. As for the missing 3rd man, drummer Frank Butler couldn't make the session. Larance Marable fills in for him very ably. And it's probably just as well. Had Butler been on hand, the disappointment of the final result would have been even more disappointing. But you can learrn from a session such as this. Simply pick up the first glorious album by the Curtis Counce Group--"Landslide." The music is tight yet free, with each player determined to excell individually while working toward a collective result that represents some of the very best jazz ever recorded on the West Coast. Harold Land was almost the eequal of his former frontline partner, Clifford Brown, and Jack Sheldon's playing--personal, burning, vibrant, indescribably soulful--makes Chet's contributions on the present session sound all the more limpid and lame. My personal collection is now well into the thousands of albums (over 100 by Sonny Stitt alone). If I had to reduce it to a mere 10 albums, one of them would be Vol. 1-Landslide.