Friday, January 3, 2014

Buddy DeFranco * (pol*y*tones) * 1963

For sheer jaw dropping virtuosity, chances are the Buddy DeFranco/Tommy Gumina quartet of the early 1960s is the greatest jazz group you've never heard. Other than a set of standards, Pacific Standard (Swingin') Time, their collected work has been left to languish, out of print. To my knowledge, the only way to hear the other four albums is to get a hold of the old vinyl--which I heartily recommend. 

The group was formed when DeFranco was on a west coast trip in 1959 and found himself without a pianist. When Tommy Gumina, an accordion player, was suggested, DeFranco was inclined to dismiss the idea out of hand--until he heard the virtuosic polychordal approach Gumina was developing. Marc Myers, over at JazzWax, interviewed Buddy back in 2011 about the founding of the quartet. In it, Myers delves into the attraction of polytonal and polychordal music to DeFranco, documenting the group's under-reported and under-appreciated contribution to jazz development in a tonal and harmonic sense.

Rarely mentioned and long out of print, 1963's (pol*y*tones) represents, according to DeFranco himself in the interview, the zenith of the Buddy DeFranco/Tommy Gumina Quartet. On the album, Gumina uses an accordio-organ, a sort of hybrid between a Hammond organ sound and accordion. He described it in the liner notes to the album:

The instrument is appropriately named, says Tommy, because you can play organ on it, accordion, or both. It reproduces the same 16 ft., 8 ft., and 4 ft. sounds that you get on a regular organ. The organ effects were developed with 200 transistors; the accordion sounds are produced with three sets of reeds for the right hand and six for the left.

"There's a foot pedal for volume, several degrees of vibrato and three different degrees of sustaining. But it looks just like a regular accordion."

The feats Gumina accomplished on the instrument were so extraordinary that Leonard Feather felt it necessary to mention the album was made without overdubs.

There are nine tunes on the album, a mix of standards, originals, and then-contemporary tunes. Track listing:

The Monkey (DeFranco/Gumina)
My Ship (Weill and Gershwin)
Gravy Waltz (Brown and Allen)
My Man's Gone Now (Gershwin and Heyward)
I Remember Bird (Feather)
Bus Driver in the Sky (DeFranco)
Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year (Loesser)
Nica's Dream (Silver)
When I Fall In Love (Heyman and Young)

Highlights for me are the Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now" and, for sheer intensity and flash, DeFranco's own "Bus Driver in the Sky." These tunes are remarkably compact, many under three minutes, and none longer than four and a half, yet almost like an aural illusion, they seem rather vast is scope.

These albums, if neglected since, undoubtedly made a significant impact upon contemporaneous jazz musicians. It's hard not to hear, in Gumina's angular brilliance, a significant keyboard forerunner to the synthesizer virtuosi of the next thirty years. Buddy doesn't seem to have worried about taking a more mellow role on the album--for a man who celebrated his role as a developer of technique, he often fills out the sound broadly, allowing his co-leader to take the spotlight. There are a tremendous number of brilliant time changes, and the rhythm section filled out by John Doling on bass and John Guerin on drums, are more than solid: they are often almost imperceptibly remarkable.

As with so many masterpieces of jazz clarinet history, this album really ought to be reissued. As DeFranco's favorite of the era, and as revolutionary as the group was, it is important to the history of jazz as a whole, rather than just as a curiosity for those who place clarinet or accordion. These gentlemen, up against a wall of zeitgeist that saw little place for their music at the time, created something permanent and timeless.

I had hoped to get this review written long ago, before the passing of Mr. Gumina in October of 2013--may he rest in peace, and perhaps even get to ride that bus in the sky.

Mr. DeFranco, if you are reading this post, thank you for the tremendous music you have made.

Five Good Reeds.


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