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THE BEST OF TEO MACERO
(Stash ST-CD-527) 
Teo Macero is a name familiar to most students and fans of jazz, if only because they have any number of Miles Davis' Columbia albums with "Produced by Teo Macero" credits. Indeed, starting at a point near the end of the fifties, that production credit line can be found on a lot of Columbia jazz albums -- including some of Charles Mingus' most important -- replacing that of Columbia's George Avakian.
Avakian was responsible for this, having first brought Macero to Columbia in 1955 to create one half of the LP, WHAT'S NEW? Macero, a student at Juilliard and a jazz saxophonist, was a major contributor to the New York City avant garde jazz scene in the early and mid-fifties. A compatriot of Charles Mingus, he was an important part of Mingus's Jazz Composers Workshop, which made two important albums in 1954 and 1955, JAZZICAL MOODS (two Period 10" LPs; Bethlehem and Jazztone 12" LPs; Fantasy Original Jazz Classics CD) and JAZZ COMPOSERS WORKSHOP (Savoy LP and CD) respectively. (JAZZICAL MOODS has been issued by many labels under many names, including JAZZ EXPERIMENTS OF CHARLES MINGUS and ABSTRACTIONS; ironically, the latter title is drawn from Macero's one compositional contribution. Many of these LP reissues lack one or more of the original seven tracks.) Macero would also make TEO with Teddy Charles and the Prestige Jazz Quartet in 1957 (see my review elsewhere in these pages).
But Macero's first album as a leader was recorded on December 5, 1953 for Charles Mingus and Max Roach's Debut label. It was the 10" LP, EXPLORATIONS (DLP-6). Macero plays tenor and alto saxophones and is joined by Lanny DiJay (Orlando DiGirolamo) on accordion, both Mingus and Lou Labella on basses, and Ed Shaughnessy on drums. The album is interesting for a variety of reasons, not least among them the use of an accordion. The accordion is a reed instrument (a giant harmonica, really) blown by bellows rather than human breath, and although it is usually the provenance of polka bands, Laurence Welk, and bad jokes, it is simply another musical instrument and is quite capable of playing jazz, as DiJay ably demonstrates. Indeed, an accordion's sonorities can blend well with those of a saxophone.
The music on EXPLORATIONS is "experimental" and poly/atonal in spots and never more so than on the title track, "Explorations," a twelve-tone piece performed entirely by Macero with overdubbed saxes -- three tenor lines and two alto lines -- and an extension of "How Low The Earth," the polytonal composition which preceded it. Despite the experimentalism there is a strong jazz/boppish feel to the music overall.
George Avakian heard EXPLORATIONS and decided to commission Macero to write and produce the first side of a Columbia LP, WHAT'S NEW? (The second side was commissioned from Bob Prince, and while very different in nature from Macero's side it was no less important, and led directly to a commission for ballets from Jerome Robbins.) In many respects Macero's WHAT'S NEW? recordings remain the high point of his career.
In his original notes for WHAT'S NEW?, Macero wrote: "'Neally' [the first
track] is a composite of all the techniques used in this album. ... The following are some
of the devices used...:
"1. The use of counterpoint (note against note) or polyphony (many melodies heard or played at the same time). ...
"2. Atonal in certain sections (in other words no clearly defined key center).
"3. Polymetric (many cross-rhythms heard simultaneously).
"4. Shifting bar lines 4/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/4, etc.
"5. A freely improvised section by all members of the group. ...
"6. 'A counterpoint of tempos' (several different tempos heard simultaneously)."
And that was just for the first track! The group Macero put together for this recording is basically his EXPLORATIONS group, somewhat augmented, and minus Mingus -- but including Lanny DiJay on accordion. Art Farmer is added on trumpet (Farmer was invaluable for many of the experiental jazz composition sessions of the fifties), Eddie Bert on trombone, John LaPorta on alto sax and George Barrow on baritone sax. Wendell Marshall takes over bass. Most of the musicians also played in various Mingus jazz workshops in the same period. One track, "T.C.'s Groove," is dedicated to Teddy Charles: "I wrote this piece with vibist Teddy Charles in mind, since Teddy is always talking of counterpoint, modal scales with harmonic flux, jazz improvisation by more than one member of a group, and the like."
But the climax to the side and the most startling (to this day!) of the six compositions is "Sounds of May," a piece which has subsequently been used in the 1969 film, "End of the Road." For 1955 this experiment with tape recording was revolutionary. Macero used techniques pioneered by Les Paul and by Luening & Ussachevsky to speed and slow tapes, and used piano overtones harmonically evoked by his tenor sax. "'Sounds of May' is an experiment on my part to see what could be done with combining many Palestrina-like vocal lines, overtones of the piano, jazz ensembles (both small and large), changing the speed of the original tape (regular to half-speed, and then combining the half-speed copy with the original track), and finally overdubbing a single alto saxophone line to most of the composition." It is particularly effective when the half-speed track is joined, half-way through, by the same track at normal speed, creating a polyphonic cannon that ends up on the same note, an octave apart. But that is only one section of a multisectional piece, all of which is satisfyingly effective.
In May, 1959, Macero contributed two tracks to the Columbia LP, SOMETHING NEW, SOMETHING BLUE -- an arranger/composer's album featuring Macero and Manny Albam (who was over his head in this company), Teddy Charles and Bill Russo. Each was asked to arrange a classic blues and contribute a new composition. Macero did a nice arrangement of "St. Louis Blues" and wrote "Blues for Amy."
In 1962 John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, Harold Farberman and others put together the Orchestra U.S.A. to play "third stream" compositions. This Orchestra made several albums, the first for Colpix and the next two for Columbia. The Columbia albums were produced by Macero, and he contributed "Pressure" to the Orchestra's SONORITIES album in 1965.
In 1978 Macero began work on his second (!) album, released in 1979 on Finnadar, a subsidiary of Atlantic/WEA. TIME PLUS SEVEN (SR 9024) did not represent any new recordings by Macero, but released for the first first time his 1963 recording of the title suite, "Seven," "Equals," "Time," and "Plus." "This composition was commissioned by the Rebecca Harkness Dance Company, then directed by Robert Joffrey. 'Time Plus Seven' was choreographed by Anna Sokolow in 1963. ... Anyway, here it is, World Premiere 'Time Plus Seven' recorded at CBS's 30th Street Studio in New York, 1963. Fred Plaut was the engineer. I was the conductor. I wish I could find the contract which listed the personnel, but can't. To the great musicians who recorded this composition, my apology for not listing them and my everlasting gratitude for giving me a great performance." The piece is starkly atonal, and not unlike the much shorter "Pressure," written for Orchestra U.S.A two years later. Thus it is hardly coincidental that side one of this LP is finished off with that recording of "Pressure." Side two of this LP reissues Macero's side one of WHAT'S NEW?, bringing it back into print on LP after fourteen years.
That covers most (but not quite all) of Macero's recorded history, especially as a leader performing his own compositions. And most of this has been collected on the Stash CD, THE BEST OF TEO MACERO. This 1990 reissue is a mixed bag, however. It has been rather curiously compiled, and without enough thought. Its packaging is surpassingly ugly, and it is insufficiently annotated. The CD has 22 tracks and runs just shy of 77 minutes long. As such, it is a treasure. But....
The CD is not compiled chronologically, although that would make the most sense and allow us to follow Macero's musical evolution. Instead the Finnadar album (of which Macero said, "I've been waiting a long time for this record to happen") has been used as a starting point, its sides reversed. So the CD opens with the WHAT'S NEW side, followed by "Time Plus Seven" and "Pressure." (Clark Terry is credited with the trumpet leads in "Time.") Then -- twelve tracks in -- we go back to 1953 and EXPLORATIONS for the next five tracks. But wait a minute! EXPLORATIONS had six tracks! One, accordionist DiJay's arrangement of "Yesterdays," is missing. Okay, it's not a Macero composition or arrangement, but he plays on it and he liked it well enough originally to include it on a short LP. But, worse, its exclusion here means it is permanently out of print. As is noted in Stash's skimpy notes, "Tracks 12-16 were first issued on a Debut 10-inch LP, however they were originally produced by Mr. Macero and had been licensed only temporarily to Debut Records (and constitute the only 'Debut' session not included on Fantasy Records' current 12-CD set of [CHARLES MINGUS'] THE COMPLETE DEBUT SESSIONS)." In other words, this is it -- the only material from EXPLORATIONS to be restored to availability. That is unfortunate. But as if to make up for it, the next track on the CD is "Thou Swell," a contemporaneous piece by a nearly identical group (Mingus and LaBella are out, John LaPorta on alto and Wendell Marshall on bass are in; DiJay remains on accordion), the origins of which are not credited -- the origins of very few of these pieces on this CD are, except by inference -- and which I have not tracked down.
The remainder of the CD is a kind of catchall of odd bits. Track 18, "Un Poco Diablo," which runs under a minute, and track 21, "Bedroom," which is less than two minutes in length, have no personnel credits and appear to be performed by a rock band using organ and guitar. Tracks 19 ("Am I/Are You") and 22 ("Out of Loneliness") are Lee Konitz (alto sax) solos over strings "directed by" Macero -- not unlike Stan Getz's solos over strings on the Eddie Sauter-composed FOCUS. And track 20 is "Blues for Amy." ("St. Louis Blues" from that same session was omitted. It should have been used in place of the organ/guitar tracks or one of the Konitz pieces, all of which it is superior to.)
As mentioned, the CD is badly annotated. The track credits give personnel (where known) but not recording dates or the original albums on which this material was first released. Beyond that, there are essays by George Avakian and Bill Coss. The Avakian notes (which give the context for the WHAT'S NEW? sessions) are reprinted directly from the Finnadar album, TIME PLUS SEVEN (without credit). The Coss essay is a portion of his 1953 notes for EXPLORATIONS -- minus his detailed commentary on each track, and (oddly) edited so that "one last thought is necessary before the listener sets his needle to the mile of grooves hereon" becomes "...before the listener starts this disc spinning and the laser beam starts digging those digits." That change was not an improvement and might mislead a reader into believing Coss's piece was far more recently written. (The credit line, "Assistant Editor, METRONOME," gives it away, though. By the mid-fifties Bill was METRONOME's editor and he was my editor when I joined its staff in 1959. He was a good man and I wonder what has become of him.)
The music on this CD is of major importance to anyone who cares about the jazz experiments of the fifties. It ties in to the similar work by Mingus, Schuller, Charles and others in that era , and it remains surprisingly fresh and exciting today. EXPLORATIONS and WHAT'S NEW were seminal recordings and important to have on CD. "Time Plus Seven" and "Pressure" are more abstract and less directly jazz -- having more in common with Schuller's third stream compositions -- and are perhaps less accessible. "Blues for Amy" is fun. The rest is icing on the cake. There is over an hour of important music here. One could just wish for a bit more care in the packaging and presentation on Stash's part.
UPDATE: Teo Macero read the above review and responds:
Dear Dr. Progresso,
You reviewed several of my records on your website. I must say that I thought you did a pretty good job. However, the one track that I did not include and the arrangement by Lanny DeJay, was because I didn't have a good copy. Im still trying to clean up that one track and will someday put it out.
I must agree with you about the cover I thought it was horrible, but that is Stash Records.
I have since released THE BEST OF TEO MACERO on my own label. I'm not too fond of the cover here either, but it suited its purpose. This album is part of a nine CD release dating back to October 1999. If you like, you can check my website, Teorecords.com and Cybertunes.org.
Im planning to release St. Louis Blues on one of my next releases.
The nine CDs are: FOR A DREAM, BUMPS IN THE ROAD, DARK STAR, THE SPIRIT, IMPRESSIONS OF CHARLES MINGUS, THE BEST OF TEO MACERO, JAMBOREE, FUSION: FEATURING THE LOUNGE LIZARDS, and a SAMPLER, all available on Teos website for $11.99 each, a very reasonable price indeed. He adds that three new albums have just been released: SAX FIFTH AVENUE, IMPRESSIONS OF MILES DAVIS, and IMPRESSIONS OF DUKE ELLINGTON. Look for reviews of them here.
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