Wed October 5, 2011
Unearthed Sessions From A Saxophonist Who Dropped Out
Nowadays, Gigi Gryce is not as well remembered as he might be, given his crafty composing and tart playing. He's one of a few alto saxophonists who came up with their own styles after absorbing Charlie Parker's fleet swing, unvarnished tone and knack for quoting other tunes while improvising. Gryce had plenty of ideas as a player and a writer, and he'd pack a lot of them into a short solo.
The live and studio sessions on Doin' the Gigi span 1957 to '61, and showcase Gryce as a swinging saxophonist, a writer of quirky melodies good for launching improvisations, and a promoter of catchy tunes that he published, written by his colleagues. There's also Gryce the arranger for punchy small groups. For one 1960 session, he wrote a few cleverly modernized takes on swing-era standards, but not so clever that they slowed the players down. Gryce worked with some great trumpeters, and his foil on most of these dates is spitfire Richard Williams, who threatens to play rings around everyone in "Take the 'A' Train." But Gryce's arrangement sets him up.
A new Gryce sampler honors a musician who vanished from the scene, as well as a vanished era when live jazz turned up on commercial radio and TV. There's a 1961 radio broadcast from Birdland, hosted by disc jockey Symphony Sid like it's still the '40s. The band gets to stretch out there. But in a 1957 segment on an early version of The Tonight Show, Gryce's quintet squeezes five pieces into 11 minutes. One breakneck blues clocks in under 1:20, and still finds room for solos by Gryce, Cecil Payne on baritone, pianist Duke Jordan and drummer Art Taylor.
Jazzers would be moaning soon enough about the British invasion killing the business, but Gigi Gryce dropped out before The Beatles landed. The music publishing business he ran to help musicians take control of their lives wreaked havoc on his, partly owing to friends' high expectations and the ill will it earned him in the record business. Gryce gave it all up, began using his Muslim name Basheer Quisim, and started a second career teaching music in New York schools; P.S. 53 in the Bronx is named for him. Like other artists who deserved better, Gigi Gryce hasn't really been forgotten, thanks to bands that play his music, biographers, discographers, collectors and plucky independent labels. Say this for jazz nostalgia: The community has a long memory for the good stuff.