Gimme Five: Chico Hamilton on Lester Young, Lena Horne, Gerry Mulligan, others

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On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to jazz drummer Chico Hamilton.

The 90-year old living legend talks about playing with Lester Young in the late 1940s, and takes us inside the initial meeting of the minds that became the legendary Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker quartet.

We also find out why Hamilton has always preferred showcasing guitarists – from Gabor Sbazo to Larry Coryell to John Pisano – rather than pianists in his own bands. And why he thinks Lena Horne, with whom Hamilton played for six years, should be in the conversation with legendary singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday …

“SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY,” with Lester Young (1946; COMPLETE ALADDIN RECORDINGS, 1995): A great example of how the post-war Lester Young retained much of the gently assertive, but strikingly agile tone that had made him the most important saxophone player after Coleman Hawkins — if only because he eschewed the latter’s brawny style of play. Dating back to his final days with the Count Basie band, Young was already edging into the cool sound that would eventually come to be called West Coast jazz — with Hamilton, a sideman on this mid-1940s date, as one of its main proponents. Young was just one of the many jazz legends that Hamilton appeared with before starting his own group in the mid-1950s, a hall of fame list that includes Lionel Hampton, Basie and Duke Ellington.

Chico Hamilton: I grew up at a very good time. That was the only kind of music around. There wasn’t any such thing as pop or rock. That was the only kind of music there was — swing. That was the environment. That was how I grew up. I didn’t know anything else. All of the young players at that time, we all came up the same way. That was the style of music.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Jazz legend Chico Hamilton talks about growing up in the swing era, seeing his music transformed by hip hop artists, and playing music just for the music’s sake.]

“STOMPING AT THE SAVOY,” with Euphoria (REVELATION, 2011): Hamilton’s new Revelation project with Euphoria includes only a few choice cover tunes like this one. That’s a tribute both to Hamilton’s roving creativity and the youthful experience of Euphoria, which includes Paul Ramsey on bass, Nick Demopoulos on guitar, Evan Schwam and Mayu Saeki on on saxes, flutes and piccolo; and Jeremy Carlstedt on drums and percussion. Still, the group proves itself to be both willing and able to reach back into the sound of Hamilton’s youth on “Stomping at the Savoy” which, with its shouted band vocals, recalls the old Jimmie Lunceford sound.

Hamilton: I was very impressed with him when I was kid out in LA. Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington and Count Basie — that was it. That completely changed my whole way thinking. Jimmie Lunceford was a pretty amazing man. He was a pilot, you know. He flew his own plane to engagements.

“AREN’T YOU GLAD YOU’RE YOU,” with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan (1952; DEEP IN A DREAM: ULTIMATE CHET BAKER COLLECTION, 2002): This group, which also featured bassist Bob Whitlock, formed in Hamilton’s living room early in the same year — and the legendary piano-less quartet was born. Soon, this became known as West Coast jazz, but right then, Hamilton said the goals were smaller: Trying to find a new sound. That was achieved, in part, by moving away from the keyboard’s essential chordal structure, but also by paring down the drum set. In leaving aside the bass and toms, Hamilton was able to imbue the songs with an almost translucent rhythmic quality.

Hamilton: Gerry phoned Chet, and when we got (bassist) Bob Whitlock that was it. I think it was just four guys in the right place at the right time. We were on the West Coast — and that’s how that came about. They called it West Coast jazz.

“THE MAN I LOVE,” LENA HORNE (1947; LENA HORNE SINGS THE MGM SINGLES, 2010): Hamilton developed his signature expressive playing style during a six-year stint between 1947-55 with the underrated Lena Horne, best known for her hit “Stormy Weather.” For Hamilton, who got to work so closely with Horne, there is a sense that she doesn’t get her due anymore as one of the important mid-century jazz performers.

Hamilton: She was one of the most unpredictable singers that I ever kept time for. You never knew what she was going to be doing next. She had such a tremendous sense of rhythm. She could sing her ass off, man! Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, they could phone any performance in. If they originally made a break on the third bar, they were going to sing the same thing over and over. Lena, you never knew what she do next.

“THE DEALER,” Chico Hamilton with Larry Coryell (THE DEALER, 1966): Three years before Larry Coryell’s initial project as a leader, he was featured as Gabor Szabo’s replacement here with Hamilton — who always had a penchant for showcasing guitarists, in part because it provides more space for his own improvisation. That’s continued through to his current working group, where Hamilton once again chose to feature the guitar rather than the piano.

Hamilton: I always had just the guitar, starting with Howard Roberts, myself and George Duvivier (in Hamilton’s mid-1950s trio). Back then, with all the piano players I knew, I didn’t like the way they played. I’ve always found the guitar to be a more melodic instrument. And I like the way it fit in with my instrument. Like most percussionists, I never thought about my instrument being just a drum. I wanted to do more with it, you know?

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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