Dateline Los Angeles, 1952: Gerry Mulligan is playing baritone sax at a club called the Haig when a young, relatively unknown trumpet player from Oklahoma named Chet Baker starts sitting in on sessions. Because the grand piano has been moved from the club, the two musicians begin playing with only Bob Whitlock on bass and Chico Hamilton on drums, which frees them up to create complex, intertwining contrapuntal melodies and improvisations.
Baker and Mulligan have an almost telepathic rapport on the recorded sessions, which they would arguably never again replicate in their careers. Many of the compositions they recorded during this time were Mulligan’s own. On the composition “Bernie’s Tune,” trumpet and sax begin by playing a melody in harmonic thirds, delving into bouncy solos during the improvised sections. The two musicians feed off each other in a way that was spontaneous, but sounds composed.
Mulligan navigates the giant bari sax as though it were much smaller. The absence of a chordal instrument allows the listener to hear the contrast between the horns, and the rhythmic swing of the players is emphasized by Hamilton’s clean sound. Most of the well-known Mulligan quartet pieces recorded during this time have a similar structure; sax and trumpet play the melody together in harmony, and then plunge headlong into improvisations so clear and precise they sound pre-written.
Another famous piano-less quartet belonged to saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who took contrapuntal playing to the next level. Coleman recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959 with trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, and double bassist Charlie Haden. In contrast to the serendipitous formation of Mulligan’s piano-less ensemble, Coleman made a conscious decision to eliminate the piano, as he wanted to create “new melodies” that did not fit into predetermined chord structures. He also recorded the album with a plastic sax, which gave his sound kazoo-like edge.
At the time, Coleman was perceived as radical, though many of the pieces on the album are conventionally melodic, albeit with meandering, whirling solos. (Miles Davis once said Coleman was “all messed up inside,” though many musicians immediately regarded him as a genius.) Coleman and his trumpet player have a rapport similar to that of Mulligan and Baker. In the piece “Eventually,” Coleman at times sounds like he’s attempting to play every note that a saxophone can play, all at once, and Cherry echoes him.
Tonight, in Durham’s Page Auditorium, jazz lovers will get the chance to hear another chapter in the story of the piano-less quartet courtesy of the great drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and a star-studded supporting cast of bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. The orientation of the quartet around a drummer, rather than a melodic player, assures that this will be a bit different than any of Duke Performances’ other fine jazz offerings this season. The echo of Mulligan and Baker’s classic ensemble is par for course for these dynamic players, who incrementally push jazz forward while retaining a deep reverence for its history.
The Watts Project comes to Page Auditorium on Friday, April 1. For tickets and more information, consult the show’s Duke Performances page.