Saturday, October 14, 2017

"Magna-Tism:" Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh in "Conversation"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“By far the most loyal and literal of the Tristano disciples, Warne Marsh sedulously avoided the 'jazz life', cleaving to an improvisatory philosophy that was almost chilling in its purity. Anthony Braxton called him the 'greatest vertical improviser' in the music, and a typical Marsh solo was discursive and rhythmically subtle, full of coded tonalities and oblique resolutions. He cultivated a glacial tone (somewhat derived from Lester Young) that splintered awkwardly in the higher register and which can be off-putting for listeners conditioned by Bird and Coltrane. Marsh's slightly dry, almost papery tone is instantly recognizable.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Influenced by Sonny Rollins and Zoot Sims, Christlieb plays with power even at the fastest tempos, yet his delivery of ballads invariably shows fine feeling; he is also a convincing interpreter of the blues. His proficiency on a number of reed and woodwind instruments and his strength as a tenor saxophone soloist explains his popularity with the leaders of studio bands.”
- Mark Gardner, Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

I’ve always been a great fan of two tenor saxophone front lines backed by a piano/guitar, bass and drums rhythm section.

This fondness dates back to the great “chases” between Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, to the duels between Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt and to the less fractious more melodic versions headed up by Zoot Sims and Al Cohn and by Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott.

If you were going out looking for two saxophonists who would play well together it’s a safe bet that you wouldn’t come up with the pairing of Warne Marsh and Pete Christlieb.  Marsh is one of the genuine mavericks of the tenor saxophone. He perfected his art under the influence of Lennie Tristano’s cool, rigorous discipline, but very early on he managed to develop a style of his own that was [and remains to this day] wholly unpredictable.

He will play double time, half-time and apparently out of time in the course of a single phrase; just when he seems to be lagging lethargically behind the beat, you blink your eyes and find him right on top of it.

Pete Christlieb, whose father is a concert classical bassoonist, now at work recording the complete works of Hindemith, is a big toned, technically awesome, straight-ahead swinger. He was a member of The Tonight Show Band for several years, and while those who have been lucky enough to hear him play small group Jazz have come away mightily impressed, it is unlikely that any of them came away thinking about pairing him with Warne Marsh.

Pete and Warne actually came up with the idea of playing together.

They made a recording of tenor duets, backed by bass and drums, that eventually found its way to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who are better known as the multi-platinum winning rock group Steely Dan. Again the combination is not the kind of thing that spontaneously comes easily to mind.

Fagen and Becker are adroit masters of traditional Jazz harmonies, and more than that, they are interested in and perhaps obsessed by the iconology of Jazz, They’ve written a song about Charlie Parker [“Parker’s Band”], rearranged Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle - Oo” for a rock band and pedal steel guitar and conducted a particularly knowing examination of what can only be termed the impulse of Jazz in their song “Deacon Blues.” That song features a tenor sax solo by Pete Christlieb.

And so, circuitously, but inevitably, we come to Apogee [Warner Brothers BSK 3236; CD version 8122-73723-2], the first Jazz album produced by Fagen and Becker, Christlieb’s first record on a major label, and Marsh’s first record on a major label in years, And, it should be added before we go any further, a spectacular record by anybody’s standards. For it turns out that the two principals make a spectacular team. Their very different styles offer a refreshing contrast, and they play together with impressive savvy, projecting a deceptive but extremely invigorating impression of total abandon. This is winging, exceptionally inventive Jazz of a kind that isn’t even found on obscure collector record labels very much anymore. Despite Fagen’s remark that the album is “basically for tenor freaks,” it’s got enough spirit to appeal to just about anybody.

It’s evident that a lot of care went into the making of Apogee. To begin with, the right rhythm section had to be found. Lou Levy, the pianist turned in an astonishing performance of Warne Marsh’s album All Music [Nessa Records]. His rich, deftly placed, chording frames the tenor solos brilliantly and his own improvisations are fresh and consistently inventive. Bassist Jim Hughart and drummer Nick Ceroli kick things along without getting in the way of the soloists. They are a living embodiment of that “good and forward propelling directionality” as Gunther Schuller once called swing, but not once are they overbearing about it.

The Warner Brothers LP version of Apogee was released in 1978 but tapes with more music from the September 15, 1978 sessions on which bassist Jim Hughart also served as recording engineer eventually found their way to Gerry Teekens who in 1991, released them as two CD’s on his Criss Cross Jazz label: Conversations with Warne: Pete Christlieb Quartet Vol. 1 [Criss 1043] and Conversations with Warne: Pete Christlieb Quartet Vol. 2 [Criss 1103].

The three discs contain 25 tracks of some of the most astonishing two tenor saxophone ever produced in the context of modern Jazz, especially for its harmonic content and approach which is what distinguishes Warne and Pete from previous tenor saxophone duos.

Yet, for all their harmonic density, a lightness of touch and agility shines through each of these performances which serves to demonstrate some rather capricious intelligence at work here.

Very few musicians have the talent and ability to create Jazz on this level: “Magna-tism,” indeed.


Pete Christlieb explains how it all came about in the following insert notes to
Conversations with Warne:

“During the 1970's in Los Angeles, I met Warne Marsh at a rehearsal with Clare Fischer's Big Band. The tenors sat together so we shook hands while Clare counted of Lenny's Pennies. Playing Tristano's line for the first time was like trying to change the fan belt on a car while it's running. We traded choruses and eights, which provided our formal introduction as I remember. Aware of Warne's reputation I was thrilled when he mentioned that one of his students had brought in my first album. I thought he was going to be critical about it, and rightfully so but to my surprise, he said that by analyzing the solos, he was able to teach with it.

After the rehearsal, we talked for awhile and he told me things about my playing I didn't know I was doing.

[Alto sax/flutist] Gary Foster was there when our meeting took place ten years ago, and just the other day he reminded me that I mistakenly addressed Warne a ‘Warno' during that conversation. We all knew a saxophone player by the name of Arno Marsh. Consequently, his great sense of humor kept me from looking even dumber. He asked for some extra copies of my album; and I told him this would be no problem because most of them were still in my garage.

Months later I received an invitation from my friend Jim Hughart to come by and listen to a trio recording session he was producing for Warne. Hearing this group with Jim on bass and Nick Ceroli on drums, I noticed that the absence of piano made Warne sound more abstract and complex white creating a melodically defined harmonic atmosphere.

Warne and Jim were creating enough of the harmonic image to make me realize that they actually didn't need piano. I asked Warne if he had any plans to add piano later and his reply swiftly nailed the question to the wall. 'I like to work this way because it gives me more freedom and avoids any harmonic conflict with an unfamiliar player. Do you realize that every time he puts his hands on the keyboard he's telling you what to do? Lenny was my piano player, and if I can't get him, I would just as soon work alone.' Then jokingly he added, 'Besides we're splitting his bread.'

Limping back to the booth, I began to ponder my first lesson about asking questions and during the next take, my ears told me everything I wanted to know anyway.

Playing together, this trio sounded as if they were controlled by one mind. Utilizing complete control of a seemingly endless source of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic options, Warne Marsh created, without sounding mechanical, and his music was an inspiration.

After the session, we listened to the tape several times, allowing Warne the opportunity to making a decision. He was very critical of himself and that decision was made after several hours of 'Well, I don't know, play the first one again.'

When they decided to end this incredibly artistic evening, I couldn't hide my feelings toward being left out. I asked Warne if he would consider making an
album with me. His reply to my question was 'Yes!’ We decided to use the same rhythm section and start a month later.

It is important to mention that all of the material for the trio album was improvised over the chord changes from standard tunes and our quartet album was planned the same way. I learned here that having this artistic freedom placed enormous responsibility upon all of us during take-offs and landings. Needless to say, we crashed a few before attaining that synchronization.


With high expectations, we began our first album by recording several tunes in a row without repeating. This helped to avoid boredom and the inevitable case of 'the claw.’

The intensity within our combined efforts drove us to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. As a result, none of us felt that Jazz history had been made that night, however we all agreed to the fact that something good was going to happen. Considering this first session as an opportunity for group familiarization and direction, we decided to quit for the night.

A few days later with fresh ears, Jim and I got together and listened to the tape. We then realized that our efforts had in fact measured up to those high expectations. Warne and I traded thoughts during improvisation throughout the entire session, making me believe that this was no fluke. I can attribute this uncanny rapport to the fact that we had mutual intentions for the creation of music, rather than ‘note-atomic war'.

Considering all of the great players Warne had worked with, it would be presumptuous of me to say that this was a first for him. To me, however, this meant that many of those records in my collection featuring two well known tenor players, now represented the sword fight in a pirate picture. These records did provide many hours of inspiration, and besides, it was a chance to get two great players for the price of one. Having this melodic form of conversation as another creative option, we made it a point to have Jim and Nick lay out periodically during our second session. At one point we began to improvise together in harmony and after hearing this back, we all got goose bumps.

Over the next few months, we were able to develop a telepathic relationship and our communication remained constant even during 180 MPH tempos.

While our working relationship grew stronger over these months so did my curiosity of his unique approach to improvising. One day he played something very melodic and dissonant at the same time while offsetting or displacing the phrase in double time feel. 'How did you do that?' I asked him. He said, 'You don't want to get involved, it will only confuse you.' He did however agree to write out a lesson plan for me to look at later.

The plan called for a phrase to be composed four bars long and memorized. You start the metronome at a reasonable tempo and begin playing your phrase an eighth of a beat later. Now start your phrase on the quarter and so on. Be sure to take plenty of change along with you to call home [when you get lost].

Designed to develop your mental dexterity, this exercise was set aside because it was, in fact, confusing to me at the time, I needed to be fluent and uninhibited.

Another option I learned from him, was to build on a phrase by imitating or inverting the previous one. Connecting them will improve your melodic flow and even more important, make you think.

There were many other things Warne did that became an influence on my playing as a result of our association, I am reminded of that fact every time I get the opportunity to play.

My influence on his playing, I feel, after listening to the tape was a combination of two things. His tone became brighter and my time feel persuaded him to play with more intensity. This subtle influence comes as an enormous compliment and those who knew him can tell you that Warne Marsh was a dedicated innovator.

Warne's early influences were probably the same great players we all listened to for inspiration, but he never let them dictate his thoughts. My tribute to this kind and dedicated man lies in the fact that Warne Marsh was to the Jazz tenor saxophone, truly an original.”

Forever his student,
Pete Christlieb

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