Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Jeep's Blues

Sunday last, I finally acquired a copy of the long out-of-print The Complete Johnny Hodges 1951-55 on Mosaic Records.

When this box set crops up on one or another of the internet auction sites, it always attracts a lot of attention. Mosaics do, of course: Mosaic is the Rolls Royce of jazz re-issues and their limited print runs only contribute to the furore when a discontinued set is up for grabs.

The desirability of this particular anthology is also due to the fact, of course, that it is Johnny Hodges and the period it covers is those years when, it was thought, Hodges had abandoned the Duke Ellington Orchestra for good in order to forge a solo career.

Nicknames occasionally have an apposite cruelty bordering on the poetic. Hodges had two nick names – Rabbit and Jeep. Eugene the Jeep was a character in the syndicated Popeye cartoons. When asking what a Jeep was, Popeye was told

“A Jeep is an animal living in a three dimensional world-in this case our world- but really belonging to a fourth dimensional world. Here's what happened. A number of Jeep life cells were somehow forced through the dimensional barrier into our world. They combined at a favorable time with free life cells of the African Hooey Hound. The electrical vibrations of the Hooey Hound cell and the foreign cell were the same. They were kindred cells. In fact, all things are to some extent are relative, whether they be of this or some other world, now you see. The extremely favorable conditions of germination in Africa caused a fusion of these life cells. So the uniting of kindred cells caused a transmutation. The result, a mysterious strange animal.”

A creature from the fourth dimension, living in the third is a fairly apt way of describing the jazz musician and his preoccupation with keeping time. I don’t doubt the nick name was more a matter of physiognomy than physics: the hare-like set of Hodges eyes, the shape of his embouchure bore a startling resemblance to the family leporidae.

The recordings Hodges made under his own name in the early fifties are not, presently, in print in any form. Prior to pulling the trigger on this Mosaic set at auction, I had assembled all but the final year of his solo recordings (comprising, basically, the album Creamy) from various sources. The Spanish label Blue Moon issued all the recordings on three different volumes. They are still to be had on Amazon marketplace and so forth, from time to time, although the final volume in particular is elusive. Verve in Japan have also re-issued two of his albums from this period – Castle Rock and Used to be Duke - in those desirable Bonsai cardboard sleeve editions.

A big surprise to me, listening to these CDs however was the kind of music that Hodges made during these years. Ironically, in view of the Herculean efforts I have made to get hold of these recordings, I am less a fan of Hodges than other soloists in the Ellington band. Perhaps this is because he makes it all sound so easy: those seamless, sweet solos seem to be rolled out almost effortlessly like so much marzipan. Hodges work on alto makes a very interesting contrast to Paul Gonslaves in the reed section. I find Gonsalves’ work to be much more compelling, his serpentine solos sounding as though the tenor player is physically wresting every note from his horn as though he is attempting to wrestle a python to the ground.

There is very little of Hodges characteristic sugar rum cherry tone in these sides, however. Rather it is as though the new leader were trying to court the pop market – a fairly miserable place for a jazz man to be in the early fifties – Hodges, here, flirting with big band era ballads (Al Hibbler singing This Love of Mine) and rhythm and blues – perhaps under the influence of Al Sears.

What did Hodges make of it all? It is difficult to tell for his Buddha countenance was always so inscrutable. His attempted solo career catalogued in this Mosaic set lasted only four years and then he was back with Duke. Did he return to the Ellington fold with his cotton tail between his legs?

The question of why Hodges’ solo material was so at variance with the sound and style he pedalled with the Ellington Orchestra and how he felt about his return to that aggregation are covered in a fascinating article I ran to ground on the net by Jack Chambers for Coda magazine which you can read here.

And if you are attempting to compile a complete record of Hodges’ solo activities in the early fifties from parts – as I did – the complete discography for this period can be found here.

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