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Herb Geller

Four Classic Albums



Herb Geller Plays
1. Love Is Like A Turtle
2. Sweet Vinegar
3. Sleigh Ride
4. Silver Rain
5. Alone Together
6. Happy Go Lucky
7. Days I Never Knew
8. Domestic Harmony
9. Breaking Through The Sound Barrier
10. Kahagon
11. You Stepped Out Of A Dream
12. A Room With A View

Herb Geller (alto sax), Lorraine Geller (piano), Curtis Counce (bass, tracks 3-6, 9-12),

Leroy Vinnegar (bass, 1-2, 7-8) Eldridge Freeman (drums, tracks 1-2, 7-8). Lawrence

Marable (drums, 3-6, 9-12)

rec. Los Angeles, August 6, 9, & 24, 1954.

Herb Geller: Sextette
13. Outpost Incident
14. Crazy He Call Me
15. Gin For Fuguelhorns
16. Tardi At Zardi’s
17. Vone Mae
18. Rockin’ Chair
19. Owl Eyes
20. You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To

Herb Geller (alto sax), Lorraine Geller (piano), Conte Candoli (tpt) Mel ‘Ziggy’ Vines (tenor sax), Leroy Vinnegar (bass, tracks 15-17, 19) Red Mitchell (bass, 13-14) Eldridge Freeman (drums).

rec Los Angeles, August 19 & 22, 1955.

Herb Geller: Fire In The West
1. S’Pacific View
2. Jitterbug Waltz
3. The Fruit
4. Here’s What I’m Here For
5. Marable Eyes
6. An Air For An Heir
7. Melrose And Sam

Herb Geller (alto sax), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Harold Land (tenor sax), Lou Levy (piano),

Ray Brown (bass), Lawrence Marable (drums).

rec Los Angeles, March 14, 1957

Herb Geller & His All Stars : Play Selections from ‘Gypsy’
8. Everything’s Coming Up Roses
9. You’ll Never Get Away From Me
10. Together
11. Little Lamb
12. Some People
13. Mama’s Talkin’ Soft
14. Cow Song
15. Small World

Herb Geller (alto sax), Barbara Long (vocals), Thad Jones (trumpet), Billy Taylor (piano, tracks 9,11,14), Hank Jones (piano, 8,10,12-13,15), Scott La Faro (bass), Elvin Jones (drums)

rec New York City, June 9-120, 1959.

In a Preface he wrote for Howard Mandel’s 2008 book Miles-Ornette-Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz, Greg Tate tells the reader that “The late Andrew Hill observed that the difference between his generation and the current one was that today’s players came out of school with enough technique to play anybody’s music, but those of his generation developed technique in order to play their own music”. This distinction, as Hill apparently framed it operates in specifically ‘generational’ terms, but it is a distinction which has a wider application within jazz.

Herb Geller (1928-2013) when he first came to attention as a leader/soloist in the 1950s, certainly had “enough technique to play anybody’s music”. By then he had already worked in the very different big bands led by Claude Thornhill and Billy May (as well as working with Lucky Millinder); he went on to work with Benny Goodman and in the California studios. In California he also worked with figures such as Bill Holman, Maynard Ferguson, Marty Paich, Shorty Rogers and many others – he was, in short, much in demand as a technically reliable sideman able to play in a variety of styles. Later, early in the 1960s, after a Brazilian tour with Goodman, he headed for Europe. After a brief spell in Paris he settled in Berlin, working with the Radio Big Band in the American sector of the city. He went on to work as an arranger and performer with the NDR Big Band in Hamburg (for 25 years), in which city he spent the last years of his life. He also worked with big bands led by Peter Herbolzheimer and George Gruntz.

During these later years he made occasional small group recordings, but the period of his most intense activity as a leader of, and soloist in, small bands was between 1953 and 1959, i.e. more or less the years covered by four albums here reissued by Avid.

To return to the comments quoted at the beginning of this review, it is hard to say quite what Geller’s “own music” was at this stage of his career. One hears, inevitably, a Parker influence (stronger than in the work of many West Coast saxophonists) in places, but there are also reminiscences of Benny Carter and, to a lesser degree, Johnny Hodges. His ability to play in a variety of styles was, of course, one of the things that made him attractive to leaders of big bands, but it also militated, to some extent, against the development of Geller’s own individual voice. So, for example, the opening bars of ‘Love is Like A Turtle’ (a Geller tune) on Herb Geller Plays is very much Parker-coloured, while his plying on ‘Sleigh Ride’ (yes, it is Leroy Anderson’s composition!), on the same album, owes far more to Carter, and shows little bop influence. It is all highly competent, but lacking in what one might call personal coherence of voice and imagination. Add some Hodges-like touches on some of the ballads and the search (by us and by him) for Geller’s “own music” becomes more difficult still. If one Geller to his West Coast contemporaries amongst alto-saxophonists he doesn’t, one might say, have the identifying passion of Art Pepper or elegance of Bud Shank.

On both Herb Geller Plays and Sextette, the pianist is the former Lorraine Walsh, who married the saxophonist in 1951 and who sadly died, suddenly, in 1958 – not long after her thirtieth birthday. She, like her husband, wa a technically competent musician. But one has to say, that on this evidence, at least, she doesn’t have much to offer in the way of fire or passion. Indeed, the best of these four albums, in part because of the quality of the musicians playing alongside Geller, isFire in the West (which has also been re-issued as That Geller Feller). The presence of Dorham and Land (though Dorham isn’t on his very best form) alongside Geller ensures that there is plenty of ‘fire’ in the front line and the ever-reliable Lou Levy and Ray Brown, with the assistance of Lawrence Marable make up a formidable rhythm section. The band plays four numbers written by Geller, Waller’s ‘Jitterbug Waltz’, Bud Powell’s ‘The Fruit’ (too rarely played!), as well as Harold Arlen’s ‘Here's What I’m Here For’. The presence of such fine players as Dorham and Land seems to inspire Geller (rather than inhibit him, as it might have done) and this is a good place to introduce oneself to Geller’s early work. Geller takes an impressive and committed solo on ‘S’Pacific View’ and on ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ he seems to be finding ways of ‘using’ the lessons learned from Parker and Carter, rather than merely imitating those great masters. Levy, as one would expect, a highly proficient accompanist and a consistently interesting soloist. The whole album stimulates and satisfies – not least in the inventive arrangements, which were presumably the work of Geller.

The same cannot, unfortunately, be said of the selection of tunes from Gipsy, a 1959 musical by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. I’m not sure that most of the material is especially suited to jazz interpretation and Barbara Long (who has her admirers) doesn’t seem to me to bring much sense of jazz to her interpretation of the lyrics. There is, though, more jazz feeling elsewhere, even in the rather blustery solo Geller takes on ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’. Thad Jones, predictably, makes some valuable and interesting contributions in his usual unshowy fashion and both pianists are fluent and inventive. But the USP is the presence of Scott LaFaro and Elvin Jones as the driving force of the rhythm section. LaFaro is especially impressive, both in his sense of time and in his solo work.

On Sextette an unexpected presence is Philadelphian tenor sax player Mel ‘Ziggy’ Vines, very rarely recorded, but often spoken of with respect and even admiration by other musicians from Philadelphia. Apparently Vines was struggling at the time of this recording (why he was in California isn’t clear) and Geller had to find an instrument for him. Certainly, there is little in his performance here to explain why he was held in high regard. Incidentally, Avid’s personnel list for Sextette is incomplete. I have made the necessary additions above.

Geller’s later career produced a few albums on which one senses that his various influences (one might add Bud Shank and perhaps Paul Desmond to the names mentioned above) and his technical fluency were more fully integrated into a new and more ‘personal’ whole. If this sampling of Geller’s early work interests you, you might look out for his Birdland Stomp, recorded in 1990 (Fresh Sound FSR CD 174).

It is good that some of Geller’s work should be available on a collection such as this, though I cannot make a claim for him as anything more than an interesting minor figure.

Glyn Pursglove


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