“Cherry Juice” (1976) Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra

“Cherry Juice”

Composed and arranged by Thad Jones.

Recorded by the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra for Horizon on January 10, 1976. 

Thad Jones, flugelhorn, directing: Al Porcino, first trumpet; Sinclair Acey, Waymon Reed, Cecil Bridgewater, trumpets; Billy Campbell, first trombone; Janice Robinson, John Mosca, trombones; Earl Campbell, bass trombone; Jerry Dodgion, first soprano saxophone; Eddie Xiques, second soprano saxophone; Frank Foster and Gregory Herbert, tenor saxophones; Pepper Adams, baritone saxophone; Walter Norris, piano; George Mraz, bass, Mel Lewis, drums.

The story: As those of you who follow this blog know, due to a wonderful set of circumstances (my kids live in Manhattan), I am able to visit New York City regularly. When I am there, I am constantly looking for buildings where jazz history was made. I have previously posted a story about Manhattan’s Brill Building here at swingandbeyond.com, and now provide some information about the Village Vanguard. Recently, I returned to the Vanguard on a Monday night after a hiatus of many years, to hear the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Here is a link to the Vanguard’s history: hhttps://www.villagevanguard.com/history  This little documentary does not delve into the jazz history that has played out in the basement of the red brick building at 178 Seventh Avenue, New York City. But it does provide insights into the spirit of the Vanguard’s founder and guiding light for decades, Max Gordon. I have always admired the attitude Max Gordon had about presenting talent, whether the public was ready to accept that talent or not. How he (and his widow Lorraine, since Max’s death in 1989), have been able to maintain a vital forum for talents large and small at the Vanguard for decades continues to amaze me. (Above left: In front of the Village Vanguard, May 1, 2017. Photo: Natalie Zirpolo.)

I will not go into detail about the many great jazz musicians who have been presented at the Vanguard over the years. But I will provide a summary of the history of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra:

1966-1978: Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra                                                    

Thad Jones, who was featured in the Count Basie Orchestra, and (then) Los Angeles based drummer Mel Lewis, who played with Stan Kenton Orchestra, started the band in 1966 with some of the top studio musicians in New York. The beautiful melodies and unique arrangements of Thad Jones enchanted the audience. The mixture of the music from diverse backgrounds created the innovative sound and the band was quickly recognized as a world class big band.

1978-1990: Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra
In 1978, Thad Jones moved to Europe, but the band continued as the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. In addition to the masterpieces by Thad, they actively employed new and original arrangements by Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely etc. Those new arrangements were complex and avant-garde, but the fundamental band color and swing was maintained. Their excellent artistry maintained their high reputation. (Above right: Thad, Max and Mel, in the luxurious “kitchen” of the Vanguard – late 1970s.)

1990-present: Vanguard Jazz Orchestra
After Mel Lewis passed in 1990 the band changed its name to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Their performances can be heard at New York’s famous jazz club, the Village Vanguard, every Monday night, where they continue to pay tribute to their founders Thad and Mel, while still debuting groundbreaking new works. At left: Yours truly descending the famous red staircase, May 1, 2017. Photo: Natalie Zirpolo.)

The Music:

“Cherry Juice,” also known as “Unsafe at Any Tempo,” is a superb example of cutting edge big band jazz, played with exquisite spirit and swing by the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. This recording shows what can be done by a band of virtuoso jazz musicians who are undaunted, but rather are inspired by this complex, brilliant arrangement, written by Thad Jones. In less skilled hands, this music would be impossible to play, much less be played at this level of joyous abandon. Thad’s dense harmonies and characteristic voicings, especially in the saxophones with their soprano lead, provide a stimulating framework for the jazz solos of Walter Norris on piano, Thad on flugelhorn, and his colleague from the late 1950s Count Basie band, Frank Foster, on tenor saxophone.

After an introduction played by the whole band, the saxophones lead the way into the tune proper with brass kicks that keep the reeds moving briskly. It is immediately apparent that Mel Lewis’s colorful, assertive drumming and George Mraz’s thrusting bass are propelling the various ensembles forward powerfully. This is a muscular band that plays nimbly. The next segment spots Thad’s fluent solo flugelhorn. Once again note Mel’s imaginative drumming, and Thad’s use (as arranger) of the various sections of the band to highlight his playing: these musicians are swinging! A glittering fanfare (led by first trumpeter Al Porcino), springs Frank Foster into his tenor sax solo. Here Mel backs Foster using his Chinese cymbal. Notice how Thad’s arrangement builds behind this solo. Foster responds with passion, and a climax is reached. The roaring ensemble keeps things hot during the next passage. Note lead trumpeter Al Porcino’s playing here, and throughout this performance. It is superb.

Then the flying saxophones, led by Jerry Dodgion on soprano, return once again, playfully prodded by the brass. A piano solo by Walter Norris allows the hornpeople (trombonist Janice Robinson is a woman), to breathe a bit, and leads to the explosive, building finish. As I recall, the high-note trumpet atop the roaring ensemble in the finale was played by Sinclair Acey. (Above left: tenor saxophonist Frank Foster.)

It is difficult to express in words what it is like to sit in front of a seventeen piece band when it is playing music like this. “Blown away” is probably the expression that comes closest to describing the feeling of the music vibrating inside of you. I have been lucky enough to have had that experience a few times. In fact, I actually heard the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra play “Cherry Juice” at the Village Vanguard. I am a most grateful.

The tradition of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra is alive and well, and is being continued by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Trombonist John Mosca, who participated in the recording of “Cherry Juice” 41 years ago, is now the leader of the band. And from what I heard this past Monday night, he and his cohorts are keeping the flame burning brightly.

P.S. Mel Lewis was known as “the tailor” throughout his career. My initial explorations into why he had this nickname led me to the conclusion that it was because he could fit in so well with any group he played with, from a trio to a seventeen piece big band. Very recently, I read another version of why Mel had this nickname, and for the life of me, I can’t recall where. This version was told by a musician who worked with both Mel and the great vibraharpist Terry Gibbs. This fellow explained that Terry hung the “tailor” moniker on Mel, not because of his adaptability as a drummer, but “because Mel walks just like my tailor.”

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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1 Comment

  1. Mel and Thad knew what they were doing, influencing the industry to present a big band on the usually dark night, MONDAY and when the talented musicians are free to play in the big band. And the full ensemble was among the best. I was fortunate to meet the warm proprietor of the Vanguard,
    Max Gordon, when I was able to hold my wedding there one afternoon. A great time, no doubt. And years later when Max had passed, I got to know his widow, Lorraine, who took over managing the Landmark. She was a neighbor of a family member and she came to my restaurant for lunch and loved our cat.
    I was annoyed at the talented Wynton Marsalis, who took over running the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and proceeded to fire most of the older musicians and hired his younger, inexperienced friends: not a mature act, for it is the interchange of style, ages, and histories which enriches our music, and Mel and Thad were the state of the art.
    I was lucky to see a live recording of the band after Thad had left, but Bob Brookmeyer was the arranger/director and the splendid Clark Terry was the guest soloist. It was such a thrill.

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