Composed by Marian McPartland; arranged by Jerry Dodgion.
Recorded by the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra for Philadelphia International Records in June of 1974 in Philadelphia.
Thad Jones, flugelhorn, directing: Jon Faddis, first trumpet; Jim Bossy, Steve Furtado and Cecil Bridgewater, trumpets; Jimmy Knepper, first trombone; Billy Campbell and Quentin “Butter” Jackson, trombones; Cliff Heather, bass trombone; Jerry Dodgion, first alto saxophone and flute; Ed Xiques, alto saxophone; Billy Harper and Ron Bridgewater, tenor saxophones; Park “Pepper” Adams, baritone saxophone; Roland Hanna, piano; George Mraz, bass; Mel Lewis, drums.
I recently received word of the death of Jerry Dodgion (1932-2023). Jerry was a wonderful lead alto saxophonist, but he was also a marvelous flutist and arranger. I became aware of those two aspects of his talent in the mid-1970s when I was fortunate enough to see and hear Jerry with the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. In preparing this post, I was required to do the normal research, but I also rewound the personal recollection recorder in my brain to that time and place. That is always an interesting exercise. (At right: Jerry Dodgion in 1974.)
In the mid-1970s, I was in my mid-twenties, about ten years into the odyssey that continues to the present, where I was discovering all kinds of incredible American music played by enormously talented musicians. New York has always been the epicenter of jazz, swing and American Popular Song. I resolved early in my life to go there periodically and seek out the music I liked. I stumbled about for a time, but gradually learned where the kind of music I liked could be found. Eventually, I discovered, among many other congenial venues, the Village Vanguard.
The story of the Village Vanguard and the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra can be found at the link at endnote (1).
It is always enlightening when the people who actually made the music comment on it. From their perspective as performers, they have insights that we as listeners might never have. Here are Thad and Mel’s thoughts on “Ambiance,” given to Evon Taylor, who was involved in the production of their 1974 LP entitled Potpourri, on which “Ambiance” appears: Mel: “Many peaceful and quite things are referred to as ‘she.’ Evon: “This thought seems to be reflected in ‘Ambiance.'” Thad: “Jerry Dodgion arranged this piece. It’s really beautiful. Jerry’s arrangements are like Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture.” Evon: “How’s that”? Thad: “Dodg stripped the melody bare and then he reconstructed it without changing the melody. And he made it turn and twist without being tortuous. He gave it a very permanent felling.” Mel: “Then he opened it up in the middle with that duet between himself and George Mraz. That is a hell of a duet, and a very difficult one….” Thad: It’s a phenomenal piece of music. Jerry’s love for the sound of horns is evident. He utilizes every possible instrument (in the band). And he puts them all in that happy range – the happy range of the horns and the happy range of the drums.”(2)
Further commentary on “Ambiance” was provided elsewhere in the liner notes for that LP by Ed Beach, who then hosted a radio show over WRVR-New York called “Just Jazz”: “Jerry Dodgion, flutist and lead altoist, is one of only two or three present members (of the band) that go back to its 1966 beginnings. (His chart on ‘Ambiance’) …is a handsome effort. (Pianist) Roland Hanna opens at the keyboard out of tempo, pretty and pensive. When he goes into tempo, we have not Marian’s breathlessly delicate waltz, but a lightly melancholy bossa nova ballad in 4/4. Jerry’s use of unisons here, reeds with his flute, then with muted trumpet added, is most pleasing. The rest of the ensemble adds its points here. Notice how (Dodgion) breaks-up the usual section-by-section voicings. …The in-tempo passage leads into a lovely, improvised duet, between Jerry’s flute and George Mraz’s bass. The bossa beat picks up again with the flute still commanding the view. Jerry, with rhythm, then adds the ensemble, choral-like, on top. There is some very subtle writing here metrically, and the way Dodgion handles the thirteen horns at his disposal (is impressive). Thad’s flugelhorn provides sharp and pungent commentary over this harmonic and rhythmic richness. Bravo Jerry!”
Impressions from the audience:
One of the thrilling aspects of hearing a big band live is to feel, up-close, the vibrations the music such a band makes. The pairing of the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra and the Village Vanguard was a felicitous one in this regard. Contributing greatly to this is the fact that the Vanguard is a relatively small performance space. The band members were on a small stage and close together. Much of the audience is literally right up against each other and the band.
The stage at the Village Vanguard. For jazz people, this is sacred ground.
When that band was in full cry at the Vanguard, I can attest to the fact that I felt their musical vibrations throughout my body. That is one type of thrill, which can be heightened on the occasions when the Seventh Avenue subway thunders along under the Vanguard.
But great musicians always understand that one of their best friends when they are performing in front of of an audience is contrast. In other words, after a blasting, swinging romp, when the band is roaring, the walls are bulging, and the subway is shaking the building, it is most effective to change the mood entirely, and play a quiet selection. (At left: I descend the steps into the Village Vanguard, subterranean shrine of jazz.)
”Ambiance” is a quiet selection, and a beautiful one. I first heard it performed by the Jones-Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard, and the experience was every bit as thrilling as anything I have ever experienced listening to music in that venue, or indeed anywhere. The words of Thad Jones summarize my impression of that Jerry Dodgion arrangement of Marion McPartland’s melody: It is a phenomenal piece of music, and it is done full justice by the superb performances of Jerry Dodgion and his colleagues.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
P.S. As one can see in the photos above of Thad, Mel, Jerry and George, they are all wearing an article of clothing called a dashiki. In fact on at least one occasion when I saw the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard in the late 1970s, the entire band, including Butter Jackson and Cliff Heather, both of whom were then around 70 years old, were wearing dashikis. If you want to know more about dashikis, check out this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dashiki
(1) Here is a link to information about the Village Vanguard and the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra:
(2) Liner notes for the Philadelphia International Thad Jones – Mel Lewis LP entitled Potpourri, KZ 33152, 1974.