Johnny Hodges

1952-1954

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After spending 22 years as Duke Ellington's star alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges took a break from the Duke and led his own bands from 1951 to 1955, spending much of that time making excellent records for producer Norman Granz. This creative hiatus has been well-documented, most exhaustively by the Mosaic label's Complete Johnny Hodges Sessions 1951-1955. For those who didn't have a chance to flag down that particular anthology, volume four in the Classics Johnny Hodges chronology presents a potent portion of this fascinating chapter in musical history. These recordings were made immediately after the departure of tenor saxophonist Al Sears, who was headed for membership in BMI and a career in the music publishing business following the success of his R&B-infused opus Castle Rock. Like Sears, many of the players in Hodges' various ensembles were members or ex-members of the Ellington Orchestra. The most notable exceptions heard here are master percussionist J.C. Heard and trumpeter Emmett Berry, whose warm personality integrates well with the Ellingtonians, especially trombonist Lawrence Brown and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. On the final three tracks, recorded July 2, 1954, Berry is replaced by powerfully expressive Ellington trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker. This session should be treasured for the presence of pianist Call Cobbs, who was destined to make remarkably inspired music with Albert Ayler during the late '60s. A 27-year-old John Coltrane is at least technically present on a gutsy, growling, laid-back blues entitled "Sweet as Bear Meat." Trane's participation, however, is only barely perceptible, as he is allotted no solo space whatsoever, and plays a faintly supportive reed section role similar to that of Floyd "Horsecollar" Williams in the Hot Lips Page band of 1944. Given the nature of this tune, it's a pity that Trane wasn't invited to mingle his tone with the visceral currents of Hodges and Baker. One thing's for sure -- he was listening carefully! Subsequent developments prove that Trane was a devout listener. Take time to reflect upon the fact that this compilation closes with a recording of John Coltrane listening to Johnny Hodges while hardly making any sounds of his own.

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