Pete Christlieb / Warne Marsh

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Apogee Review

by Thom Jurek

Apogee would never have been released on Warner Bros. if Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen -- then coming off of Aja -- hadn't produced it. Warner was not in the business of issuing new jazz records at the time. Apogee is an anomaly in many ways. First, it is a Southern California answer to the great titan tenor battle records of the '40s and '50s. Rather than sounding like a cutting contest, it sounds like a gorgeous exercise in swinging harmony and melodic improvisation by two compadres. Pete Christlieb, who was then a member of the Tonight Show Band and played on Tom Waits' records, is a solid, old-school swinging tenor player whose style comes out of the West Coast school, but whose phrasing feels more like 52nd Street circa 1947. Warne Marsh was already a legend, 20 years older than Christlieb, a warrior who had developed his own style on the tenor apart from Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, or any of the big stylists. His phrasing and improvisational ideas are outside of time and space because he thwarted the conventions at every turn, yet he remained one of the most rhythmically astute improvisers in jazz history. His time spent with piano and composition genius Lennie Tristano is what laid the groundwork, but by the time Marsh recorded this set he was in a league of his own. With a rhythm section that included Lou Levy on piano, Jim Hughart (another Waits sideman at the time), and Nick Ceroli on drums, the pair engaged a kind of freewheeling, good-time set that remains one of the most harmonically sophisticated recordings to come out of the 1970s. The track selection revolves around the opening track, "Magna-Tism," a jam reworked around the title cut of another like-minded Southern California tenors album from the 1950s called Just Friends by Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca. Here, Christlieb and Marsh executed their lines -- courtesy of beautiful charts by Joe Roccisano -- with grace, ease, and maverick intensity. There is a playfulness that comes to the front line from the rhythm section that both propels and lures the players into one another's orbits. While the opener offers long and loping dual lines, the intense solo contrasts on "Tenors of the Time," written by Roccisano especially for the session, showcase their wildly divergent solo approaches. Marsh could charge the rhythm section or wind his way around it, while Christlieb's sense of swing was open and hard. When they go after one another at about five and a half minutes into the track, the entire thing breaks wide open and becomes one of the great contrapuntal "singalong" moments in recorded jazz history. Other standouts include the two blowout jam approaches to Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" and the Kern/Mercer classic "I'm Old Fashioned." But this is not merely some neo-bop exercise in self-congratulation, as evidenced by the radical chromatic reworking of Tristano's "317 E. 32nd" or the melodic extrapolation at the heart of "Rapunzel," composed by Becker and Fagen after the Bacharach/David tune "Land of Make Believe."

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