With Leon Thomas & Oliver Nelson
Recorded March 17 & 19, 1970
All Music Guide
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3 Shades of Blue
Johnny Hodges with Leon Thomas and Oliver Nelson
Infallibility is not a quality one readily associates with jazz musicians. Yet Johnny Hodges, whether encountered on record or in the flesh, always seemed to evade the goofs and imperfections which trouble most other men. So effortless, so relaxed was his playing that he often gave an impression of casualness, his eyes roving round the auditorium or peeking at his wrist-watch while he fashioned the most felicitous of solos. This self-assurance permeated the actual music. No tempo seemed too dizzy for him, no chord progression too dense. He floated majestically, rather like a law of nature. Which made his death - on May 11, 1970 -seem curiously unbelievable, almost a contradiction in terms.
Except for a short period in the early 1950's when he led his own little band, Hodges spent most of his career with the Duke Elington orchestra. Indeed, history virtually parallels that of Ellington's musical development. He had been born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 25, 1906 and played drums and piano as a boy. When Sidney Bechet started courting his sister, the 14-year-old youth was given lessons -and a saxophone - by the great soprano player, an event which shaped his musical identity. Hodges worked with Bechet at the Club Basha, played in Chick Webb's Orchestra, then joined Duke Ellington's band in May, 1928, five months after it had opened at the Cotton Club. This LP is not Hodges' last recording - he made some sessions with the Ellington band afterwards - but it does represent his last LP as a leader. Understandably enough, it was not planned with any commemorative intention, yet hindsight can now perceive that the inclusion of no fewer than six Ellington numbers gives the LP a significant alignment with Hodges' career. Oliver Nelson, always an aficionado of Ellington's music, wrote the 'arrangements and contributed a couple of his own originals, while three tracks feature Leon Thomas, certainly one of the most original jazz singers to emerge in recent years.
The earliest of the Ellington compositions Creole love call, was first recorded in 1927. Oliver Nelson's arrangements retains ther dialogue between clarinets and brasses, Al Grey contributes a growling trombone solo and Ron Carter is at his best behind Hodges. Rockin' in Rhythm dating from 1930, gives Hodges the chance to demonstrate how a great jazz musician stays poised however hectic the pace. Ellington recorded It's Glory (sometimes known as It's a Glory) for the first and only time in 1931; Earl Hines plays the piano solo on this track. Echoes of Harlem, from 1936, was originally entitled Cootie's Concerto and built around the talents of trumpeter Cootie Williams, while Empty Ballroom Blues was first recorded two years later, at one of the earliest sessions Hodges made under his own name. The piano and trumpet solos on the latter track are by Hank Jones and Randy Brecker. Duke's Place - really C Barn Blues with words added - is 1950s Ellington and has Leon Thomas singing the lyric, then scatting in his own unique style.
Two of the remaining pieces -Disillusioned Blues and Welcome to New York (with more of Al Grey's trombone) - are straightforward blues by Leon Thomas. Yearning, yet another twelve-bar blues, is an Oliver Nelson composition and includes a flugel horn solo by Marvin Stamm. Black, Brown and Beautiful ("The way I feel about my people, all of them, "says Nelson) has more than a hint of Billy Strayhorn's manner, making it an excellent vehicle for Hodges'playing.
There is a sense in which no jazz musician really dies while his music goes on being listened to. It is likely to be true of Johnny Hodges for a long time to come. Although he was nicknamed "Rabbit", his music was far from timid - at its best, in fact, decidedly tough. A great melodist, a graceful improviser who never sacrificed purity of tone or line for instant emotion effect, Hodges was, paradoxally, one of the most genuinely passionate players in jazz. Above all, perhaps, he was a great blues player, a fact borne out by several tracks on the LP. He arrived early at maturity, achieving a style that allowed him express everything he needed to say, and spent the next forty years or so refining and deepening it. For as well as being a major jazz artist, Johnny Hodges was also a superb craftsman, a musician who somehow contrived to stay adventurous and yet never to put a finger wrong.
Charles Fox (original liner notes, 1970)