Sweet Bird of Youth
Openings, leading outwards into new territories or acting as a means of escape from a dead end. Discovering new sounds, new styles, new names, past or present, acts in a similar way, bringing a release from clouded perspectives. So it came as quite a coup recently to find a copy of Tony Fruscella's eponymous album for Atlantic in amongst the files of other 50th anniversary reissues, with their claims to greatness or discovery. Placed alongside My Favourite Things it may not grab the lapels with the instant payoff of recognition, but clutching the item in hand I decided there was resonance enough in the unknown. After an exchange with the record store salesman to the effect that the name meant nothing to him after years of working behind the counter in record shops, I returned to check out the kid with the catchy name, all pluck and determination, surely a character in a 50's beat-style doomladen adventure.
The liner notes only tell half the story, but probably the half that most bears retelling, the contemporary writer wasn't to know this would be his sole foray into the big-time, as he was dead by '69, and destined never to repeat the same level of success in the studio. The congeniality of the youthful group is undoubted, but the writer points to the difference in temperament from what would set Bix or Miles apart from the crowd- in Fruscella's case, the limits of playing to your strengths and not trying to please the crowd demonstrate the difficulty of preferring rarity and purity over design and formulaic intent. Not that Bix or Miles could be said to be rigidly formulaic, but put them in a big-band or a large arena and they would instantly stamp their personality on proceedings- here however the horn is played with a marked preference for subdued middle registers, preferring the afterglow of a relaxed after hours sound to the rhetorical intensity of stellar overreaching.
Openings, as I said, some things just leap out at you, say here is what we've got and what are you going to do about it- call to mind 'Move' on Birth of the Cool, a phenomenon akin to dammed-in reservoirs of energy pouring forth showering all before it with glimpses of spinning tops rotating in tandem. Or the more muted pastel palette of the Bats' 'North by North', with a shimmering introduction, guitars riffing contentedly while sparks fly, the evocative whirl of precise contours.
So the monochrome stylings of the Fruscella reissue, with his Italianamerican background, making him a lost relative of Pepper or Tristano. Something clearly evidenced in the cover shot, all moody profile, you can picture in your mind's eye the white t-shirt beneath the check shirt: he'd have made a good job of supplying musical accompaniment for the contemporary boxing biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me, with Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano, but MGM would never have countenanced such authenticity, settling for blandness in the form of Perry Como's blustering statement of intent. No, as manifesto and programmatic scene-setting goes the album delves into the book of Great Ways to Open a Record in no uncertain style.
Sure enough, the initial impression counts for a lot, and you can tell from the piano lead-in on 'I'll Be Seeing You' that this is no ordinary blowing session- what may be lacking in star names nevertheless hits you with the weaving trace of intuitive understanding, like a prototype for the later Miles sextet, the '58 Sessions featuring Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley. So, recording this in '55, pitched between Miles of '48/'49 and Miles vintage '58/'59, these boys hit upon a rich vein of invention, working through the implications of composer-arranger Phil Sunkel's freshly penned treatments- the emphasis is on the blues ('Blue Serenade' and 'Let's Play the Blues') and evocations of time lost and landscapes forsaken for street scenes ('Metropolitan Blues', 'Raintree County'). For sheer dramatic urgency head for 'Salt', the drama of the young contender horning in and asserting the dynamism of the small-group set-up. Again, Bill Triglia provides marvelously alert stabs of piano before the whole combo joins forces, but skillfully arranged so that the effect isn't to drown the piece in brass-heavy stylings. Compare the leavening contribution of the arranger's pen provided by Marty Paich's refined frameworks on the similarly inspirational Art Pepper + Eleven (which also opens with a stunning 'Move'), where relatively large forces combine to brilliantly fluid effect.
Despite the one-off shot of inspired simplicity achieved on this studio date, it's the wonderful sonorities explored by Fruscella/Triglia which generate the appeal to the emotions, the downbeat hue of modernist classical influences (the intimacy and surrealist dash of Poulenc with the polka-dotted Stravinskyan affair with the horn): the art of playing forwards and backwards, the trumpet receding for the piano to take up the line, the trumpet returning to espy an opening in a different direction.
Other Atlantic reissues from the same series which you ought to make a priority of tracking down include the Art Farmer Sing Me Softly of the Blues, Gil Evans' Svengali, the Jimmy Giuffre renewal of the trio form, Western Suite (with its pioneering reworking of 'Blue Monk': listen to the keenly pursued excitement of landscapes explored in sound, the insolent ease of sound diminishing to near standstill, then the Monk theme reemerges with renewed fluidity, Jim Hall's guitar work, seemingly blithe, concealing lithe acrobatics), the list goes on... Until you reach Ornette Coleman's This is Our Music, with its title borrowed for a later Galaxie 500 studio date, but I pause to ponder the cover of the earlier session, Ornette looking determined to make his mark on the listener's psyche, standing firm with the kind of resoluteness evinced all too rarely in such situations. Beside him Charlie Haden, all youthful sinew and contortion threatening to implode while delivering a skewed straight-to-camera glare. Again, as if to reinforce the feeling of threat and desperate promise, the group assemble to issue the ultimatum: this is from the soul, or else. One of the great cover shots I'd say, surely deserving to be blown up and framed alongside the cover and accompanying poster shots for The Wolfhounds' 'Me'-but therein lies another tale. Oh, and seeing Pollock's late, sprawling act of affirmation Blue Poles in the light of what Coleman would go on to achieve makes utter sense- too much sense, you might say.
© Marino Guida 1999.