Claude Williamson: ‘Round Midnight (1956)

It’s funny to see how much mail I get via this website from people who hope that I can help them out with this or that. Funny, because I’ve never considered myself to be someone who knows all that much about music in general and various artists and bands in particular. I am a listener, first and foremost, albeit a passionate one, and what I write about here and what is published on this website usually helps me to get a broader understanding of what I’m listening to. That it also interests one or two others is more like collateral damage (or a fringe benefit, whichever you prefer). The following is then perhaps a good example for what I’ve just been trying to state.

I had virtually no idea of who Claude Williamson was until I chanced upon some sound-bytes online. Yes, I already had some of his work with June Christy from the early 50s and Charlie Barnett’s bebop big band from the late 40s, and I’m quite sure I have a lot of examples of his West Coast work with, for example, the Lighthouse All-Stars and, especially, with Bud Shank, but those are/were more fleeting glances and “drive-by” listenings than anything else. That name wasn’t really on my radar and if it had popped up on a Trivial Pursuit card, the only thing I could have said is “Know him. West Coast, right?”Then I came across Williamson’s “‘Round Midnight” (Bethlehem Records, 1956) and despite the fact that some reviewers didn’t like that session all that much (many thought it “average” but not bad at all), my ears pricked up and, as usual, I started looking around the Net for a copy of that album. In the end, I settled for a Japanese edition (Toshiba/EMI, TOCJ-9623) which – because I didn’t pay attention when I ordered it – accidentally also included a second 1956 session, actually Williamson’s first LP for Bethlehem Records, simply entitled “Claude Williamson” (Bethlehem Records, 1956), which seemed to have garnered much more favorable reviews. I went for it because it was the cheapest copy I could get.

Now, let me state loud and clear that I’m probably the only person on this planet who is not a fan of those Japanese replica reissues that come in some nifty cardboard sleeve (usually over-sized) with an OBI-strip (where the hell does one keep those?), some flimsy inner sleeve to protect the CD (I always manage to get those into the cardboard sleeve in a way that it folds up and is all crumbled-up after a single day), plus various accompanying inserts like track listings, reprints of original liner notes, a reprint of an extra cover (in this case), plus more. Yes, nice, but ultimately they don’t fit into my shelf system properly and are a pain in the neck to handle (unless you’re into religious ceremonies whenever you intend to play one). Still, this one here I can live with because the music is so damn good. I have no idea if there are better remasters or reissues from original master tapes out there (and I don’t care), but I’m sure you’ll find the right issue for yourself if this post has managed to get you interested.

The first time I heard snippets from the “‘Round Midnight” session i thought it sounded like an Oscar Peterson from whom the fireworks were removed  and to whose style you added a very healthy dose of rather loose be-bop phrases. Yes, you’re allowed to say “ouch” now, but that’s how it sounded to me when I first heard it and, in a way, it still does. On my site here, that’s a quality criterion because you know that I love a lot of Oscar Peterson’s work. Both of the Williamson sessions swing like mad and if you go into convulsions once you hear the term “bebop”, no need to do so here. The bebop is in Williamson’s style and … it’s wonderful.

I guess one would have considered Williamson to be a representative of the “modern school” at the time, and Joseph P. Muranyi does in his original liner notes. All the action is in the right hand and the left contributes cascades of block chords … or nothing. Muranyi calls this “stop-and-go fashion” and whatever you might call it, it makes for fascinating listening beyond the mere surface of enjoying the session. That, and Williamson’s unique approach in form of very loose “free” melodic lines that are at times moody and at other times incredibly energetic (but always imaginative and inventive). Williamson does borrow from what was around at the time, but as a new listener to these two sessions, he always uses what he incorporated as a stepping stone only. Somewhere over on that “All Music Guide” website, someone stated that these sessions should appeal to “straight-ahead” jazz fans, and I would agree, without letting that stand as a derogative (which, unfortunately, is the connotation that term carries in certain circles): Here it signals “quality”.

Williamson and his sidemen cover a lot of familiar ground in these two sessions and there is an abundance of standards that are given a new work-over, interspersed with more surprising tunes within this context  that make the grand total that much more interesting.

“‘Round Midnight” kicks off with two faster tracks. “Stella by Starlight”, with a wonderful piano intro by Williamson, is the single number that made me buy this session as it has that wonderful mid-tempo swing that I like so much. It really kicks into this cool percussive groove when Mel Lewis enters just after Williamson’s intro, reminiscent of so many of the wonderful Nat King Cole (instrumental) trio tunes. That first tune also shows that Williamson must have gone through some excellent schooling because his ability is really on display here from the start. If this tune is not your cup of tea, you might as well stop listening as both trios stay in this vein throughout these two sessions. “Somebody Loves Me”, another classic tune, continues exactly where “Stella By Starlight” had left off and we just continue that way through out all of 21 tracks.

Both Red Mitchell and Mel Lewis (one of the greatest big band drummers in my book) need no introduction here and the only question one could ask is if there was anyone (especially on the West Coast) who these two didn’t play with. If you have a jazz collection of just about any size, chances are you have some of their work in there. Both form a perfect support team for Williamson’s ideas but, in comparison, they are just that: “perfect”. I was surprised that Don Prell on bass, whose name did not ring a bell at all with me, and Chuck Flores, who is probably the quintessential  drummer of the west coast scene if there ever was one, could match and even get a leg up on those pros in the featured session. Although I do not want to pit one trio against the other, actually that (earlier) “Claude Williamson” date is the better one because it sounds even more inspired; “hotter”, for wont of a better expression. Just check out “I’ll Remember April”, “Blue Notoriety” or “Have You Met Miss Jones” to hear what I mean. Although Joe Quinn predicted a bright future for Don Prell in the original liner notes, it’s a name that didn’t really register with me on many later sessions that I have. A quick Google search turned up that he’s quite active in the Bay area (with his “SeaBop Ensemble”) but … that’s it. I intend to search him out though because I love what he does on this session and I’ll let you know if/when I found some worthwhile stuff.

I could only give you a very brief glimpse into one of those singular CDs that has shot up on my private list of must-hear recordings that are in permanent residency next to my stereo. I can only encourage you to seek out either this version that holds both sessions or to at least find a reissue of the “‘Round Midnight” session that is available in many different reissue states.

Right now I would give this reissue five stars which, in my listening room, will eventually drop to four stars once the initial excitement has cooled off. In the long run I think it will remain one of those CDs that I will keep around close to my equipment and one that I will certainly place in my “permanent” folder on my portable player. It will be residing next to piano trio dates with Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Teddy Wilson … and many others. Not a bad place to be, I would think.

Run out and buy this CD reissue.
You won’t regret it.

By the way, do any of you have other Claude Williamson recommendations?

***

Williamson, Claude. “‘Round Midnight”, Toshiba/EMI, Japan, 2004.

Originally released: Bethlehem Records, BCP-69 (“‘Round Midnight”) and BCP 54 (“Claude Williamson”).

Original liner notes: Joseph P. Muranyi (“‘Round Midnight”) and Joe Quinn (“Claude Williamson”).

(A) “‘Round Midnight: n.n.
(B) “Claude Williamson”: Val Valentin (engineer), Dave Pell (photography), Burt Goldblatt (cover design)

(A) Claude Williamson (p), Red Mitchel (b), Mel Lewis (dr)
Hollywood, California, December 1956

01. Stella by Starlight (4:02)
02. Somebody Loves Me (3:06)
03. I’ll Know (3:21)
04. The Surrey With the Fringe on Top (2:53)
05. Polka Dots and Moonbeams (3:05)
06. Hippy (3:04)
07. Tea for Two (3:20)
08. Stompin’ at the Savoy (3:30)
09. ‘Round Midnight (3:53)
10. Just One of Those Things (3:00)
11. Love Is Here to Stay (3:00)
12. The Song Is You (2:08)

(B) Claude Williamson (p), Don Prell (b), Chuck Flores (dr)
Hollywood, Calidornia,;January 19, 1956

01. June Bug (3:43)
02. Jersey Bounce (6:12)
03. Moonlight in Vermont (3:43)
04. I’ll Remember April (5:01)
05. The Last Time I Saw Paris 4:33)
06. Blue Notoriety (6:07)
07. Embraceable You (2:32)
08. Have You Met Miss Jones (3:35)
09. Hallelujah (2:48)

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

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