Jazz scholars would probably recognize and place Allen Eagers name immediately, but it rang a bell even with a slightly dilettantish jazz fan like me. I began pulling a few books from my library to get some background on him and found that he was a significant enough figure to merit a short entry in The Rough Guide to Jazz. The index to The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD led me to a few titles on which Eager played, including Mulligan Plays Mulligan, The Gerry Mulligan Songbook, and some Fats Navarro recordings on Blue Note.
Like many sax players in the late '40s, Eager was a Lester Young disciple who was also influenced by Charlie Parker. He had many admirers, including the venerable jazz critic Ira Gitler, who contributes extensive liner notes to Allen Eager In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee. Eagers career began to fade in the late '50s because of a combination of factors, including narcotics use, and Oo-Bla-Dee is the only title currently available under his name. Robert Sunenblick, a Canadian physician, jazz archivist, and owner of Uptown Records, carefully compiled this collection of previously unreleased music from several sources, and its an impressive tribute to a musician who could have been much more than a name that crops up on recordings by other artists.
In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee is a typical example of Dr. Sunenblicks love for jazz and his commitment to preserving its history. His specialty is tracking down recordings others have given up for lost. Two years ago, he and producer Chuck Nessa released a collection of Charles Minguss earliest-known sessions as a leader: Charles 'Baron' Mingus: West Coast, 1945 to '49. Jazz from that era was often released on small, poorly distributed labels and in many cases the original source material has been lost. Sunenblick is dogged about locating clean copies of 78s to produce the best-quality transfers. He also painstakingly researches the recording dates and personnel for those sessions, a task that can involve finding musicians to confirm that they played on a particular record.
The quality of the recordings on In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee varies, but even the worst of them -- a wire recording of a 1949 TV broadcast -- is salvaged by a burning performance from Eager. Youngs influence is apparent in his round, full tone and his sure sense of melody, but he brings an occasional edginess to his delivery, and his quick bursts of energy show the influence of Parkers harmonic sophistication. Hes a strong and intelligent improvisor whose solos stay sharply focused, even during a lengthy exchange with Serge Chaloff on "Fine and Dandy," where Birds influence on both players is particularly strong.
An air of tragedy hangs over In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee because of the early deaths of two prominent players on the sessions. Dick Twardzik is the pianist on a 1953 broadcast from the Hi-Hat in Boston, and Chaloff plays baritone sax on two sessions recorded at photographer Milton H. Greens studio. Relatively little on which either musician played remains in print, and that makes this set especially valuable. Eager and Chaloff are in peak form in a jam session at Greenes studio, trading ideas with astonishing speed. Buddy Rich is the drummer for these three tracks and he swings things along wittily.
A number of little-known musicians play on In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee, but Sunenblick makes sure that each gets a bio in the beautiful 68-page booklet that accompanies the disc. Musicians who need no introduction, such as Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach, also join Eager. Charlie Parker clearly intimidated Eager, who at times plays tentatively on the two tracks that feature him (Eager doesnt play on a third selection from the date). He gains his confidence quickly, however, and acquits himself well beside a musician who awed so many players of his generation.
In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee is a beautifully packaged tribute to a fine musician. After listening to it for a week, I found music in my collection that included Eager and heard with fresh ears someone Id probably written off as a journeyman. Sometimes it takes a dedicated jazz lover like Sunenblick to help us hear what our ears should have told us in the first place. A collection of Milton H. Greens photographs at the end of the CD booklet, a few of them featuring Eager as a model, place the music firmly in time and add a hint of glamour to an already classy package.
While Sunenblick currently focuses his energies on locating archival material, he has also supervised the recording of a few sessions. Social Call reissues a Charlie Rouse/Red Rodney title he produced in 1984. Rouse, who died in 1988, spent many years with Thelonious Monk and later founded Sphere, a quartet that still performs and records (Gary Batz now occupies the saxophone chair). Red Rodney played with Charlie Parker in the '40s, recorded sporadically in the '50s, and disappeared from jazz for a while before making a successful comeback in 1973. Rouse was 60 when Social Call was recorded, Rodney 57, but they both sound young and agile.
The straight-ahead bop arrangements are by Don Sickler and, as Bob Blumenthal notes in his liner notes to the reissue, "the harmonic terrain was familiar." The exception -- and the most exciting track on the disc -- is a Rouse original called "Little Chico" that reminded me of Woody Shaws recordings from the '70s. While I wish the arrangements had pursued that less-predictable path, Rouse and Rodney are consistently engaging and often inspired throughout. Rodney only falters on "Darn That Dream," where he plays flugelhorn. The timbre of that instrument seems to sand the edges off his distinctive tone and drive. Rouse, however, handles the ballad beautifully and shows a strong Ben Webster influence.
Rudy Van Gelder engineered the session, which has an enjoyable, open sound. He mikes bassist Cecil McBee perhaps a bit too closely, but for good reason. McBees playing is rhythmically elastic and melodically inventive. Pianist Albert Daily has a few good moments, but occasionally he seems to be marking time and its McBee who fills things in harmonically. Drummer Kenny Washington is solid but unobtrusive throughout. The show belongs to Rouse, Rodney, and McBee, and they deliver.
Dr. Sunenblick has produced some other sessions, including one from 1984 with Allen Eager that I hope he brings back into print. He is scheduled to release a Town Hall performance by Charlie Parker from 1945 that is much anticipated by fans and scholars alike. Perhaps there are other musicians from the history of jazz who, like Allen Eager, were lost and await the patience of archivists like Robert Sunenblick to bring them to our attention.
Thanks to Jim Eigo of Jazz Promo Services for background info about Uptown Records.
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