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John Benson Brooks’ ALABAMA CONCERTO


RLP-117 118 A
RLP-117 118 front
RLP-117 118 back.jpg
RLP-117 118 A.jpg
RLP-117 118 B.jpg

Art Farmer (tp) Julian (Cannonball) Adderley (as) Barry Galbraith (g) Milt Hinton (b) John Benson Brooks (p – in third movement only)  

Recording directed by John Benson Brooks. 

New York; July and August, 1958


1. First Movement (11'03")

  themes: The Henry John Story; Some Lady's Green, Green Rocky Breasts (Nature!);

  Job's Red Wagon

2. Second Movement (10'08)

  themes: Trampin'; The Loop


1. Third Movement (8'19")

  themes: Little John Shoes; Milord's Calling

2. Fourth Movement (10'07")

  themes: Blues For Christmas; Rufus Playboy; Grandma's Coffin

   It is doubtful whether there has ever before been a musical work quite like this Alabama Concerto, with its bold fusing of jazz virtuosity, folk-music themes, and what is usually called “serous” composition.

   “Serious” is a proper word here, and so is “concerto,” for this is music by a schooled, richly creative writer, and it does follow the classic concerto form. But these words should not be allowed to frighten anyone: John Benson Brooks is an adventurous, highly melodic, often extremely witty composer; and his concerto departs from traditional form in being designed to permit quite a lot of free-blowing improvisation by the four jazzmen on hand – particularly by the forceful, blues-based alto of CANNONBALL ADDERLEY and by ART FARMER’s firm-toned, graceful trumpet.

   Brooks, whose background includes service as an arranger for such as Les Brown and Tommy Dorsey and who has been a writer of pop song hits (Just As Though You Were Here, You Came a Long Way from St. Louis, etc.), has in recent years been devoting himself to more ambitious projects. With such other composer-arrangers as Gil Evans and George Russell, he forms what can loosely be grouped as “school” of modern jazz writing: for although procedures and emphases may differ, theses writers are all joined by a concern for developing and advancing the form of jazz without sacrificing its spirit. Possibly the most distinctive feature of Brook’s particular approach is his resolute rejection of the standard format and chord structure of “popular music” on which so much of jazz has always relied, and his turning for source material, as in this concerto, to bedrock of folk-music.

   Specifically, Brooks notes that “the history of this piece must begin with an anthropological field trip Harold Courlander made to Alabama several years ago. He recorded a whole Negro community: children’s game songs, blues, hollers, spirituals and odd bits.” Brooks was given the job of transcribing this material for a book, and found himself hopelessly fascinated. “One thing that struck me was the light cast on jazz origins. A different taste from New Orleans’ urban finery. Apparently jazz is a much more deeply-rooted characteristic of American life than has been generally recognized.”

   What Brooks leaned from these rural survivals is something that at least a few students and historians have known for some time about the vital role of pre-jazz folk music in the initial formation of jazz. But what Brooks accomplished with this realization, by adding to it his creative talent as a composer and his deep understanding of contemporary jazz, is something quite unparalleled and richly rewarding.

   “In using some of these musical themes for a jazz composition,” he notes, “I took the concerto, which is the simplest large form, traditionally featuring essentially only themes, returns of themes (ritornelli), and an ad lib cadenza. IN this particular piece it seemed most feasible to have four elements of approximately equal proportions: ensemble playing, combinations of two or three of the instruments, written solos, and improvised ad libs.”

   To perform such a work properly, all that was needed was four jazzmen who could read like demons and ‘blow’ like angels. Rather surprisingly, they were not too hard to find, and it is the composer’s feeling that these four added much to the piece as it took firm final shape during actual recording . Barry Galbraith and Milt Hinton are thoroughly experienced, versatile rhythm men, both of whom graduated from big bands into studio indispensability without ever losing either soul or the ability to swing. Art Farmer combines a great deal of lyricism and sensitivity with a rare ability to read and execute flawlessly the most difficult of written scores. Julian Adderley is a formidable altoist, most recent featured with Miles Davis. His presence here may surprise some, for Cannonball’s reputation has been largely as one of the most remarkable improvisors of our day. This just goes to show that one should never trust a stereotype, for Adderley is actually a thoroughly schooled musician (and onetime music teacher), and his command of the Brooks score is scarcely less impressive than the flow of his ad lib solos. (Adderley is also featured on Riverside on PORTRAIT OF CANNONVALL – RLP 12-269).

   We must bear responsibility for the use here of the titles of the various themes (as listed in the box), for Brooks initially devised them as private working titles, solely for his own guidance. Created, for the most part, by off-beat twisting of the names of songs from which the themes were derived, they may seem none too meaningful, even flippant, when read before listening. But try coming back to them after hearing the concerto and you’ll very probably agree that they are most apt and interesting indications of the mood and flavor of Brooks’ work. (Titles or opening lines of the original source material themes are given in Brooks’ notes, just below.)

   The composer’s own descriptive commentary on the progression of the piece makes up an unusually flavorful and helpful set of program notes –

   First Movement: The opening is built on John Henry (today you might say. The Henry John Story). Cannonball’s ad lib concludes and Art introduces the second theme (Some Lady’s Green, Green Rocky Road). Milt walks down to close it, and the third theme (Job, Job) enters in tempo change and exits in parody.

   Second Movement: The opening is made of Trampin’ (an old spiritual). It concludes in bowed bass and pianissimo guitar and Milt then brings in The Loop. This was a children’s game song (Here We Go Loop de Loo) that reminded me of Pres but acquired a boppy episodic melody based on four sets of tonics. Cannonball closes it asserting the Trampin’ ritornello and then The Loop returns in slower pace, eventually culminating in a “collision” (It had never occurred to me that the end is sometimes just that.).

   Third Movement: This has piano in the initial conversation and close in group forte (Move, Members, Move!). Guitar and bass bring in its companion theme (Didn’t You Hear My Lord When He Cried?). The returns on these themes continue the relaxed horn improvisations.

   Fourth Movement: The What Month Was Jesus Born In? opening features the months and concludes with Milt walking through a few bats into Barry’s statement, through the horns, of Hey, Rufus (“hey, boy, where in the world you been gone so long?”). The third theme (Rock, Chariot, I Tol’ You to Rock) sneaks into the first ending of Art’s chorus on Rufus and again in the second ending – Cannonball picks it up and segues into the return of What Month. The Rock, Chariot theme returns in his marsh-horn call. Art interrupts Cannonball’s ad lib with the Hey, Rufus return and Cannonball does the same later (two AABA’s); the rest of the movement being a play between Rufus and the Chariot.

   The cover painting, “Wildflowers,” selected as fitting the general mood of the concerto, is by a modern Brooklyn-born (in 1920) artist, Walter Williams, whose numerous honors include the 1955-56 John Hay Whitney award. It is used through the courtesy of its owners, Mr. and Mrs. Morton Goldman.

   John Benson Brooks particularly wishes to thank Harold Courlander, George Russell, and Helen Brooks, 2for real help.”

A HIGH FIDELITY Recording – Riverside-Reeves SPECTROSONIC High Fidelity Engineering

   (Audio Compensation: RIAA Curve)



Cover painting: “Wild Flowers,” by WALTER WILLIAMS

Cover designed by PAUL BACON

Back-liner photograph by LAWRENCE PHOTO

Engineer: JACK HIGGINS (Reeves Sound Studios)


553 West 51st Street New York 19, N.Y.

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