Well, the universe has thwarted my plans. In a masterpiece of bad circumstance, you can wipe Frank Foster off the docket. I had a brilliant scheme hatched, where I would point out three different recordings where Foster is shown as a master of three very specific schools, but it turns out that the three solos I was checking out were mis-labled, and only one of them was actually Foster!!!! My swing school example(“Corner Pocket” from April in Paris), is actually Frank Wess, a master of that school, and my mid 50s Pre-Coltrane example which foreshadowed Coltrane’s own playing in 1954(!) turned out to be Harold Land from 1957, playing in a band that not two months before had included Coltrane.
So, crap. This, fortunately, doesn’t take a damn thing away from Foster (only from my brilliant scheme…), who was still a master of three distinct styles. Although his solos for the Basie band don’t relay it, his arranging for the same band shows complete control of the 50’s nouveau Swing-Era language. Just check out any arrangement of Shiny Stockings he ever wrote, especially this excerpt from the original recording on April In Paris.
Shiny Stockings (Count Basie Orchestra) (if you don’t have this record, you should really get on it)
Not many people have the gift of Melody like Frank did. Of course, although he only joined the band in 1953, he seems to already have a pretty good grasp on writing for this particular band. In a band that can make one chord repeated on a figure sound like a whole new musical world, to write a singing melody like this, which plays right into Freddie’s beat while leaving space for Basie to be Count Basie is just transcendent. Reminds me of how the early soloists would act in the 30s Basie band, playing right into the strengths of the rhythm section. I don’t think that Frank could write as many successful melodies as he did for this band without mastering at least certain aspects of Swing-Era language, which is in my experience, much harder to really pin down than Bebop or Post-Bop melodic language. Anybody can arpeggiate a chord or play a mode, but writing a mostly diatonic quarter note based melody with simple swing rhythms that someone didn’t already write is extremely difficult, at least for me (and many others today, if my ears get any say).
(A note on these transcriptions. These are not analyzed in the way that they would be had I done a theoretical analysis. The chords represented are more or less what the rhythm section is thinking, just to give reference, rather than an analysis of the melodic line, like I do in an analytical transcription. All appoggiatura are estimated, and eight notes are favored over triplets unless there is an obvious polyrhythm or flourish present. The second solo here is a rhythmic crap shoot, it’s too amorphous to write down with any certainty. The n-lets I wrote over the phrases basically represent starting points, and what is emphasized on the beat. There are some obvious times in the phrases where Frank is playing two or three notes in triple-time, but I don’t have the patience or the interest to notate them. Using my ears to interpret is enough at that point. If anyone wants to correct any of this, send me a comment, and I’ll gladly fix anything you find. Also, the times I give are from the CD, so they may be off when compared to the online versions. Also, buy these records, they’re all brilliant.)
Included here is proof of his 2nd generation bebop chops, deeply rooted in the style of Sonny Stitt. This is from the Elmo Hope date with Art Blakey, Percy Heath, and Freeman Lee, a trumpet playing friend of Frank’s that is a bit of an Amelia Earhart. Nothing about his whereabouts or cause of death is mentioned after 1957. The connection to Elmo is Frank, actually. They grew up in Ohio together.
Now, I’d rather hear Stitt on these recordings, but Foster certainly has the language down. Above is Sonny Stitt from 1957(a fantastic record, Duets, which my generation doesn’t seem to be aware of, despite its torrid love affair with “The Eternal Triangle” and the existence of Google…), chosen just because it was where I recognized the language off of the top of my head(Bar 19 is 1:25 of Stitt’s solo, Bar 5 is 2:16). These are Stitt’s bread and butter from way back, however. There you go. This mirrors Coltrane’s mid-fifties interest in Sonny’s tenor playing as well. Of course, Foster would eventually mirror Coltrane’s style in the 60’s, even effectively being his replacement with Elvin Jones’ band.
It would appear that Foster was listening sideways as well. It’s interesting that this language (which I think was born around this period.) was being passed around so fast, especially in circles that I don’t feel were so connected. The recording sessions are less than four months apart. It’s the genesis of standard 50s bop vocabulary.
It’s a nice little coincidence, that this Horace lick came to mind (:30 on the Messengers track is Bar 9 in Frank’s solo). I’ve always thought that Elmo Hope was in Horace’s mind when he developed his left hand style, even more so than Bud. Bud certainly does similar things, but records like this really show Elmo giving it all he’s got down in the bottom register, with really jarring rhythms and maybe more volume than he should have, in an attempt to push the soloist up to the next level of intensity. Check out the Elmo track at around :45 to hear this in action.
Keep in mind that the bebop example was recorded 4 years before April in Paris.
The untarnished(by poor labeling) example of Foster’s playing comes from SWING!, a live album from the late 70s, which shows Frank tearing it up in the early 60s Coltrane school like it’s going out of style(which it really, really wasn’t…). There’s some really good workman Billy Hart on this record, and some interesting stuff from pianist Mickey Tucker, who played with Blakey in the dark ages. Tucker shines especially on the latin-ish tune, Chiquito Loco. Really good pianistic things that set up a vibe or an environment, rather than being a melodic phrase, which is a stark contrast from other soloists from this genre in the 70’s.
To listen to the first chorus of “Simone”, go to iTunes and listen to the sample of Simone off of a CD titled Shiny Stockings from 1978. I got the record SWING! from iTunes in 2007, so I’m not sure why they changed the title. What title is better than swing in all caps with an exclamation point? You should really all just buy the album. Frank’s family deserves the 94 cents…
Fiery as hell! I think that the most interesting thing about Foster on this track is his massive, all encompassing tone. His time feel is also quite something. Lifting this was fairly easy, but writing it down was quite hard. Billy’s beat is malleable like Foster’s, so the resulting rhythms are very loose and imprecise.
I could have picked any solo off of the record to lift, but I had to defer to the classic “Simone” which is probably best known among older musicians from the rather excellent Elvin Jones Live at Town Hall, a Coltrane memorial which features both Frank Foster and Joe Farrell. This version, while not as rambunctious as Elvin’s, really gives a straightforward view into Frank’s language at the time. Live is an event, where as SWING! feels like just another gig. Records like SWING! tend to be a little less impressive, but sometimes more historically interesting, as we get to peer into the day to day of these musicians.
These three tracks, when heard together, begs a question. What kind of musician was Frank, really? Was this his passion? Did he just happen to love all of these styles during the time he was recorded? Was his musical growth akin to that of Hawkins’, constantly changing with the times, and inspired by those around him? Or was he just one of the greatest working musicians who ever lived, someone who could play anything at the drop of the hat, content with mastering the styles which came up around him? One of the interesting things is that, at least on record, he played bebop, and then somewhat reverted back to a swing-era style when he got the job with the Basie band. However, his work on these records is no less moving or honest, it seems to me, just unorthodox in its progression when related to his past(or future) work. I also believe that future discovery could lead to more light on this issue. Frank’s peers are still around, there are plenty of people who knew him. I also think that there are probably recordings of Frank with Jimmy Smith around somewhere, as they toured together in the late 60’s. Listening to that band would show us if Frank was as comfortable with Smith’s brand of Soul Jazz as he was working in his post-Coltrane arena.
When looking at the readily information pertaining Foster, especially in the wake of his death, it mostly looks like this:
By and large, musicians applaud him as a great master of arranging. It’s true that Frank’s most memorable contribution thus far has been with the pen rather than the sword. The albums on which he is celebrated as a soloist are fewer than the standards or known arrangements he’s done. I have no doubt that “Shiny Stockings” and “Simone” (not to mention Super Sax) will be in the everyday Jazz musician’s mind a lot longer than the name Frank Foster will be. Hell, his name is already approaching obscurity with my generation, although the hive mind is starting to move beyond the canon Coltrane and Tyner records into the late 60s Elvin, which will certainly give some attention to Frank.
This project, while it didn’t turn into the analysis-ridden musicological report that I intended it to be, gave me some insight into the work of someone who went through overt changes in their playing over the years, and who was successful in every one of the arenas he entered. On a blindfold test, these tracks do not sound like the same man, although the skill and comfort is apparent. I hope that because of this, a fact that would not usually generate attention, Frank is remembered as a player, as well as a writer. He deserves it.
As a consolation prize, here is the Frank Wess solo that, for years, I thought was Foster.
Corner Pocket (Count Basie Orchestra) (seriously, get on it)
I don’t think that you can get a more succinct statement in true swinging language than that. Almost entirely diatonic, almost all of the non-diatonic ideas are based solely in the blues, with bebop voice leading mind behind it. And at the end of that great feeling solo, with its simple melody and soulful phrasing, to blaze through a bar of double-time bebop? It’s just Frank saying, “What? You were worried I wasn’t bad? Well don’t worry, I’m still bad.” Killing. The tone, the feel, the melodies, these are as good as they get in Frank Wess. And it’s all so simple! There is a reason that they called it the Two Franks Band, not just the Second Great Basie Band.
Frank is still kicking, and hard. If you see the opportunity to see him live, grab it with both hands. He’s the closest thing to seeing Coleman Hawkins live in 2012. A concert I saw with him in 2007 changed my life, and may be the reason I went full-force into music. He was so intense, sitting there on the stage, making every note count. Truly a master.
“You have to bring yourself into the music. If we don’t that, we might as well only have one musician. And it might as well be Gieseking.” —Sofia Rosoff, counseling me on playing the Debussy Ballade