By Devon Wendell
“Blowing sessions” are a pivotal aspect of jazz history. You get a bunch of musicians together to jam, have fun and show off their chops. Sometimes it’s about competing and the actual compositions are really not important. Blowing over a simple blues progression is all that is needed.
At Prestige records, producer Bob Weinstock designated Fridays as “session day.” Every Friday he would hire some of the finest players to form an all-star group to jam over some standards and blues. On Friday, April 23, 1956, Weinstock brought the great Chicago tenor sax giant Gene Ammons into the studio with Jackie McLean on alto saxophone, Art Farmer on trumpet, Duke Jordan on piano, Addison Farmer on bass, Arthur Taylor on drums, and Candido on percussion.
The band kicks off with the title track, “The Happy Blues,” which is a slow blues progression. Jackie McLean’s solo is adventurous, frenetic, and raw. McLean plays slightly behind the beat like Dexter Gordon did on tenor. Art Farmer’s lyricism on the trumpet is sweet and melodic as a great singer. And then you have Gene Ammons with that fat, round, bluesy tone that makes any note he plays swing beautifully. Lester Young’s influence can be heard in Ammons’ phrasing on this 12 bar blues.
“The Great Lie” is loosely based on the chord changes to “I Got Rhythm” (These had become standard chord changes for jazz musicians to jam over since the ‘30s.) Drumer Art Taylor’s subtle groove is always perfect behind anyone and he just locks right in with Addison Farmer, Candido, and Duke Jordan. This tune features one of my favorite solos by Art Farmer during this period. Every note is clean, precise, and melodic. McLean’s solo picks up where Farmer’s left off, repeating some of the same lines on alto sax. Ammons honks and swings with that one of a kind rough pitched Chicago tenor sound.
Ammons shines the most on the tender ballad “Can’t We Be Friends.” He takes his time and makes every bent note count. His solo unravels beautifully and tells a story. That tone just caresses every note with love and soul. This is the performance of a true master who understands his instrument and sound intimately. Art Farmer’s muted trumpet solo swings with dexterity and grace.
The album finishes with the up-tempo “Madhouse,” based on the changes to “What Is This Thing Called Love?” It is evident that these tremendous musicians are having a blast and not worrying about time or anything else. Ammons, Farmer, and McLean trade fours and then twos. Candido takes a long but thoughtful conga solo and quickly locks back in with Taylor and Addison Farmer. This is joyful music.
If you don’t think jazz is about fun and feeling good, pick up The Happy Blues. This album is just one of countless examples of why jazz makes life so much better.