By Devon Wendell
For many occasional jazz listeners there are only 3 great trumpeters that come across their minds and lips, and they are of course Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and occasionally Louis Armstrong. For those of us obsessed with the music’s many genres and glorious history (like myself) the list is much longer and consists of dozens of the instrument’s greatest innovators, ranging in a large spectrum of styles.
The player who made me want to quit the guitar and trade it in for a trumpet in college was the great Fats Navarro. I don’t believe one could or should compare the style of “Fat Girl” (as he was nick-named) to that Dizzy or Miles, although he played with both men and was a big influence on Miles. But Navarro’s influence didn’t stop there. Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard (to name just a few) were all students of Navarro’s fluid style. Navarro could be a fast virtuosic player, but it was his lyricism, sweet tone, sense of rhythm, and his confidence that made him so unique and swing as hard as he did. Navarro was one of the key contributors to the bebop era of the 1940s and one of the most important musicians in the entire history of jazz.
Just about every Fats Navarro record you can find is going to be excellent but I thought I’d select the very first one that I ever owned, suggested to me by the great jazz trumpeter and educator Dan Miller many moons ago.
Fats Navarro Memorial No.2: Nostalgia consists of 3 separate recording sessions of the late 1940s for the Savoy label, not only under his own name but also under the names of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Dexter Gordon, and Tadd Dameron.
The first four tracks are from The Fats Navarro Quintet recorded on December 5, 1947, featuring Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone, Tadd Dameron, piano, Nelson Boyd, bass, and Art Blakey on drums.
“Nostalgia” is a Navarro classic. The harmonic brilliance between Rouse and Navarro on the song’s head is fantastic. Navarro and the band swing oh so sweetly. Navarro plays a muted trumpet and produces the warmest tone you’ve ever heard in your life. I could always envision Sarah Vaughan singing Navarro’s solo note for note in my head. It would have been completely logical.
“Barry’s Bop” “Be Bop Romp” and “Fats Blows” are some of the greatest bebop recordings ever made. Rouse (who would play in Thelonious Monk’s band of the ‘60s) was already a unique tenor saxophonist with a fat, round tone and an astute knowledge of the bebop language.
Navarro’s high notes hit you like a left hook from Joe Louis. He then sings melodically through his trumpet with the most amazing rhythm. Navarro’s rhythmic sensibility allowed him to swing beautifully across some the most complex and frenetic chord changes. Dameron’s piano comping is delicately tasteful and the perfect accompaniment for Navarro. Art Blakey’s drumming is much more subdued on these sessions than usual but you can’t imagine him playing any other way on this date.
The next few tracks culminate from the Dexter Gordon And His Boys session on December 22, 1947. Here we have Navarro with Dexter Gordon, tenor saxophone, Tadd Dameron, piano, Nelson Boyd, bass, and Art Mardigan on drums.
“Dextivity,” “Dextrose” and “Index” are burning. Dexter Gordon and Navarro had a brief but very special chemistry. Gordon’s tenor lines unravel slowly, telling a story. Navarro’s solos are shorter but like Bird (with whom Navarro had performed and recorded with several times during his career) Navarro could say it all within four bars. And everything he would play in that short space would be impossible to forget. The sound of Gordon and Navarro together is bright and joyful. The love of this music is felt throughout every gorgeous nuance.
The next session on this compilation was called Eddie Davis And His Beboppers, recorded on December 18, 1946 with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, tenor saxophone, Huey Long, guitar, Al Haig, piano, Gene Ramey, bass, and Denzil Best on drums.
These three sides (“Stealin’ Trash,” “Hollerin’ & Screamin,” and “Calling Dr. Jazz”) have a harder edge to them than the material from the other two sessions. Davis’ tenor sax lines honk and shout like an R&B player, Long’s guitar harmonizes wonderfully with Davis and Navarro. Navarro again plays shorter, more concise solos that are more potent and memorable than Davis’s or Long’s. Fats could take you there as quickly as possible with what sounds like an unmatched level of confidence. He was obviously very aware of his immense talents.
Fats Navarro Memorial No. 2: Nostalgia features some of Fats Navarro’s most brilliant playing from several essential sessions recorded for the Savoy label. Once you hear Fats blow, you’ll never forget it and this is an excellent addition to anyone’s collection.