Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron: Their Greatest Studio Performances

Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron: Their Greatest Studio Performances

Excerpted from Chapter 3, Giant Steps - Bebop and the Creators of Modern Jazz
(Payback Press/Canongate Books, softcover, UK: 9.95 pounds / US: $16.95)

by Kenny Mathieson

copyright © 1999 Kenny Mathieson

While their work for Savoy is very fine, the Navarro-Dameron combination arguably achieved their greatest studio performances in the music they recorded for Blue Note. The September 1947 session already mentioned was followed by another on 13 September, 1948, and a third on 18 January, 1949. They have been collected as The Fabulous Fats Navarro in two volumes on both LP and CD, and subsequently made available in an indispensible 2-CD set, The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings of Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron, which also includes Dameron's recordings of 21 April, 1949, with Miles Davis, and important Navarro material with Howard McGhee and Bud Powell, as well as a version of 'Stealing Apples' cut with Benny Goodman.

In addition to these classic studio takes, a valuable series of live broadcasts from the Royal Roost in 1948 have been preserved on both LP and CD in a Milestone album, as Fats Navarro Featured With The Tadd Dameron Band. The material includes Dameron classics like 'Good Bait', 'Dameronia', 'Tadd Walk' and 'Our Delight', as well as Navarro's own 'Eb-Pob', Charlie Parker's 'Anthropology', and Gershwin's 'Lady Be Good'. It is particularly valuable in preserving Navarro's thoughts on the relaxed, strolling theme of what is probably Dameron's best known bop tune, 'Good Bait'. It is heard in two quite distinctive takes on this set, but was not included in any of their studio sessions together.

The trumpeter features on about three-quarters of the material on the album, and while the music making (and the recorded sound) is not quite as finely focussed as in the studio recordings, it has the benefit of on-stage spontaneity and longer playing time, and anyone interested in either musician should seek it out alongside the Blue Note material. In his sleeve note for the album, Stanley Crouch quotes drummer Roy Haynes's succinct appraisal of Navarro's qualities, which seems worth reiterating here.

"Fats was a spectacular musician," Haynes says, "because, in a time when cats arrived on the scene with nothing, he came on with everything: he could read, he could play high and hold anybody's first trumpet chair, he could play those singing, melodic solos with a big beautiful sound nobody could believe at the time, and he could fly in fast tempos with staccato, biting notes and execute whatever he wanted, with apparently no strain, everything clear. And every note meant something. You know there are those kinds of guys who just play a lot of notes, some good, some bad. Fats wasn't one of those: he made his music be about each note having a place and a reason. And he had so much warmth, so much feeling. That's why I say he had everything."

Navarro never found a sweeter context to display those manifold qualities than the Dameron band, and the pianist found a soloist who could provide both the beauty and the grasp of form he needed, and do so at the highest level of creative improvisation.

The four tunes cut at the session of 26 September, 1947, all have an alternate take. In the case of 'The Chase', the marked improvement in Charlie Rouse's tenor solo alone would demand the choice of the master take for release, even if everyone else were not also in slightly sharper form. Navarro turns in two strong, beautifully judged solo performances, each of which confirms his complete command of both horn and music at a fast tempo, as well as emphasising his signature tone, the fat, immaculately poised trumpet sound justly described by fellow trumpeter Joe Newman as "one of those big butter sounds."

Dameron had a good ear for a memorable, catchy theme, and his compositions provided plenty of scope for his soloists to develop their conceptions. In 'The Squirrel', a blues said to have been inspired by the pianist watching a squirrel in Central Park one day, the originally released take captures the ebullient spirit of the piece more fully than the slightly under-characterised alternate, and the ensemble choruses are more developed. Navarro builds his solo with a precise concern for tension and release, and a hint of the New Orleans trumpet tradition in his rolling phrases and skittering glances off the high notes at each of its peaks.

The opulent 'Our Delight' is one of Dameron's best known tunes, and both takes here find Navarro playing with a very clear conception of precisely what he wanted to say. The trumpeter nails each of his solos conclusively, with only minor embellishments in the melody from take to take, and both are gems of lucid construction and creative phrasing. The session's final tune, 'Dameronia', with its Monk-ish echo of 'Well, You Needn't' in the theme, is another of the pianist's best. In the alternate take, Navarro uses the final note of the saxophone solo as a launch pad to roar in with a dramatic descending opening phrase, and builds a robust, muscular solo statement from it. He thinks better of that approach in the released take, opening in very different fashion, then turning in what is arguably his most functional, least memorable solo of the session.

The combination's next Blue Note session took place just under a year later, on 13 September, 1948, shortly after the band began their residence at the Royal Roost. Only the leader and Navarro remain from the first recording. Allen Eager, a Dameron regular, and Wardell Gray shared tenor duties, with Curly Russell on bass and Kenny Clarke behind the drums. Cuban percussionist Chino Pozo (a cousin of the better known Chano Pozo) contributed conga drum on two takes of 'Jabhero', and Kenny Hagood laid down a smooth vocal on a single take of 'I Think I'll Go Away'.

Dameron's chord progressions are always fascinating, and Navarro is in great form on all three of the purely instrumental tracks. They possess all the virtues we have already heard in his two previous recordings with the pianist, but, perhaps more overtly than in any of the other studio sessions, the different takes reveal him thinking hard about the detail of his performances. In the alternate takes of 'Jabhero' and 'Lady Bird', for example, he tries out double-time passages which are not included in the two released takes, while on 'Symphonette', a swinging riff tune, he interpolates some hard and fast rapid note bop phraseology into the released take, but smooths them out considerably on the alternate.

The Dameron-Navarro studio sessions for both Savoy and Blue Note represent an important continuum in the development of bebop, as well as in the respective careers of both players. Their final visit to the studio was a Capitol session with a ten-piece band on 18 January, 1949, which might have been historic (it preceded the first of the so-called "Birth of the Cool" sessions by a couple of days), but did not yield fully satisfactory results on the two tracks in which the trumpeter is featured. There is plenty to enjoy on both 'Sid's Delight' and 'Casbah' nonetheless, but it marked the end of the Dameron-Navarro association -- by the time the pianist returned to the studio to finish the session in April, he had Miles Davis in the trumpet chair.

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