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Top 10 Favorite Clark Terry Tracks

As most in the jazz community know, Clark Terry is in poor health. By all accounts his attitude has retained the joy that we associate with his music, which is certainly inspiring. It would be tough to name anyone in jazz whose music strikes such a balance of being infectiously joyous yet without the slightest watering-down of technique, harmony and overall depth. It’s important to me that I publish this list now, before it becomes an obituary (which hopefully won’t be anytime soon anyhow). The list could, of course, be longer, but these are 10 of my favorite C.T. moments, presented in chronological order.

1) “Song of the Islands” by Count Basie (reissued on America’s #1 Band) 1950
While Terry was an important contributor to the Basie band’s trumpet section, he really got to shine as the sole brass player on a series of octet recordings pairing a Basie-led four-piece rhythm section (featuring, of course, the guitar of Freddie Green) with a smaller horn section. Here Terry shines as he goes toe-to-toe with clarinet virtuoso Buddy DeFranco, while tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray gets his licks in as well.

2 ) “Perdido” by Duke Ellington (from Ellington Uptown) 1952

We go here from the Count to the Duke. For several years Clark was an invaluable member of the Ellington band’s trumpet section, playing tons of great Ellington and Strayhorn music. Here, though, the band jams out on Juan Tizol’s classic piece of Ellingtonia, “Perdido,” and Clark is given ample space to shine. Honorable mention goes here to the great Duke With A Difference album, which features many Ellington sidemen, including Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster and even Billy Strayhorn.

3 ) “Slow Beat” (a.k.a. “Slow Boat” a.k.a. “Riverboat”) (from Clark Terry) 1955

Clark is heard here in full maturity on his first widely-distributed album as a bandleader. The horn section is tight, the rhythm section sizzles (thanks in large part to drummer Art Blakey) and Terry shines as a soloist, as do Oscar Pettiford on cello and Horace Silver on piano.

4 ) “Star Dust” (from Serenade to A Bus Seat) 1957

As much as we associate the Clark Terry sound with happy material, we should not forget about his track record with melancholy ballads. His playing on this track is gorgeous, and is suitably contrasted by a ferocious tenor saxophone solo by Johnny Griffin.

5 ) “In Orbit” (from In Orbit) 1958

Accompanied by Sam Jones and “Philly” Joe Jones, this is some of the catchiest, hardest-swinging work that Thelonious Monk ever produced, and save for his participation in the “Giants of Jazz” (with Dizzy, Art Blakey, Sonny Stitt, etc.) this session represents Monk’s last recording as a sideman. There is no compromise, however – the accessibility comes largely from Terry’s joy, tone and rhythmic feeling, which in turn spurs Monk on to hard-swinging phrasing not often heard during this period.

6 ) “Squeaky’s Blues” by Oscar Peterson (from Trio +1 by Oscar Peterson) 1964

Putting this trio (with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen) together with Clark is probably against some kind of law for permissible amounts of swing. This relationship would be further cemented with many fine recordings for Pablo in the 1970s with Peterson, Ray Brown and others (such as Milt Jackson, Monty Alexander and others) running in the same circles. This album is also noteworthy for introducing the world to the “Mumbles” character, Terry’s less-than-articulate (or perhaps “alternatively articulate”) blues-singing alter-ego.

7 ) “Step Right Up” (from Clark Terry – Bobby Brookmeyer Quintet) 1964

The work produced by this quintet (co-led by valve trombonist and composer Bob Brookmeyer) is in my opinion some of the best work by either artist, finding a great middle ground that brings out Terry’s modernity and Brookmeyer’s hard-swinging roots. This minor-key tune from the pen of the group’s pianist, Roger Kellaway, features one of the most swinging C.T. solos I have ever heard, which is saying something.

8 ) “Take the ‘A’ Train” (from It’s What’s Happenin’: the Varitone Sound of Clark Terry) 1967

One tends not to think of C.T. when one lists great modernists in jazz, but that’s not entirely fair. Sure, he wasn’t Woody Shaw or Don Cherry, but his hipness and flexibility are well-documented – in order to pare this list down to ten tracks, I had to leave out great, progressive cuts from albums by Cecil Taylor (the other C.T.), Ed Thigpen, Charles Mingus and McCoy Tyner, among others. This album represents his experimentation with the “Varitone,” an amplification device previously more associated with saxophonists, particularly Eddie Harris. On this track, we are also treated to some singing, including some scat-like work in which C.T. goes into his always-appealing “Mumbles” alter-ego.

9 ) “On the Trail” (from Clark Terry and His Jolly Giants) 1975

By the 1970s, Terry’s joyful sound had become central to his musical identity, and this is one of numerous albums to revolve around that. Here we get to hear one of his signature “tricks,” engaging in dialogue with himself by trading phrases between flugelhorn and muted trumpet. A bonus is getting to hear a wailing soprano saxophone solo from Ernie Wilkins, known best to most listeners for his arranging and conducting.

10 ) “For Dancers Only” (from Friends with Max Roach) 2002

Clark’s knack for great duo playing is well-documented, and if we were going for entire albums, I would here be citing the incredibly infectious For Duke and Basie with bassist Red Mitchell, but I somehow couldn’t pull the trigger on choosing a single tune from that, one of my favorite records (as I discuss here: http://blog.noahjazz.com/?p=22). For this list, though, I wanted to wrap up with one of the heartwarming duets from this, Max Roach’s last recording session. He was already ill by this point, but Clark’s joy squeezes some more inspiration from him, and Clark’s harmonic clarity eliminates any need for chord-playing instruments.

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  1. Don Phillips

     /  March 26, 2012

    I’ve recently come across a big-band chart for “On the Trail,” arranged by Ernie Wilkins. The arrangement has a solo trumpet part with Clark Terry’s name on it.
    In Googling the chart your website came up with reference to the tune, arranged by Ernie, and recorded in 1975 by Clark Terry and his Jolly Giants. Can this be the same chart, and if so, is it sill available>

    I have a big band (The Swing Connection) in Bellingham, WA, and I’d sure like to get a copy of the record for the band to hear.

    I’d appreciate any help you can give me in finding it.

    Cheers,

    Don Phillips

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