Sunday, April 29, 2012

April 29: Dizzy Gillespie, "Manteca"

Artist: Dizzy Gillespie
Song: "Manteca"
Album: Dizzy Gillespie And His Big Band
Year: 1948

Easily one of the most overlooked genres in history is that of the classic "big band" sound. This is the sound that was the standard for decades, and an overwhelming number of jazz, bop, and blues legends honed their skills within the confines of big band groups. Among these icons was by far the greatest trumpet player in history, as well as one of the greatest band leaders the world has ever seen, the one and only Dizzy Gillespie. Many would argue that Gillespie was so unique, and his playing so complex, that later artists took the "easier" route and copied artists like Miles Davis and Fats Navarro instead. After experiencing the extraordinary playing of Gillespie, this intimidation is quite understandable, as the speed and technique with which he played is truly stunning. While Gillespie is certainly known for his unique, bent trumpet, his puffed cheeks, and his far more relaxed, light-hearted personality, his talents as a composer, band leader, and obviously musician cannot be overlooked. All three of these skills are rarely more apparent that they were throughout the existence of what is largely considered Gillespie's "first great band," and this is certainly a group that lived up to that name. The stunning talent and power of the group is brilliantly captured on Dizzy Gillespie's tremendous 1948 release, the simply titled Dizzy Gillespie And His Big Band, and there may be no song that better defines the man than his classic, "Manteca."

Within the framework of the classic big band, it is often difficult to stand out, as well as assemble a group of musicians all of the highest standard. The latter is simply because, within the confines of the big band lineup, there are simply so many positions to fill, often times, a handful of "second rate" musicians are necessary. However, Dizzy Gillespie managed to forgo both of these hazards with this lineup. The musicians he put together for this band are truly the best in the land, and the lineup reads like a "who's who" list of the era. The combination of James Moody on tenor saxophone and Cecil Payne on baritone is nothing short of stunning, and the power and tone the two possess is beyond words. Moody has played with everyone from Miles Davis to Charles Mingus, and still records today, making him one of the most heavily recorded musicians of all time. Having backed artists like Sarah Vaughan, Cannonball Adderley, and Ray Charles, Payne was equally talented, and he remains one of the most highly respected players to this day. Lending a second trumpet to the group, Willie Cook played alongside Dizzy for nearly two decades. His presence allows Gillespie more musical freedom, and his playing in the album cannot be overlooked. The entire band on this rendition of "Manteca" are worth mentioning, as they are all truly amazing, yet these three artists stand out above the others.

Whether he is laughing with the audience, brilliantly directing his band, or taking center stage on his stunning compositions, there are truly few artists worth of being mentioned in the same breath as Dizzy Gillespie. Playing with more power and swagger then nearly anyone else in history, Gillespie's sound is immediately recognizable, and he is one of the few artists who clearly "have fun" playing their music.  All across "Manteca," Dizzy is in top form, and one can hear the new directions he is taking, as the track remains today one of the most important building blocks in the "Afro-Cuban" jazz movement.  He is outright dazzling as both a performer and a band leader, and one can also easily hear the chemistry between him and the songs' co-writers.  Along with all of the other amazing musicians on the album, easily the most unique member of the group is conga player Chano Pozo. It is due to the relationship between Gillespie and Pozo that Dizzy began to explore and create the Afro-Cuban-Jazz genre, and this is without question their masterpiece. The song is an absolutely stunning combination of styles, and it has been covered by countless artists over the years, perhaps most notably by the jam-rock group, Phish.  Though the pair would compose a number of other iconic tunes, due to its chronological timing, as well as its overall influence, one can easily argue that from a historical perspective, "Manteca" remains their most vital work.

When it comes to a unique, innovative approach to music, few excelled as well as Dizzy Gillespie. From his early days backing artists like Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy's power and style were like no other artist in history. Presenting a more powerful and far more loose approach than his contemporaries, he was constantly pushing into new territory and creating new, brilliant musical fusions. Largely responsible for the Cuban-jazz style of music, his relationship with conga player Chano Pozo ranks among the most important musical pairings in history. The interplay between the two is highlighted on this live version of "Manteca," and judging by the audience's reaction, the two personalities were just as dynamic as their musical interactions. The group that Gillespie had assembled as his big band were far and away some of the most talented musicians in the world, and the talent within this version of his band is easily one of the greatest big bands in history. Gillespie himself is absolutely stunning on every moment of "Manteca," and as he changes roles from musician to conductor to emcee, it is clear that he was easily one of the most amazingly unique talents in the history of music. Presenting a perfect musical picture of everything that makes Dizzy Gillespie one of the most well respected and revered artists in history, his 1948 live release, Dizzy Gillespie And His Big Band, is easily one of the greatest moments ever captured in the entire history of recorded music, and "Manteca" may very well be the highlight.

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