In 1961, the young (23 years old) trumpet phenomenon, Booker Little, recorded two extraordinary albums. Booker was a visionary musician, possessing a close to flawless technique, a burnished, round and beautiful sound and a purely modern conception. His music was completely original and deeply lyrical. Although those two records, "Out Front" and "Booker Little and Friend" are not canonical works, they are known to the initiated as diamonds, and have stood for 56 years as testament of Booker's genius. They did no less than point to entire new worlds of harmonic and emotional possibility in American music. Booker Little died that same year from complications arising from a blood disorder. Those recordings feature two of his closest collaborators Max Roach and Eric Dolphy on Out Front as well as musicians such as Julian Priester, Ron Carter Pete LaRoca, Reggie Workman. And on both records the young pianist Don Friedman was featured.
When we were first looking for projects to produce, at the very top of my list was a project with Don Friedman, returning to some of these beautiful Booker compositions. For two days last September, Don brought his working trio (one he referred to as his favorite trio that he ever worked with) featuring Phil Palombi and Shinnosuke Takahashi to East Side Sound. They weren’t trying to recreate sounds from the record but really used these tunes as jumping off points in the true jazz tradition.
Don passed away from pancreatic cancer in June 2016. Don was my piano teacher when I first moved to NYC. I am blessed to have known him and studied with him, he was a brilliant, humble, spirited and compassionate person. We are enormously grateful that he recorded this project.
Moods in Free Time: Starts with the “Free Time” part, which is a change from the original Booker version. Listening back with Phil Palombi, Phil noted “You really captured the 1960’s Don Friedman.” Over his decades long stint with Clark Terry, Don got known as an accomplished straight ahead player, but he was always equally comfortable playing open and free. It’s great to hear him back in this expressive mode.
Looking Ahead: Kicks off with the melody swinging hard. Shinnosuke Takahashi is a drummer to watch out for. Crisp, without sounding overly technical, his drum solo opening the solo section is a marvel. Don clearly had not lost a step as he tears through a couple of choruses, never sacrificing melodic content for speed… Phil Palombi’s bass solo shines bright with a quick chorus. Phil’s a player who wears his influences on his sleeve (He’s a scholar of the great Scott Lafaro, an old roommate of Don’s!) but who’s voice is unique and whose facility on the instrument is impeccable.
Quiet Please: Is a jigsaw of a tune. Booker had such an incredible ability to weave disparate elements of a composition into a tune with a singular emotional identity. Don navigates the shifting time feels admirably in his solo. Phil gets some more time to state his case before Don and Shinnosuke trade 8 bar sections, cleverly utilizing the half time sections.
Strength and Sanity: This song is truly a lost masterpiece. The trio laid down a beautiful version of this track but we were so enamored with this solo version that we ended up using this instead. I can’t imagine a more evocative interpretation of this one, here’s hoping it becomes part of the standard repertoire, for it certainly deserves it. Listen to the way Don grabs the full capabilities of the Steinway to get his ideas across. Completely unafraid to make the piano roar on a “ballad.”
Calling Softly: One of the things I love about Don’s approach on this album is how simply and loosely he interprets the melodies here. These are not easy tunes but Don plays them like they are. Phil again shows why he’s one of the best bassists working in NYC with this solo.
Victory and Sorrow: Again a composition that takes quick left turns. The trio’s interpretation is full of life and swing. Listen to the first serpentine melodic phrase in Don’s solo. Here is an artist operating at the full peak of his artistic powers of communication.
We Speak: This is the opening track from Booker Little’s “Out Front.” What a clarion call this opening phrase is! I’m so impressed with the joy which this band brings to this material. Don chose to write some solo changes rather than the open dirge in C minor that Booker had to blow over.
Man of Words: This is a composition that Booker dedicated to the writer Nat Hentoff. It’s a free form piece with Booker soloing over a repeated descending line in the horns. The real melodic content is improvised. In this version Phil’s arco bass takes the “melody” while Don plays over the top. Here we hear Don at his freest on the record and what a treat to hear him tackle material like this. We listened once in the studio to the original version that Booker recorded, to get the flavor of the piece. Don remarked about Booker’s astonishing vitality and sense of purpose and that perhaps his knowledge of his sickness informed his playing… that he knew somehow that he did not have long to say what he had to.
Don lived a long life, full of many satisfactions and rewards, musical and otherwise. He left behind a body of work that’s a marvel and ripe for re-examination. This record is a call back to one of his earliest recordings, but it is also a testament to an artist whose strength and heart were a force and an inspiration throughout his incredible career.
– Elan Mehler