Sunday, June 21, 2009

Baby Face Willette - Stop and Listen (1961)

Predicting a rosy future for a jazz musician has never been a safe call, even when the track record of Blue Note producer Alfred Lion is taken into account. Original annotator Joe Goldberg heard the music on this album as strong evidence that Baby Face Willette would make "a continuing contribution". As things worked out, he barely surfaced again on the national jazz scene.
Willette first appeared at the beginning of 1961 as one of Blue Note's new stars, and the empathy he displayed with Grant Green and Ben Dixon here and on the earlier albums cited by Goldberg suggested that the unit was poised to become one of the label's house rhythm sections. But Willette had been a creature of the road in his earlier professional life, and chose to travel once again rather than remain in New York. By the end of 1963 he had settled in Chicago, formed a trio, and begun appearing in local clubs, including the Moroccan Village. Two LPs were cut for Argo in 1964, after which little is known beyond the information contained on a Cook County, Illionis death certificate, which indicates that Roosevelt James Willett (sic) died on April 1, 1971.
There is little point in speculating on what happened to Willette on this scant record, but his musical preferences suggest that, had he lived a longer and more productive life, it would not necessarily have been spent as a jazz musician. As both Goldberg and Robert Levin (in the notes to the organist's earlier album Face to Face) point out, rhythm & blues and gospel music were Willette's true foundation. This was the reason that Lou Donaldson originally recruited the organist for Here 'Tis, an album the saxophonist described as an attempt "to keep everything as simple and basic as possible, without getting involved in anything intricate or experimantal". Not that Willette found popular song forms intimidating, as he demonstrates here on "Willow Weep for Me", "At Last", and the bonus track, "They Can't Take That Away From Me"; yet his inclination appears to have been to simplify, which may explain why he chose a 12-bar blues chorus for Nat Adderley's "Work Song" rather than the composition's 16-bar structure, and why Willette employed his first four bars of "Blues March" for his line "Soul Walk" instead of simply playing the more sculpted arrangement and substitute harmonics of the Benny Golson classic.
The point is not that Willette should have made himself into something that he was not. As Goldberg and British critic Francis Newton (the nom de jazz of historian Eric Hobsbawm) emphasize, he played a style of music that resonated within the African-American community yet escaped the appreciation of the music's more intellectual commentators. This more populist (urban, working-class, call it what you will) style was merging with modern jazz and popular music at the time, thanks to earlier versions of songs in this collection like the Adderley opus and "At Last", which Etta James had taken far from its origins in the Glenn Miller band. With hindsight, especially after so much of popular music has moved in other directions, the proximity of what Willette played to, say, Lou Donaldson's more "intricate" acoustic quartet music, appears even more obvious. So it remains unclear whether, had he chosen or been able to stay in the fray, Willette would have fulfilled the prophecy with which Goldberg concludes.
Grant Green and Ben Dixon did stay in the fray, often in tandem and frequently with other organists. They were heard supporting Brother Jack McDuff at the time of this recording, and a year later would strike another memorable partnership (again at the instigation of Donaldson) with Big John Patton that yielded more than a dozen recordings in a five-year period. Larry Young and Billy Gardner also kept company with Green and Dixon on record. Green, of course, did have a significant impact on the jazz world, although one often ignored for the reasons Goldberg and Newton emphasize, at least until time provided the necessary perspective.
In the end, what might have been can not detract from what was some very good music that Roosevelt "Baby Face" Willette recorded in Rudy van Gelder's studio in 1961. Without a horn soloist in the band, as he is heard here and on the earlier Grant's First Stand, he had no problem carrying the additional solo and ensemble responsibilities, and clearly knew how to set and maintain a groove. It can only be considered music's loss that Baby never grew up.

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