2001 – Jazz tenor saxophonist Harold Land dies in Los Angeles after a stroke. He is 73. Land gained prominence in 1954 when he joined a quintet led by trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach.
For many performers, working with a string section is a long-held dream. The lush backdrop warmly supports an instrumentalist or a singer, setting the stage for emotional, often unforgettable performances. Listen to orchestral albums by such greats as Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Clifford Brown, and Johnny Hodges, and the beauty and feeling that arise from these situations is soon appreciated.
A Lazy Afternoon is a stellar contribution to this genre. Here, the consummate tenor saxophone artistry of Harold Land, easily one of jazz’s premier improvisers, meets the sumptuous string orchestrations of Ray Ellis, who is best recalled for Lady in Satin, a 1958 session for Columbia Records for which he wrote gorgeous string backdrops for Holiday.
A Lazy Afternoon features ear-pleasing renditions of such evergreens as “You Go To My Head,” “Invitation,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “Nature Boy,” “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Wave,” and the title track, “Lazy Afternoon.” Land and the string and orchestral palette are accompanied by the ace rhythm team of Billy Higgins (drums), William Henderson (piano), and James Leary (bass).
The tenor saxophonist, who will always be remembered for his scintillating performances with the masterful quintet led by trumpeter Brown and drummer Max Roach in the mid-50’s and with the internationally acclaimed quintet he co-led with Bobby Hutcherson in the late ’60s and early ’70s, fits superbly into the context. He employs his rugged, individualistic style and his trademark expressive tone, mixing compelling melody readings with alluring improvisations.
For years, Land had wanted to do an album with strings, having been touched by recordings by Parker and Brown, as well as by Lady in Satin. And his appearances with Tony Bennett in the late ’60s and ’70s also flamed his desire for a string album. Then, he’d join the singer, mostly in Las Vegas, but occasionally on tours of Latin America, serving as the star soloist with the full orchestra that backed Bennett and reaching audiences that might not have otherwise known of his work. “Those appearances were always memorable and helped foster the desire in my soul to make an album with strings,” says Land.
A Lazy Afternoon came to fruition when a story on Land, written by Jason Fine in Option magazine, told of his wish to make a string album. Postcards A&R Director Ralph Simon read the story, liked the idea and, being another fan of Lady in Satin, tracked down Land and then Ellis, both of whom live in Southern California.
Both principals, who had never worked together prior to A Lazy Afternoon, were enthusiastic about the collaboration. “Harold is a beautiful guy, and laid-back, and he plays that way,” says Ellis. “The album feels real good to me.” “Ray’s beautiful writing was so tasteful and romantic — that’s a good word,” says Land. “The album worked out the way I wanted. With the turbulent state of affairs in this country, as well as the world, I would hope this album would manifest a little peaceful feeling, a positive effect, to all who hear it, as opposed to the negativity we are bombarded with every day. That feeling of peace is something I have been trying to express through music for a long time and, hopefully, this album will be a continuance of that effort.”
The saxophonist and the arranger have lived fulfilling artistic lives. Land, born in Houston and raised in San Diego, moved to Los Angeles in the early ’50s. In 1954, he joined the famed Brown-Roach quintet, with which he toured the United States and recorded several albums for EmArcy (all of which are available as reissue CDs). After two years with the ensemble, Land felt the need to be closer to his family, which was in Los Angeles, and so he returned and has resided there ever since. Land recalled the mid-to-late ’50s, when LA was teeming with jazz. “That was a very healthy period here,” says the tenorman. “A lot of clubs around the city had a six-night-a-week policy, and most musicians were working.”
He soon began to establish himself as one of the most singular and powerful of jazzmen, making albums with bassists Red Mitchell and Curtis Counce and then, in 1958, making his 12” LP debut (he had recorded four selections in 1949 that were released by Savoy). Harold in the Land of Jazz was issued on Contemporary Records, and was followed a year later by The Fox, on HiFi Jazz (available as a Contemporary Records reissue), which many consider his best early recording. He also began performing with Gerald Wilson’s orchestra, and with pianists Hampton Hawes and Carl Perkins, becoming an essential cog in the wheel of Los Angeles jazz. Nonetheless, the saxophonist didn’t really get much exposure outside LA until he formed a quintet with vibist Bobby Hutcherson in the late ’60s. The band recorded for Blue Note and toured the US and Europe. “There were a lot of similar things that Bobby and I responded to emotionally and musically,” Land says.
Also during the ’60s, Land, like so many saxophonists, became enamored with John Coltrane, and he found that both his smooth sound and his approach to improvising changed during this period. “John definitely inspired me with his intense spirit, and I usually say that spirit moved me so much that I became a little more intense in my own musical presentation,” says Land. “At the same time, I was trying to maintain a certain individuality that I hope I have managed to do.”
In the late ’70s and ’80s, Land joined the Timeless All-Stars, which also included Higgins, Hutcherson, Cedar Walton (piano), and Curtis Fuller (trombone). In and around performances with the Timeless band, Land fronted fine quintets that featured trumpeters Blue Mitchell (their Mapenzi, on Concord Jazz, is a classic) and Oscar Brashear (documented on Xocia’s Dance on Muse). Land remains one of the most impressive and deep improvisers in jazz. As is said in the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, “Land is a fine musician who has not received the fame he deserves.”
Ellis, a Philadelphia native, was originally a tenor saxophonist who taught himself to write while serving in the Army band during World War II. His first commercial charts were crafted in the mid-’50s for pop singers such as the Four Lads (“Moments to Remember,” “Standing on the Corner” — both Billboard Top 10 pop chart hits) and Johnny Mathis (“That Certain Smile,” “Wild Is the Wind”). Later, during his tenures at Columbia, MGM, and RCA Records, he wrote arrangements for hit records by Connie Francis (“Where the Boys Are”), Bobby Darin (“Splish Splash”), Clyde McPhatter (“Lover’s Question”), Brook Benton (“It’s Just a Matter of Time”), and Tony Bennett (“Firefly”). “I think I was a success because I figured out how to write what the producers wanted,” he says.
But the biggest record of Ellis’s career is the timeless Lady in Satin, on which Holiday sang such torch songs as “You’ve Changed” and “Violets for Your Furs.” “Billie picked the tunes and they were all stories of unrequited love — the story of her life,” Ellis recalls. The recording, done in three sessions at Columbia’s then-fabled 30th street studios in New York, was mostly a series of first takes. Her raw talent and emotional quality were astounding, and really moved Ellis. “It was great,” he says of her ability to give the songs meaning. And the album has held up, he feels. “It still sounds contemporary, and people keep calling me because of it,” says Ellis, who has also scored for television, including a theme for NBC’s “Today” show which has run from the ’70s into the ’90s.
Now, Ellis has written the kind of arrangements that have moved Land to deliver powerful performances. It seems clear that people will be talking about, and listening to, A Lazy Afternoon for years to come as well.
Harold Land Discography (as a leader)
Grooveyard (Contemporary) 1958
Harold in the Land of Jazz (Contemporary/OJC) 1958
The Fox (HiFi Jazz/OJC) 1959
Eastward Ho! Harold Land in New York Jazzland (OJC) 1960
Westcoast Blues! Jazzland (OJC) 1960
Hear Ye! Harold Land Quintet with Red Mitchell (Atlantic) 1961
The Peacemaker (Cadet) 1967
Take Aim (Blue Note) 1969
Jazz Impressions of Folk Music (Imperial) 1971
A New Shade of Blue (Mainstream) 1971
Choma (To Burn) (Mainstream) 1971
Damisi (Mainstream) 1977
Total Eclipse (with Bobby Hutcherson) (Blue Note)
Mapenzi (Concord Jazz) 1977
Xocia’s Dance (Muse) 1981
A Lazy Afternoon (Postcards) 1995
Promised Land (Audiophoric) 2001