One of the great albatrosses around the neck of the recording industry has been the forced recording of ill-conceived «novelty» recordings. As far back as recorded music goes, artists have been forced, cajoled, and manipulated into making recordings that some marketing genius decided would «cash in» on a fad or hot idea. Often, the music called for in these projects is completely different from what the artist usually played; more often than not, these projects turned out to be failures, artistically and financially.
It was with such an expectation that I picked up Desafinado (Subtitled – Coleman Hawkins Plays Bossa Nova & Jazz Samba.) In reaction to the immense popularity of this «new» music (samba) brought to the United States by Stan Getz and Antonio Carlos Jobim, record executives everywhere scrambled to record as many bossa nova projects as possible. In great demand were recordings by well known artists….artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and of course, Stan Getz. In the fall of 1962, it was decided that jazz legend and father of the jazz tenor saxophone, Coleman Hawkins, would record an album of bossa nova tunes.
While this marriage of artist and material would seem dubious at best, the results proved truly sublime. Hawkins had no history with the bossa nova, and had played very little in that style. While a great backing band was organized for the recording date, no rehearsals were held before the day of the actual recording. Yet, despite this lack of practice, the music produced for this album ranks not only as some of the finest samba music ever produced, but as some of best work, regardless of style, of Hawkins’ long and distinguished career. Hawkins desplayed an amazing grasp of the subtle nuances of samba music, understanding just where to add or take away from the basic melodiy to put his own special stamp on these songs.
The album opens with the samba standard title, «Desafinado,» which Hawkins floats through, gliding along the melody playfully, turning and caressing it, making it his own. Throughout the album, Hawkins moves easily through the tender parts of the samba tunes, yet occasionally flashes glimpses of his trademark tenor aggresssion, never allowing the listener to gorget whose in charge. Guitar duo Barry Galbraith and Howard Collins propel and support the tunes, and even take the occasional solo such as on «O Pato (The Duck).» Pianist Tommy Flanagan gives up the ivories for the claves, and proves quite adept. Flanagan, along with percussionist Willie Rodriguez, drummer Eddie Locke and bassist Major Holly from a rhythm syndicate that would hold its own on any corner in Rio de Janeiro.
Even with the outstanding treatments of classic samba tunes like «One Note Samba» and «An Embrace To Bonfa,» the highlight of this album is definitely the seemingly out-of-place «I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover.» After an introductory groove laid down by Flanagan and Holley, Hawkins swims in carrying the familiar melody above the current, before diving down into the swirling treatment he puts on this traditional favorite. Perhaps it is only fitting for such a seemingly out of place selection to shine the brightest over this most unlikely of masterpieces.