If Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis are the bookends of modern jazz trumpet, the volumes in between are written by Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Lee Morgan. Along with Diz and Davis, these three jazzmen, all of whom died tragically young, have influenced every contemporary player to purse his lips around a mouthpiece. Three new complete collections from the Blue Note vaults document nearly 15 years of trumpet triumphs.
Fats Navarro played in dance bands as a teenager in the early ’40s, and in 1945 replaced Gillespie in crooner Billy Eckstein’s band before going solo the following year. Navarro left Eckstein because of the musical constrictions of a big band, but he was also out of shape and unable to handle incessant touring. His unending weight problems, as well as his sensitive disposition and feminine voice, earned him the nickname “Fat Girl.”
Addiction was to be Navarro’s downfall, but it wasn’t just to food. Heroin had taken hold of the lives of scores of musicians in the 1940s, and Navarro was no exception. While generally considered a gentle, intelligent man, Navarro’s increasingly desperate need for fixes left him edgy. (One story tells of his clunking the already psychologically damaged pianist Bud Powell on the head with his trumpet.) Ever trying to lose weight, Navarro told friends in early 1950 that he had just gone on a dietunfortunately, it was a regimen of smack. He died of drug-exacerbated tuberculosis on July 7, 1950, at a withered 100 pounds. He was 26.
Despite personal turmoil, Navarro crafted a sound of pure joy. He brought jazz trumpet into a new era, tying Roy Eldridge’s melodicism to Gillespie’s technical accomplishment with great energy and a luminescent tone. The seven sessions (over two discs) featured on The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings, which were recorded between 1947 and 1949, showcase the settings in which Navarro excelled. But the compilation is as much a testament to pianist Tadd Dameron’s skill as composer and arranger as to Navarro’s distinctive solo voice. Dameron greatly enriched the jazz repertoire with tunes such as “Hot House,” “On a Misty Night,” and “If You Could See Me Now.”
Navarro had an uncanny ability to blend with fellow trumpeters. Sessions with giants like Gillespie, Davis, Howard McGee, and Kenny Dorham are highlights of this compilation, providing a rare opportunity to compare pre-Clifford Brown bebop styles. Navarro’s Oct. 11, 1948, sessions with Howard McGee, featuring “The Skunk,” “Boperation,” and “Double Talk,” are special because McGee’s normally thin tone gains some bite as he is spurred on by his protégé. (In 1943, the two had played together in Andy Kirk’s band.)
The Capitol sessions of Jan. 18, 1949, with Dameron’s nonet/octet, presage Miles Davis’ more celebrated Birth of the Cool sessions, which followed three days later. Dameron had hired two Afro-Cuban percussionists to exotify the grooves, but the results, “Sid’s Delight” and “Casbah,” are more playful than exotic. An earlier session (Sept. 13, 1948), featuring Chino Pozo’s conga on “Jahbero,” is a damn funky affair, however. Despite the recording’s low fidelity, the drums should long ago have been sampled by a hip hiphopper. They start the song in a backsliding gallop and occasionally break down the piece, opening up space in a way that sonically separates the tune from such beautiful bop burners as “The Chase” and “The Squirrel” from Dameron and Navarro’s first Blue Note session (Sept. 26, 1947).
Navarro’s Aug. 8, 1949, session with Bud Powell stands out as one of the pianist’s few sessions with horns. Powell generally recorded in a trio setting throughout his career, but here the coupling of Navarro and a young Sonny Rollins on tenor sax lends Powell’s propulsive playing an aura of space, the combinaton foreshadowing hard bop by several years. The Powell standard “Bouncing With Bud” is presented three times in all its flash and effervescence, and Thelonius Monk’s “52nd Street Theme” is a back-to-the-wall burner, the players splashing through it with feverish abandon.
As with most complete collections, there are as many alternate takes as originals, and listening to the disc without programming it can become tedious. Unlike Charlie Parker, whose solos were constantly evolving, Navarro was obsessed with playing the perfect melody and tends to stick with a melodic narrative, refining it on each take. This affirmation of beauty was sadly missing in Navarro’s life, so these Capitol and Blue Note recordings represent a “what if” scenario as much as a testament to the trumpeter’s skills. CP