Ed Bland is an American composer, musical arranger and producer with a considerable catalog of contemporary classical compositions – “Art Music,” as Bland would note – to his name. Bland is, at least among a coterie of vintage soul fans, also identified with his recordings of the ‘60s and ‘70s, singular R&B; and jazz arrangements so distinct that they unwittingly dominate the music at times. You’ll know what I’m talking about by the end of this post.
Ed Bland was born in 1926 and grew up in Chicago’s South Side, studying as a young saxophonist and clarinetist at the University of Chicago and the American Conservatory of Music after World War Two. Composition studies behind him, infatuated by philosophy and West African drumming, he immersed himself in avant-garde musical theory as well as the intellectual life of post-War Chicago trying, all the while, to get his songs and compositions published. In 1959, he co-produced the experimental film Cry of Jazz, an exposition of race and jazz (with rare early footage of Sun Ra), before moving with his family to New York City in the early ‘60s.
In New York City, Bland found work as a freelance producer, composer and arranger on the strength of his jazz and conservatory pedigree. Ed Bland’s musical objective was to “create a raw, colorful, funky, soulful sound combined with complex linear patterns,” according to his own abstract musical philosophy. Therewith he would spend much of the next two decades in the record industry, eventually becoming a producer and A&R; head at Vanguard Records from 1974 to 1978.
Settling in Los Angeles in 1984, where he continues to live and work, Bland wrote music for motion pictures, TV and occasional record productions, composing the scores for A Raisin In the Sun and The House of Dies Drear and orchestrating A Soldier’s Story. Bland still actively composes, his recent score for 34th St. NYC and albums of compositions like Urban Classical: The Music of Ed Bland (Cambria) and Dancing Through the Walls (Delos), though with no obvious connection to his days as an R&B; innovator, evincing an idiosyncratic vision at work.
Looking over his discography, one gets the feeling that Ed Bland is one of these gifted American musical minds who successfully navigated the straits of the record industry but who was rarely granted the latitude to fulfill their vision – especially on the industry’s commercial terms. There’s something of a maverick quality to Bland, a musical individualist if not eccentric, which perhaps explains why his handiwork never found a more consistent niche in an industry that rarely rewards such qualities. Helloooo, Office Naps.
1. The Pazant Brothers, Skunk Juice (RCA Victor)
Brothers Eddie (saxophone) and Alvin Pazant (trumpet) were raised in a musical family in Beaufort, South Carolina, though it was in New York City with Lionel Hampton where Eddie’s professional career first took root in the late ‘50s and also where, a few years later, both Eddie and Alvin met Ed Bland, then a freelance arranger with Hampton. Forming their own group in 1964, their sporadic records as the Pazant Brothers would alternate throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s with supporting gigs in Hampton’s band and Pucho & the Latin Soul Brothers (among other notables).
Theirs, mostly, is a long discography of jazz, R&B;, soul and rock session work, but with the Pazant Brothers’ handful of late ‘60s 45s – as well as their 1975 LP Loose and Juicy – something different is clearly happening. One senses that in the Pazant Brothers Bland had found his ideal protégés, musicians who were both sympathetic to his unorthodox vision and had the chops to realize it. Tellingly, the ‘70s recordings the Pazant Brothers issued without Bland’s involvement – and there are a handful of such 45s – suffer as merely decent instrumental funk.
There are identifiable solos, riffs and verses in Bland’s charts, it’s just they’re never conventional. By his standards, 1969’s “Skunk Juice,” with its wildly kinetic expressions of melody, is still quite exceptional, though. Whole honking flocks of geese, whole brass bands, are swallowed and spat back out, all in march tempo. Hope is renewed for tuba players everywhere.
The Pazant Brothers play today as leaders of the Cotton Club All-Stars.
2. James Moody, If You Grin (You’re In) (Sceptor)
An important and accomplished post-War bop composer, saxophonist and flautist, James Moody was born in 1925 in Georgia, grew up in New Jersey, and, like many other second-generation beboppers, found himself in army bands overseas during World War Two. His return to the states included – again, like many of his generation – a formative apprenticeship in the pioneering bop orchestra of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Though much of his post-War time was spent abroad in Europe’s more jazz-sympathetic cities, Moody established a higher profile with some leader dates in the late ‘40s, recording “Moody’s Mood for Love,” (based on Jimmy McHugh’s “I’m In the Mood for Love”) in Sweden, a significant hit in 1949 and an even bigger hit in 1952 with singer King Pleasure’s vocalese reading.
Moody also spent an increasing part of his days in his cups, a struggle later recounted on 1958’s Last Train From Overbrook. The five decades since have seen Moody leading small groups of his own, and, with the exception of a few funkier sessions and some years spent as a backing musician in Las Vegas in the ‘70s, he’s rarely veered from sterling, straightahead bop. Though well regarded amongst other musicians and devotees, Moody’s consistent, prolific output has perhaps been overlooked by casual jazz fans only interested the latest Blue Note reissues.
“If You Grin (You’re In)” was taken from Moody’s 1964 LP Running the Gamut and was recorded with a group including Patti Bown (piano), Albert Heath (drums), Reggie Workman (bass) and Thad Jones (trumpet). Though it is an early recorded date for him, the arrangements and wild horn play are unmistakably Ed Bland. There’s no logic anywhere that says a single, unwavering organ chord should sound so funky, but it does, and gloriously so, and I suppose that is why, finally, Ed Bland was the arranger here and not you or I.
Ed Bland also produced Moody’s ’76 album Timeless Aura. James Moody himself is still very much active.
3. Lionel Hampton and his Inner Circle of Jazz, Greasy Greens (Glad-Hamp)
Jazz’s best-known vibraphonist. Born in Kentucky in 1909 and attracted to music – drums, originally – from an early age, Hampton played a few early ‘30s Chicago vibraphone dates, some of jazz’s earliest, before being discovered in Los Angeles by clarinetist Benny Goodman. Famous swing dates with both Goodman and with his own all-star groups ensued, and though he played piano and drums capably, it was Hampton’s spellbinding, consummately swinging work on vibraphone which made him a star during the swing era. After World War Two, Hampton continued leading his own big bands and absorbing popular tastes. Sometimes his groups reflected bebop, just as often they sounded like R&B;, but Hampton remained popular with audiences as one of jazz’s elder statesmen until his death in 2002.
Hampton’s own Glad-Hamp Records was a label that was home to many of his ‘60s albums. It was label that, in between endless iterations of warhorses like “Flying Home,” one can find some interesting selections. Take this, for instance, a number commissioned for Ed Bland by Hampton in 1967. “Greasy Greens,” thumpingly funky, sounds unlike anything Hampton, or anybody else, had ever done – not counting other Ed Bland productions, of course. Hampton would later make other funk-tinged records in the early ‘70s for Brunswick Records, but nothing so bracing.
Credit Hampton for making this record, and for making “Greasy Greens” something of a concert staple. The musicians on this first version include Wallace Davenport (trumpet), Ed Pazant (alto sax), Dave Young (tenor sax), John Spruill (piano), Billy Mackel (guitar), Skinny Burgan (bass), Ronnie Kole (drums) and Hampton on vibraphone.
4. Phil Upchurch, Muscle Soul (Milestone)
Chicago’s Phil Upchurch has long enjoyed a fairly high profile, which has as much to do with his infectious, funky R&B; instrumental hit, 1961’s “You Can’t Sit Down,” as it does with his professional musical career.
Upchurch never quite recaptured the spotlight of “You Can’t Sit Down.” Nor did he have to: beginning with late ‘50s blues and R&B; sessions for Vee-Jay Records and, later, soul and jazz for Chess Records in the ‘60s, Upchurch has been a wildly successful studio guitarist (and bassist), his name showing up everywhere over the decades – on Donny Hathaway albums, on Staple Singers albums, on Cat Stevens albums, on Chaka Khan albums for that matter. Upchurch also has his own extensive recorded history as a leader, and while his late ‘60s soul jazz releases like The Way I Feel have some psychedelic rock moments, mostly his solo releases mirrored the straight ahead pop, blues, soul, jazz and R&B; of his studio work.
“Muscle Soul” is more straightforward than this week’s other arrangements. If, that is, straightforward can be said to consist of five things going on where in Bland’s case there’d normally be ten: it’s still a jolt of crashing freneticism. This selection originally appeared on what is Upchurch’s first and probably strongest jazz-oriented LP, 1967’s Feeling Blue, with Ed Bland providing arrangements. The album also includes Al Williams (piano), Chuck Rainey (bass), Bernard Purdie (drums), Warren Smith (congas), Wallace Davenport (trumpet) and John Gilmore, Pat Patrick and Eddie Pazant (saxophones).
Now based in Los Angeles, Phil Upchurch is as active as ever.