Memphis during the late ’40s to early ’50s was an incredible incubator for a small group of young jazz musicians. Saxophonists George Coleman and Frank Strozier, pianist Phineas Newborn Junior, and trumpeters Booker Little and Louis Smith all went to the same high school. Each had both great technical ability and reading skills, and each followed and understood the path from Bird onward. Most significantly, each had an ingrained sense of the southern blues that marked them as Memphians. This quality separated them from most of their contemporaries.
Although Young Men from Memphis – Down Home Reunion is listed as being under the leadership of Booker Little, it is really a joint venture. If anything, it’s alto saxophonist Strozier who emerges as the session’s star. Historically neglected, Strozier was the equal Cannonball Adderley (with whom he shares some churchy characteristics), Art Pepper, Jackie McLean and Phil Woods. He had the bad luck to have played in one of the only Miles Davis groups to have not recorded, and wound up in Don Ellis’s big band on the West Coast, which probably contributed to his anonymity.
Young Men from Memphis works from a simple jazz formula: There are four well-known tunes, effective but basic arrangements, and plenty of blowing space. No ballads. Lots of reliance on the blues. Duke’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” kicks things off. Strozier goes deep in the well during his long solo, mixing Bird and maybe Louis Jordan. Little hints the future in his lyrical spots, drawing outside standard blues licks, after which George Coleman, guitarist Calvin Newborn, and brother Phineas get right back to the source. The flag waver “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” gives everyone a chance to let out the throttle. Little is particularly fluent here, combining speed with lyricism. There are still traces of Clifford Brown in his work, but he was clearly already making strides away from his influences. It’s interesting to hear the contrast between him and Louis Smith, who plays with confidence and skill, but is a less individual musician.
“After Hours” was a favorite of Phineas Newborn’s. Judging by this version, his brother Calvin liked it too. Phineas ate up this kind of bluesy material. Because of his astounding technique, he was able to move in and out of straight time, double time, and even quadruple time while playing unison lines with both hands, always maintaining the relaxed late-night feeling required.
Saving the best for last, there’s a sublime “Star Eyes.” Strozier is magnificent here, poised yet emotionally invested, brought in by Newborn’s elegant Latin tinged intro. He plays a little tongue twister of a line during his first chorus that’s a thing of beauty. The solo gets subtly grittier as it goes, as he hands things back to Newborn, who initially moves into Red Garland territory (the most letter-perfect imitation of Red I’ve ever heard) before going to his own parallel lines.
I haven’t said anything about drummer Charles Crosby or bassist George Joyner (better known in later years as Jamil Nasser, a stalwart in Ahmad Jamal’s trio). Although neither spends much of the album in the limelight, each supplies precisely the right combination of propulsion and good taste that maximizes the options of the soloists. They may not call much attention to themselves, but you’d hear the difference if their roles had been assigned to lesser players. Young Men from Memphis-Down Home Reunion is an entertaining album throughout. If its format doesn’t vary much from the blowing date custom of the day, it does illustrate how effective that format could be when placed in the right hands.