MAKING A SCENE MAGAZINE
by Jim Hynes
The Mulligan Chronicles
Ask any casual fan of jazz for a bandleader who played baritone saxophone and it is likely that just one name will emerge – the famed player and composer Gerry Mulligan. Mulligan was every bit as important to the post bebop, cool movement aka “Birth of the Cool” as was Miles Davis. And, recently we have seen more instances and performances of the “Birth of the Cool” from various corners of the jazz community. Enter David Larsen, baritone saxophonist, educator, astute student of Mulligan’s work. The Mulligan Chronicles is the culmination of years of study into the compositions of Gerry Mulligan – “In my studies, I traveled to the library of Congress to view hundreds of Gerry Mulligan’s handwritten scores and interview countless musicians. Zubin Mehta, Ted Rosenthal, and the many others I spoke with agreed that Gerry Mulligan was a musical genius,” says Larsen.
Rest assured this is not another “Birth of the Cool” episode. Larsen is not working with the iconic nonet configuration, but he is working with several late generation Mulligan players in a quintet. He and trombonist Dave Glenn, a veteran of Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band that recorded on Gerry’s Grammy- award winning Walk on Water (1981). Pianist Bill Mays was a frequent Mulligan collaborator, and bassist Dean Johnson worked with Mulligan for almost all his later career and appears on several albums including Lonesome Boulevard (1989), Re-Birth of the Cool (1992), and Dream a Little Dream (1994). Drummer Ron Vincent joined Mulligan’s road band in the ‘90s and performed with him on the Re-Birth of the Cool album and tour. So, obviously the style of Mulligan is very much intact.
Many think of the baritone sax as a supporting instrument that “fills out the bottom” but Mulligan certainly transformed that notion, using it as a lead instrument. Larsen gets beautiful tone out of the instrument and his fluidity in many passages is again to a tenor sax. This music inevitably swings but is more melodic and lyrical that one might guess with the trombone and baritone sax delivering most of the solos. Although Larsen is pursuing his PhD, much of which includes the music of Mulligan, he has appeared as a sideman on albums dating back to 2015 and his compositions have been recorded by groups in the U.S. and internationally.
Larsen put together this album that runs a little over 60 minutes by choosing selections that spanned Mulligan’s career. Early career examples are “Walkin’ Shoes” and “Festive Minor” while later pieces are represented by “Lonesome Boulevard” and “Rico Apollo.” Mulligan considered himself a composer first and wrote for big bands, small combos, film scores, and even a symphony orchestra. Larsen had plenty to choose from but needed to think mostly in terms of those executed best by a small combo. This is straight-ahead no frills jazz that swings hard but what makes it especially compelling are the strength of Mulligan’s compositions, Larsen’s arrangements, and, of course, the unusual quintet instrumentation.