Catalog Number: BLP 4068
Baby Face Willette (or), Grant Green (g), Fred Jackson (ts), Ben Dixon (d)
Cover photo: Francis Wolff
Cover design: Reid Miles
Liner notes: Robert Levin
Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, January 30, 1961
Originally released 1961
A quick note about starting with BLP 4068
While in the car recently, I decided to put on one of the many Blue Note artists that I always just scroll past in Apple CarPlay. Why not give it a listen? What’s the worst that could happen? It was at that moment that the idea for the 4000 Project came to me. Rather than wait months to write about this record (I intend to write these in order of their catalog numbers, starting at 4001), I’d rather get this party started and get the proverbial feet wet. Better that it’s fresh on the mind, yes?
Date first heard: January 22, 2021 (Apple Music)
Have you ever noticed that in movies and TV shows from the 1960s, whenever there’s a group of young, ostensibly “hip” people congregating in someone’s rumpus room, they seem to be listening to desperately cheesy instrumental music? Usually in some sort of vague blues structure. I used to wonder if that was what “real” people were actually listening to. I realize now that the soundtrack was probably picked by some square production advisor or out-of-touch director. Turns out they should have been listening to this record all along.
Baby Face Willette (given name: Roosevelt). I’m not even sure what to make of the name, but it certainly doesn’t sound like any other jazz musician I’ve ever heard of. They usually seem to have names like Bobby, Jimmy, and Billy. But I digress. As a Blue Note fan, of course I’d heard his name before and seen the album cover, but hadn’t listened to it.
Gre-e-e-a-zy. Down home. Call it whatever you want, but this record drips with soul. The blues is on display throughout. Up-tempo and urban (“Swingin’ at Sugar Ray’s”, “Face to Face”). Mid-tempo (“Somethin’ Strange”). Filthy R&B (“Goin’ Down”). All penned by Willette, save for “Whatever Lola Wants.”
Willette coaxes a variety of tones from his B3, often recalling a slightly more refined Jimmy McGriff. Fred Jackson (still alive at this writing!) sounds like he’s walked the bar a few times, his tenor adding brash machismo and heft to the mix.
Notably, Grant Green’s solos are effortless examples of how to combine imagination, intellect, melodicism, dexterity with the Blues. His improvisation on “Swingin’ at Sugar Ray’s” is a masterclass by one of history’s greatest – and most unsung – guitarists. And this record is also a rare chance to hear Grant even play a few chords, something he rarely did on his own sessions, seeing himself as more akin to a horn player.
TL;DR: What a great album. Strong backbeats that feel like a revival meeting at times. Elements of blues, gospel, hard bop, and soul jazz. Oh yeah, and brilliant solos by Grant Green.
Best track: “Swingin’ at Sugar Ray’s”
Have you ever listened to this one? Do you know any details about the little-known Willette’s life? Let me know in the comments.