Out Front

Booker Little

album cover

Little Known but Lots Amazing

It's 1961. Ornette Coleman has just kicked the doors down with what hipsters are calling the "new" jazz. Guys like Eric Dolphy and Max Roach are playing high-profile bebop gigs, and then the next week find themselves mixing it up with insurrection-minded musicians in freer contexts. Of course, they're the rare birds who can go both ways: Camps and cliques are coalescing around ideologies. The older bebop-schooled guys scorn the free players as undisciplined. The free-jazz camp thinks the old guard is corny.

Into this contentious moment walks Booker Little, a young trumpet player with a warm, assured tone and a penchant for torrents of not-quite-bop that dodge and weave with great elegance. He's a composer, too, and that's where the real psych-out is: At a time when many around him are choosing sides, Little is seeking a musical accommodation, an approach that borrows wisdom from both camps. The songs on this provocative set seek wide-open vistas, and at the same time present the musicians with serious harmonic challenges, à la hard bop. They inspire solos of pure abandon and also much more carefully considered statements. (Listen to Little carve up the tempo changes he's loaded into the original "We Speak.")

The tunes are all stellar, but of particular note is "Man of Words." It's a tempoless contemplation Little wrote for the critic Nat Hentoff, who at the time ran the Candid label that issued this record, and it features some of Little's most searching, dramatic declarations.

Little's life story is tragically short. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1938, he studied at the Chicago Conservatory, then moved to New York in 1958. His playing with Roach's group established him as one to watch—many considered his fleet, technically adept style to be the first new approach to the trumpet since Clifford Brown. Little recorded frequently as a sideman, and made only four records under his own name before he died, suddenly, of kidney failure in October 1961. He was twenty-three.

Genre: Jazz
Released: 1961, Candid
Key Tracks: "We Speak," "Quiet, Please," "Moods in Free Time," "Man of Words"
Catalog Choice: Booker Little and Friend
Next Stop: Lee Morgan: Search for the New Land
After That: Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil
Book Pages: 450–451

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