by Phil Freeman
Every so often, something you’ve been taking for granted hits you in the forehead like a thrown mallet, and you spend the next little while walking around wondering what you could possibly have been thinking—or not thinking—your whole life. The awesomeness of the Blue Note Records catalog of the 1960s is the kind of thing that’s so impossible to dispute that you can start to take it for granted. You can start to not really hear the music anymore, because you can put any random disc on, and even if it’s slightly less mind-warpingly beautiful than other titles by the same artist—if it’s only better than anything else you’ve heard that month, rather than the kind of thing that sends you staggering into traffic like Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, pounding on strangers’ car hoods and demanding “Have you heard Lee Morgan‘s Search for the New Land? Have you fucking heard this album?”—even if it’s not that life-altering, it’s still great. But that much greatness, so readily available, can numb you. You can start to take it for granted. Which is when it’s time to dip into the dustier corners and pull out stuff you may not have paid much attention to before.
Ike Quebec is not really in the pantheon of Blue Note players of the 1960s. That’s partly because he died in the earliest days of 1963, before the label’s sudden infusion of creativity and new blood (think about all the dudes who made their Blue Note debut between ’63 and ’65—Joe Henderson, Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson, Grachan Moncur III, and on and on), but it’s also because he was of a prior generation. Quebec got his start in the 1940s, playing with Cab Calloway, Tiny Grimes, and Roy Eldridge, among others. He recorded as a leader for Blue Note between 1944 and 1948, and worked as an A&R man for the label, too, bringing Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell into the fold. It’s been said that he did a lot of uncredited arranging on other musicians’ sessions, too. He didn’t do much of anything in the ’50s, mostly due to drug problems. But when he returned to Blue Note in 1959, he seemed determined to make up for lost time.
Quebec began his comeback somewhat cautiously, recording eight songs for jukebox singles. These were successful, so he recorded another set in 1960 (one of which, “Everything Happens to Me,” was released in short and long versions), and nine more in 1962, when the second phase of his career was well underway. These are organ-driven, bluesy tunes, with standards mixed in. What’s interesting about Quebec’s recordings, though (and this holds true on his albums, as well), is that he uses both an organist and a bassist (frequently Milt Hinton). Most organ combos dispense with upright bass, but Quebec prefers the organist to play a melodic role, an approach that yields superb results and a generally fuller sound. All 26 tracks were reissued as a two-CD set, The Complete Blue Note 45 Sessions; it’s out of print in physical form, but available for download.
Nineteen sixty-one was the year Quebec really cranked into high gear. He made three albums that year—Heavy Soul, It Might As Well Be Spring and Blue and Sentimental, all recorded in a total of four sessions between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The first two feature the same band: Quebec on tenor saxophone, Freddie Roach on organ (making his professional debut), Hinton on bass and Al Harewood on drums. Blue and Sentimental, by contrast, features guitarist Grant Green, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. (There’s also a bonus track on the CD version, “Count Every Star,” with Sonny Clark on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums.)
Heavy Soul has an astonishing physicality to its sound. Every instrument is swathed in reverb, Quebec’s saxophone in particular; the only ready comparison is John Coltrane‘s sound on the first, self-titled album by the Miles Davis Quintet, from 1955. His phrasing is slow and thoughtful, romantic on the slow songs in a manner younger players of the time would have rejected as hilariously sentimental—Archie Shepp would revive this style of emotive balladry in the late ’60s. Hinton’s bass is huge, and when the two men play a duet on “Nature Boy” it’s like a vast heart throbbing. Make no mistake, though, they can crank things up; the album’s opening and closing tracks, “Acquitted” and “Blues for Ike,” are hard-swinging romps with plenty of room for drummer Harewood to rattle and crash around the kit.
It Might As Well Be Spring, recorded just under two weeks later by the same group, is an excellent sequel. Quebec re-records “A Light Reprieve,” a song he issued on 45 in 1959 in a radically different arrangement, and otherwise offers more of his swing/bop-style blowing over soulful grooves. It’s a short album, only six tracks in 35 minutes (Heavy Soul offered nine, and ran past the 45-minute mark), but hardly skippable.
Blue and Sentimental is the album most people go to first when they discover Ike Quebec, and while it’s excellent, it’s not that much better than anything else he recorded during this time-span. Somewhat surprisingly (I was surprised, anyway) given its title, it’s not an all-ballads session. It’s got a little more sting to it than its predecessors, in fact, because of the presence of Grant Green on guitar, and the hard-hitting, Miles-approved rhythm section of Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, but it’s another slab of blues, standards and swinging groove. Highly worthwhile, but so are its two predecessors.
Quebec recorded two albums in 1962, and each is interesting in its own way. Five tracks from a session early in the year were released in 1981 as Congo Lament; in 1987, these were reunited with three others from the same day’s work and given the title Easy Living. On these extremely bluesy numbers, he worked with other horn players for the only time during these years—trombonist Bennie Green and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine joined him, with a backing trio of Sonny Clark, Milt Hinton and Art Blakey on drums. The chance to hear Quebec alongside another saxophonist is very welcome; in some ways it makes his style seem that much more anachronistic, but it also makes his virtues—patience, romanticism, a suffusing sense of the blues—that much more apparent.
His final recording session came in October 1962, for the album Soul Samba. On this occasion, the band included guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Wendell Marshall, drummer Willie Bobo and Garvin Masseaux on chekere, and as the disc’s title should indicate, the music has a heavily Brazilian lilt. This is a very interesting showcase for Quebec’s buzzy, full tone; when the band’s cruising along without him, it’s a lighthearted session full of finger-snapping good vibes, but when he comes back in, there’s a layer of gravitas that falls onto everything like a thick, woolen blanket.
While Soul Samba is a good record, it’s a clear attempt to jump on a momentary trend, and consequently the most disposable of all Quebec’s releases, which makes it a shame that he never got to do anything else. In 1963, he died of cancer, and no other sessions lie in the vaults. He didn’t even do all that much sideman work during his final few years: he can be heard on Grant Green’s Gooden’s Corner and Born to Be Blue, organist Jimmy Smith‘s Open House and Plain Talk, vocalist Dodo Greene‘s My Hour of Need, and one track on Sonny Clark’s Leapin’ and Lopin’. And that’s it.
Virtually all of Quebec’s slim discography remains in print…it’s well worth checking out.