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Track listing:
1) The Wretched Rat
2) Smoothie
3) Sea Cap Samba
4) Dawning
5) The 6/8 Strut
6) Spider Eyes
7) The Cog
8) Getto's Stash
9) Miss Mouse
10) Mr. Quigley
11) Serene
12) Snuggles
13) Fuzzy

Paul Couch (bari sax)
Paul Supple (trumpet)
Mike Wicks (bass)
Pete Toigo (bass)
Dick Johnson (drums)

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PAUL COUCH - Mulligan Stew

by J Hunter

West Coast Jazz has a lot in common with Impressionist art. Think about it: Just as the works of Renoir and Monet were reviled upon arrival but are considered masterworks today, the initial (and violent) reaction to the work of Dave Brubeck, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Gerry Mulligan seems silly when compared with the reverence today's jazz fans bestow on these very same artists. It is that reverence (both for the West Coast sound and for Mulligan) that drives saxman Paul Couch's disc, Mulligan Stew.

The Gerry Mulligan Quartet epitomized West Coast - lightweight and passionless to devotees of the post-war Bebop movement, but full of nuance and beauty for those who took the time to take a deeper listen. Baritone sax wizard Mulligan and legendary trumpeter Chet Baker had a musical relationship that seems almost symbiotic when you listen to their Pacific Jazz singles; the harmonies are so tight, the lead lines so razor-sharp, that they sound like they're coming from the same mind.

It is to Couch's credit that Mulligan Stew is not a rehash of Mulligan & Baker's body of work, though goodness knows Couch and trumpet/flugelhorn player Paul Supple have the chops to make that idea work. Instead, Couch offers up 13 original compositions clearly (and admittedly) influenced by the Mulligan Quartet, and by West Coast as a whole. “Sea Cap Samba” owes a debt to Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, whose album Jazz Samba (Polygram) popularized the sultry songbook of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Apart from that track, though, this disc is all about the inspiration Couch received from the Mulligan Quartet.

Couch and Supple are in tight formation from the jump, as the disc leaps without preamble into “The Wretched Rat”. In other hands, this would have been a blastfest, with each player trying to outdo the other. Thankfully, that is not the object of the exercise here. Couch & Supple keep the tune on the edge without even a hint of wanting to go over the top. Mind you, it's not for lack of effort. The control displayed by the two soloists is both palpable and impressive throughout the disc, as is the passion that detractors claim is absent from West Coast. You can't deny the sadness and regret that flows through “Dawning”, or the pure good fun of “The 6/8 Strut”.

Mulligan is one of a small number of players (James Carter, Howard Johnson, our own Nick Brignola) who pulled the barry-sax out of the back line and let it run on its own. This gives Couch a wide field to play in, both as a writer and a player, and he makes the most of it, offering compositions and solos that are filled with both style and substance. His skillful arrangements successfully capture the essence of the Mulligan Quartet, without succumbing to caricature.

Supple is doing double duty here - not only negotiating Couch's work, but also filling the role of Baker, who was Mulligan's running partner both on and off the bandstand. Supple's solos and fills are not just solid, precise and crystal-clear; they remind us that, at the end of the day, Baker played one monstrous horn before the brutal mugging that altered his playing style forever. The rhythm section varies on a few tracks, as drummer Dick Johnson shares space with bassists Pete Toigo and Mike Wicks. Wicks' opening solo for “Dawning” deserves its own mention. The jumping, stuttering prelude hints at big (and, possibly, dark) doings that could have led to the remorse of the overall piece.

Couch's attention to detail on all things Mulligan comes back to bite him, to my mind. With the exception of the 7-minutes-plus “Dawning”, all the tunes on Mulligan Stew clock in between 4 and 5 minutes - about the same radio-friendly length as the Mulligan Quartet's singles. While faithful to the period, it does leave the listener wanting more when a cut “suddenly” winds up. One hopes more exploration will be involved if Couch takes this concept back in the studio. Until then, Mulligan Stew is an excellent appetizer, and a fine tribute to music that, like fine California wine, gets better with age.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.