Guitarist Billy Bauer recorded only one album as a leader. The album was Plectrist, and it featured Andrew Ackers on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Osie Johnson on drums. Bauer wasn't shy. The reason for the sole leadership date was Bauer's workload as a sideman. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Bauer recorded relentlessly in bands and groups, preferring to play a supporting role. Producer Norman Granz virtually had to beg Bauer to record Plectrist for his Norgran label, cutting off Bauer repeatedly each time Bauer tried to explain how busy he was and why he couldn't do it. [Photo of Billy Bauer by Herman Leonard]
Bauer had a natural, swinging style that was essential for keeping 1940s big-band rhythm sections on track. A superb sight-reader, Bauer had great taste in chord structures and improvisational lines. What's more, he was confident and clear, which is why he was in such demand.
As the big bands gave way to smaller ensembles in the late 1940s and early 1950s, guitarists increasingly were called upon to keep tempos and set moods. Like Mundell Lowe, Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, Johnny Smith, Dave Barbour, Chuck Wayne, Jimmy Raney and many other guitarists, Bauer was a journeyman, joining groups for brief periods and record dates before being yanked away by another leader or record producer, especially in the 10-inch LP era.
Between 1942 and 1946, Bauer played steadily with Woody Herman's band, known euphemistically as the First Herd. In the fall of 1946 Bauer joined pianist Lennie Tristano and bassist Clyde Lombardi to form the first Lennie Tristano Trio. Sessions followed with other artists, including small ensemble dates with bassist Chubby Jackson and trombonist Bill Harris, Bauer rejoined Tristano's trio in 1947, this time with John Levy on bass. In 1948, Bauer spent much of the year with Benny Goodman. By year's end, he was voted an All Star by Metronome magazine's readers. [Pictured: Bauer, on guitar, behind a seated Woody Herman, in 1946]
As was customary, the magazine's poll winners were recorded. So in January 1949, the Metronome All-Stars made two sides, Overtime and Victory Ball. Today, the discs remain highly charged works that not only showcase the advanced forms of jazz emerging from bebop's wide shadow but also represent an historic convergence of talent. The other 1948 Metronome All-Stars were Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro on trumpets; Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson on trombones; Buddy DeFranco on clarinet; Charlie Parker on alto sax; Charlie Ventura on tenor sax; Ernie Caceres on baritone sax; Lennie Tristano on piano; Billy Bauer on guitar; Eddie Safranski on bass; and Shelly Manne on drums. Pete Rugolo was the arranger. Before you read any further, take another look at that trumpet section.
In March 1949, Bauer joined the groundbreaking Lennie Tristano Sextet, which included Tristano, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Tristano, Arnold Fishkin and Denzil Best. The group experimented with impossibly difficult modal compositions such as Wow! and Cross-Current, radicalizing the cool jazz sound introduced a year earlier at the Royal Roost by the Miles Davis nonet. An interesting footnote: The Miles Davis nonet 78-rpm recordings (later packaged as the Birth of the Cool sessions) were made in January 1949, just three months before Tristano recorded his. An interesting footnote: They were recorded for the same label—and Lee Konitz played on both!
In March 1951, Bauer played on the modal Ezz-thetic session with Miles Davis and Lee Konitz, which further advanced the Third Stream sound. In August, Bauer recorded on Chico O'Farrill Orchestra's Dance One session for Norman Granz's Clef label. A long string of recording dates followed for Bauer in 1952 and 1953.
In December 1954, Bauer's phone rang. It was Charlie Parker asking "B.B" if he was available to appear on a Clef session. It would turn out to be Parker's last studio recordings. The date was the second half of Granz's ill-conceived Cole Porter concept album that Parker never completed before his death in March 1955.
Right after the turn of the year in 1956, Bauer finally relented to Granz's nagging and agreed to record Plectrist. The word "plectrist" was made up by the session's producer and means one who skillfully uses a plectrum or a triangular plastic pic on the guitar's strings. The first four tracks of Plectrist were recorded on January 23, 1956, with another six captured on March 12.
Bauer's playing swings on the up-tempo tracks and features gorgeous chords on the ballads. Bauer is so good on the album that he sounds as if he's accompanying himself. What you notice throughout, in addition to Bauer's beautiful taste, is Osie Johnson's drums. Johnson appeared on dozens of recordings in the 1950s, but it's rare to hear his drumming style and technique so distinctly. On Plectrist, you can hear clearly just how gifted a beat-keeper he was and why he was a favorite of so many session leaders of the period.
Milt Hinton, of course, keeps rock solid time all the way through. Again, because this is a small group with guitar as the lead, you hear exactly why Hinton [pictured] was so beloved by session and club artists.
Andrew Ackers is the least-known player on the date. Ackers was a session pianist who worked steadily in the 1940s with bandleaders Jerry Wald and George Paxton, and with Carmen McRae in 1955. Bauer picks up the story about Ackers in the liner notes from the 2000 re-issue:
"I just grabbed a couple of guys I'd been working with. I had been on a lot of dates with Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson who did a lot of studio work in those days. I knew Andrew Ackers because I was working at NBC at the time, and Fran Warren, the singer, had a couple of little shows, and he was the conductor; every once in a while I was called to do a show with him.
We didn't get to play much on the shows, but we used to get together about an hour before a show and talk and play. Andy was a good accompanist; he backed me up very nicely, never got in my way. Some guys play well but they get in your way all of the time. Andy let me play.
So when I got the record date, I said, 'Well, I'll get Andy.' I could have gotten anybody—I probably could have gotten Lennie [Tristano] to do it—but I was with Andy a lot, and I like the way he accompanied me... [Pictured, from left, Bobby Hackett, Whitey Mitchell, Denzil Best and Bauer in the early 1950s]
Norman wasn't in the studio when I made the album. It was just the musicians and an engineer. I'd say, 'Here we go!' and we'd play. I let everybody do what they wanted to do."
For an example of Bauer and Ackers playing in complete harmony, dig the Bauer original ballad Night Cruise. Or the uptempo Irving Berlin standard, Maybe I Love You Too Much. Ackers had great taste. It's a shame he didn't record more.
Plectrist is a snapshot of the level of taste and talent that existed in early 1956, especially among guys who went from studio to studio earning a living on record dates. It's a sleeper album that's a must-own for any collection.
JazzWax tracks: Plectrist is out of print as a CD. Issued by Verve in 2000 as part of its lovingly remastered Elite Edition series, the CD now goes for $22 used, while an import is about $30 here. Great news, though—the album is available as a download at iTunes and Amazon.
JazzWax video clip: To hear how exciting the Lennie Tristano Sextet was in 1949 with Bauer on guitar, go here. It's a recording of Wow! with just the cover of Tristano's Supersonic LP displayed. But listen to Bauer's solo. Shows you how he could fit right in with these modal monsters using simple smart, swinging lines.