February 14, 2010

A Good Week for “Baby Face”

Face to FaceOn January 23, 1961, saxophonist Lou Donaldson recorded Here ‘Tis, his first album as a leader with an organ quartet. He was trying to get a sound closer to the basic blues. “We tried to play the blues like they were originally played,” Donaldson stated. “Like a conversation with the instruments – just talking to each other.” For this session, he brought in a couple of new faces: Grant Green on guitar and Roosevelt “Baby Face” Willette on the B-3 organ. (He looks like a teenager, hence the moniker.) The results were just the kind of funky sound he wanted on both the driving songs like “Watusi Jump” and on the brooding title tune.
     Blue Note took notice of the newcomers. Five days later, Green recorded Grant’s First Stand, which was his debut album but, in spite of the title, actually his second session. Willette appears on this album as well. Two days after that, Willette recorded his debut album, Face to Face, with Green on guitar and Fred Jackson on sax. All of them shine on the album. Willette composed all but one of the songs, and they all have a propulsive, deep groove, provided by Willette on the organ with his use of sustained rhythmic notes. Jackson has a bluesy, showy style on sax that uses all the tricks in the book. And Green sounds heavy and funky on the guitar on “Goin’ Down” and flying on “Swingin’ at Sugar Ray’s.”
     Grant Green went on to be one of the stars of Blue Note. Willette, on the other hand, recorded only a handful of additional albums after this. Then, he largely faded from the jazz scene. He had always been an itinerate musician, touring with R&B and gospel groups in the Fifties and returning to this life in the Sixties before settling in Chicago. He died in obscurity in 1971 at the age of 37. Still, “Baby Face” had a spectacular debut here in 1961 and left behind a small legacy of great grooves.

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