When I heard Clark Terry died yesterday, the first album I went for was Serenade to a Bus Seat. I’m not exactly sure why, but it is my favorite Clark Terry album. He is most famous for playing flugelhorn and his mumbled scat singing, neither of which appear on this album. It is a straight ahead hard bop session with a great band and it is just a lot of fun to listen to.
When I say it is a great band, I really mean it. No one on the date is famous enough to be known outside of jazz circles, but they are all first choice players within the jazz community. Philly Joe Jones was the hard bop drummer of choice in the fifties. Johnny Griffin was as good a tenor sax player as anyone. It was probably his move to Europe in the early sixties that kept him out of the limelight. I have two basic rules when it comes to jazz recordings. The first is that Paul Chambers always makes the recording better. He literally plays bass on more classic albums than I can count. The second is that Wynton Kelly always makes the recording better. His piano lends a distinctive groove to everything he plays. I’ll buy any album that has both of these players on it and I haven’t been disappointed yet. And then there is Clark Terry. Even at an early session like this, he is his own man. The trumpet playing is totally distinctive. He doesn’t sound like anyone except Clark Terry.
The session opens with Charlie Parker’s classic “Donna Lee” and it burns. It starts with a Philly Joe drum fill and then the whole band plays the head. Johnny Griffin gets the first solo followed by Terry and Philly Joe trading fours. Then Wynton Kelly takes a solo that leads back into the head. Not only is it perfect bop, it shows what this band can do.
A Clark Terry original called “Boardwalk” comes next. This is a relaxed groove in the hard bop tradition, especially the way the trumpet and sax play together. There are a series of short solos alternating with the head, first Terry then Griffin. Then the head drops out and the two soloists go back and forth. It’s nice to hear them play off of each other. It’s playful rather than competitive. Then Kelly gets some solo space to himself before coming back to the head.
“Boomerang” is another Terry original. This brings the tempo back up a bit. It’s a fun line. Terry starts off the solos followed Griffin and Kelly. Then we get the first bass solo of the record. Chambers plays it arco and shows that he can keep up with anyone. Then, they play the head and Philly Joe gets a brief moment before the close.
Another Terry original called “Digits” comes next. This one relaxes the tempo a bit. It’s a relatively short song at just over four minutes, so everyone keeps it economical. But there is a nice duet between Terry and Griffin before Kelly’s solo.
Next is the title track, “Serenade to a Bus Seat” and it is also by Terry. This tune is just plain fun. Griffin starts off the solos followed by Terry. Kelly’s comping reminds us that jazz is dance music at its heart and the feeling continues during his solo. You just can’t help but tap your foot.
The Carmichael/Parish standard “Stardust” comes next and we get to see what this band can do with a ballad. It is lush and romantic. Philly Joe is on brushes and everyone’s playing is straightforward and tasteful. That’s not a bad thing, though. They are playing the song rather than playing over the changes.
With Terry’s “Cruising” we’re back to laid back hard bop. This is the longest tune on the album and gives the players some room to spread out. Griffin takes the first solo and Philly Joe is wonderfully responsive throughout. Terry comes next. I love the way he uses space and really lets the song breathe. Then we get Kelly’s solo followed by Paul Chambers and the band trading before the close.
The session ends with Arlen/Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic”. This is another dance number. There is a definite Latin tinge to it. And it’s short at just under two minutes. Everyone says their piece and it fades out.
All in all, this is just a fun record. The songs are great and the band is great. I give it the highest recommendation.