Art Farmer was unusual for his time for loving swing and bebop equally. His work as a small-group innovator – in particular, with his Jazztet – was no less important to him than the time he spent soloing with big bands. He was one of the 20th century’s most important jazz trumpeters and flugelhornists. Oh, and he also invented the flumpet, a hybrid of those two instruments.
Arthur and his twin brother Addison were born in Iowa in 1928 and raised in Phoenix, where the boys taught themselves to read music. By the time their family moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s, America was involved in World War II. This worked to the twins’ advantage. With Art on trumpet and Addison on bass, the teens had access to gigging and jamming opportunities that young, inexperienced players would have been shut out of had so many men not gone off to war.
After blowing out his lip by over-playing nightly in Johnny Otis’ big band, Farmer went to New York for a couple of years to take some lessons and audition for one of his heroes, Dizzy Gillespie. But Gillespie turned him down, so he went back west to earn his stripes. In 1952 he crossed paths with one of the biggest career-makers in jazz history, Lionel Hampton, who had turned touring into an industry that employed scores of musicians. That was exactly what Farmer needed. After a few years on the road surrounded by pros, he was ready to hit the New York jazz scene for real.
But, like many Black jazz musicians, Farmer ended up relocating to Europe, where he felt racism was less likely to curtail his career. Over the next four decades, Farmer was one of the most sought-after collaborators in jazz, both in the studio and live, valued for his warm, lyrical sound, his comfort in multiple styles, and his intelligence. He died in 1999 at the age of 71.
Enjoy these eight great tracks by Art Farmer.
Album: Farmer’s Market
Label: New Jazz
This album was made in New York City, before Farmer moved his base of operations to Europe. With his brother Addison on bass, Farmer is also joined on Farmer’s Market by tenor saxophone player Hank Mobley, pianist Kenny Drew, and drummer Elvin Jones.
The tune “With Prestige” was composed by Drew. It is solidly in the bebop style, with unpredictable pauses and jagged rhythmic phrases. Farmer’s solo after the opening chorus is a good introduction to his ability to sound relaxed while playing wild and virtuosic improvisation. It’s like a magic trick.
Album: Portrait of Art Farmer
The quartet on Portrait of Art Farmer includes Farmer’s trumpet with brother Addison on bass with Hank Jones on piano and Roy Haynes on drums. The tracks are mostly covers, except for three tunes written by Farmer. He displays a range of techniques and timbres from tune to tune, making this record a particularly valuable pedagogical tool as well as a snapshot of how the trumpet was used in jazz at the time.
One such technique is the use of a cup mute, which can be heard on the Dietz and Schwartz standard “By Myself.” The opening gives a thrilling peek at how the twins worked together musically.
- Track: “The Aztec Suite”
Album: The Aztec Suite
Label: United Artists
Chico O’Farrill was an interesting character in the jazz scene of the 1950s and ’60s. A Cuban born to Irish and German parents, he composed and arranged for some of the biggest bebop musicians to give them a Latin sound. One such collaborator was Farmer, who commissioned O’Farrill to arrange music for this album as well as write the title number, “The Aztec Suite.”
Alvin Cohn conducts the eight-man Art Farmer Orchestra in this 16-minute exploration of various Latin sounds and classical techniques. There are moments when the densely arranged writing comes across as self-conscious and pretentious, but Farmer’s solo playing has an inspiring clarity and purpose. Another highlight is the saxophone solo by Zoot Sims starting at the 4:45 mark.
With a tendency toward the trumpet’s warmer sounds, it is not surprising that Farmer became enamored of the flugelhorn. That instrument, especially popular in Germany and Austria (where Farmer eventually settled), has a wider, more conical bore than a trumpet; the result is a richer, warmer tone, sometimes described as halfway between a trumpet and a French horn.
On Perception, Farmer plays flugelhorn as part of his quartet du jour: Harold Mabern on piano, Tommy Williams on bass, and Roy McCurdy on drums. “Tonk” is cool, laid-back bebop number by pianist Ray Bryant.
- Track: “Sonny’s Back”
Album: Here and Now
Album by the Jazztet
Farmer co-founded the Jazztet with tenor saxophonist Benny Golson in 1959. Like many long-term jazz ensembles, it was a revolving door of opportunity for both veteran and up-and-coming musicians. This recording was made at the end of the group’s first stretch; Farmer and Golson reassembled the Jazztet 20 years later, and it continued for another five years.
This album, as well as the last one from later in 1962, included Farmer, Golson, Grachan Monchur III (trombone), Harold Mabern (piano), Herbie Lewis (bass), and Roy McCurdy (drums). Monchur composed “Sonny’s Back,” inspired by the return of saxophonist Sonny Rollins from a two-year sabbatical from performing. The Jazztet’s ensemble work is tight and propulsive.
- Track: “Fuja XI”
Album: Baroque Sketches
Intrigued by many types of music, Farmer embarked on a project to create jazz versions of works by J.S. Bach. During preparation, however, he widened the scope to include other classical composers such as Chopin and Albeniz. Golson did the arrangements for flugelhorn, tuba, reeds, drums, percussion, and bass.
The album opens with one of Farmer’s initial ideas, which he called “Fuja XI.” It is an arrangement of the 11th fugue from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II.
- Track: “Lush Life”
Album: To Duke with Love
Label: East Wind
One of the great pleasures in the world of jazz recordings is hearing how one master pays tribute to another. To Duke with Love is Farmer’s homage to Duke Ellington. It was released by the Japanese label East Wind and produced by Kiyoshi Itoh, who had recently produced pianist Bill Evans’ Live in Tokyo.
Besides Farmer on flugelhorn, the record features Cedar Walton on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. The quartet extracts the deepest melancholy from Billy Strayhorn’s stunningly beautiful melody, “Lush Life.” Notice Higgins interesting use of brushes to give subtle texture.
- Track: “Sunshine in the Rain”
Album: The Company I Keep
Made late in Farmer’s life, The Company I Keep was a duo album with trumpeter Tom Harrell. Track by track, Harrell switches from trumpet to flugelhorn, while Farmer plays his custom-designed flumpet, created by David Monette, whose company still makes them. The instrument has the length of a trumpet but the conical bore of a flugelhorn, with two crooks at the bends in its tubing. For its size, it has an extremely rich sound.
Although he was getting up in years, Farmer was still at the top of his game, as you can hear in this rendition of Harrell’s tune “Sunshine in the Rain.”
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/vernon.hyde.