Monday, October 05, 2009

Laurindo Almeida - The First Surf Guitarist

Okay, so finding that first conquistador who used the stringed axe to evoke the thrill of the wave and the cool of the night-tide might prove impossible. But if Laurindo Almeida be not the FIRST surf guitarist, he certainly fits the criteria for that great decade in which bohemia came on like a swarm: the 1950s.

Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady passed through L.A. in 1947, noting the Nature Boy saints in their beards and sandals. By 1950, Hollywood was blacklisting its writers and actors for being "associated" with communism, but it did little to quell the city's spirit of radicalism. By the mid-'50s, Kenneth Anger was busy completing his epic, Inaugeration of the Pleasure Dome. James Dean and his coterie of thespian rebels were holding court nightly at Googie's Diner on Sunset and Crescent Heights. Charles Bukowski was handing out free poems to small press zines; Wallace Berman had started his Semina journal; Ed Kienholz and Walter Hopps had opened the Now Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard; and the Sunset Strip (now desegregated) was beckoning jazz musicians that had been playing in the fading 52nd Street clubs of New York City.

For surfers, it was Hawaiian music, Latin guitar, jazz and R&B that they went to hear. "The early surfers had a penchant for Spanish-style guitar," noted Crossfires (and later, Turtles) drummer Don Murray. "It was no accident that the electrified instrumental surf music of the early '60s featured Spanish melodies. The guitarists had a 'Cool Generation' audience that embraced them as readily as they did the jazz players, the folk singers and the poetry readers."

Modern jazz found its more minimal setting in the small combos frequenting the Lighthouse Jazz Cafe in Hermosa Beach and the Haig club on Wilshire Boulevard (near Vermont). Gerry Mulligan brought his "cool" sound out to L.A., after he and Lee Konitz penned and arranged 1/3 of Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool sessions. The original Gerry Mulligan Quartet featured an experimental piano-less set, with a young Chet Baker on trumpet, Bob Whitlock on bass and Chico Hamilton on drums. Another Haig regular was Bud Shank, a former Stan Kenton Orchestra alumni, who brought with him Laurindo Almeida, a Brazilian guitartist who'd also played with Kenton during the 1940s.

In 1953, Almeida and Shank recorded two albums (both called Brazilliance) for the World Pacific label, and from there, Almeida's nimble guitar-tone (equal parts Latin melody and nocturnal cool) would come to define a sound that seemed to sprout from the same roots as the palm trees which lined Hollywood's main boulevards.

Here's a few of Almeida's essential albums:

The Stan Kenton Orchestra pioneered Modern jazz during the 1940s and '50s. They were the long-time houseband at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, where later, Dick Dale & his Del-Tones ruled the stage. But not before Laurindo Almeida took crowds way out with his pure sound. Kenton had wanted to introduce a folk-type sound to his orchestra and felt that Laurindo Almeida had a gypsy quality not unlike Django Reinhardt. For the Kenton songs "Lament" (written by Pete Rugolo) and Almeida's own composition, "Amazonia," Kenton had him stand out in front of the Orchestra. With its burst of rhythm and woodwind energy, "Amazonia" stands as sort of a proto-exotica number.

Recorded in 1959, Bud Shank was the bandleader of this World Pacific affair, as opposed to their first two LPs together, Braziliance. With Chuck Flores on drums, the interplay between him and Almeida on "Toro Dance" is epic. "Sunset Baion" feels romantic and warm, and nothing can beat "Serenade to an Alto." If that was the soundtrack to Los Angeles then, it must have been perfect.

Here's the best beatnik-beach album of all-time. Leader Bob Romeo had played with James Dean in 1954 on the latter's lone 45-single (released pothumously). Romeo also played regularly at the Venice West Cafe (Venice, CA), the Insomanic (Hermosa Beach) and Lombardia (on La Cienega Boulevard). Eden Ahbez, the writer of "Nature Boy," penned three numbers here, and the backing band featured pianist Eddie Cano (who had played with Don Tosti and Lalo Guererro), bongo-player Carlos Vidal (who'd already recorded percussion albums with Mike Pacheco and Jack Costanzo) and Laurindo Almeida on guitar. With proto-exotica percussion and abstract flute tones, this bohemian album is primal. The cover features Anita Ekberg in a gypsy costume and warns that the primitive rhythms therein could arouse uncommon emotions for the unaccustomed listener.

If you've ever wondered where the tonal qualities of Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds came from, look no further than this 1957 gem. Produced by Si Waronker (who also produced the early Martin Denny albums), the mix of moody organ, introspective electric-bass and romantic guitar 
9via Laurindo Almeida) make this album sound like it could have been the backdrop to any ballad off of Wilson's 1966 masterpiece. Alas, several of the musicians on this Mancini date wound up playing on Beach Boys tracking sessions a decade later, so there you go. Like most Henry Mancini albums, you can probably find it cheap.

Side-one features four numbers by Modern Jazz Quartet leader John Lewis. These embody his classical-meets-urban sound, always understated, like the best Modern jazz. Almeida's guitar on side-one is his most free-flowing ever, but side-two is where he plays some of his best bossa-nova. Drummer Connie Kaye would go off to play with Van Morrison on Astral Weeks soonafter.

Here we have a Tower Records release from the same sessions that produced classic Almeida albums like Viva Bossa Nova, Ole Bossa Nova and It's a Bossa Nova World. The spirit of '60s grooviness is all over this one, with one of the great Psychedelic Surf Pastiche Washout album covers of all-time.

--Brian Chidester, 10/05/2009


Keeping up with the current happenings in surf music world...

Jeff "Big Tiki Dude" Hanson, resident surf instrumental maven recommends:

The Mobsmen - Scelerats Syndicate CD out now Double Crown. Find out more information about the band, and hear demos of songs from their upcoming album, at their
MySpace page. Most of the songs are instrumentals, but they sprinkle in a few vocals here and there, so there’s bound to be something for everyone. Who would of thought Scandinavia is the place to be for surf music these days? The Surfites, the Barbwires and now the Mobsmen!