Bruce Forman: Ghosts in the Room

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Forman, Hamilton and Clayton take on the roles (and instruments) of legends Kessel, Manne and Brown.

(Photo: Greg Vorobiov)

Last May, guitarist Bruce Forman was driving to a gig when something unusual happened. “On my way there,” he recounted via video chat from his home in Carmel, California, “I swear to God, Barney Kessel visited me.”

Kessel, the legendary jazz guitarist, passed away in 2004. He had been a constant mentor to Forman, taking an upstart twenty-something virtuoso under his wing, becoming a lifelong friend. They even went on tour together. Kessel didn’t appear as a ghostly apparition or whisper anything on that day, but Forman sensed him, nonetheless. “I could even smell his aftershave.”

The supernatural encounter was the catalyst for Forman’s longtime quest to own Kessel’s prized possession, his Gibson ES-350. Kessel’s widow had auctioned the guitar off years before, and Forman had put it somewhat out of his mind — until that fateful experience in the car. Upon arriving at that night’s venue, he sent an email to the owner of the guitar, wondering if he might ever want to sell it. And, after the first set, Forman came offstage to discover a response. Within a week, he was driving to Colorado to complete the deal.

“I don’t really believe in the afterlife, but Barney would have wanted me to have this,” Forman said. On the video screen behind Forman’s right shoulder, the headstock of Kessel’s guitar was visible, responding with an imperceptible nod of approval.

The acquisition led Forman to pursue another longtime goal: to record a tribute to one of Kessel’s best-known groups, a trio with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne, also known as The Poll Winners. Named for the fact that each member of the group had risen to the top of all the major jazz polls from 1956–’60 (Metronome, Playboy and, yes, DownBeat), Kessel, Brown and Manne recorded The Poll Winners in 1956, the first of five albums the trio would make for Los Angeles-based Contemporary Records. These recordings were some of the first to establish guitar, bass and drums as a viable trio format.

Forman’s concept was to record the album the way the original Kessel/Brown/Manne group had done, with players who had been mentored by those masters — along with the actual instruments they had played on during that time. He likened it to “kids playing their parents’ instruments.”

John Clayton was in high school when he first met his mentor, having signed up for an extension course at UCLA taught by Brown. “Ray Brown saw how green and hungry I was,” said Clayton, speaking via video from his California home, “and he let me follow him around.” Brown was responsible for Clayton’s early stints with Monty Alexander and the Count Basie Orchestra. Brown even bought Clayton his first (and current) bass, flying all the way to Toronto to pay for it himself. After Brown’s death, Clayton repaid that last favor by buying Brown’s bass from his widow. “She told me what [Ray] said the bass was worth,” Clayton recalled, “and I was shocked. But you know what? It didn’t matter.”

Drummer Jeff Hamilton played with Brown for the better part of 16 years, and he was befriended early on by Shelly Manne, who invited the young drummer to his home for dinner not long after he had moved to Los Angeles.

“Ray and Shelly put their heads together and thought that they would take a shot at me being a member of the L.A. 4,” remembered Hamilton, on video from his Southern California home studio. He took over for Manne in that famous quartet alongside Brown, guitarist Laurindo Almeida and saxophonist/flutist Bud Shank. And to show how these careers and players kept crossing paths, Shank for years led a jazz camp every summer in Port Townsend, Washington, a role that was eventually passed to John Clayton. It was at that camp where Hamilton first came across the vintage 1963 Leedy drum set once owned by Manne, brought there by Portland area drummer Gary Hobbs.

Forman, Clayton and Hamilton, like their mentors before them, have forged a lasting bond. Clayton and Hamilton met in college at Indiana University and played together in Monty Alexander’s trio. The pair would eventually form Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Hamilton and Forman met on a Mark Murphy recording date, Bop For Keuroac (Muse, 1981), and they both played with Ray Brown at the Loa, a happening, but short-lived, jazz club in Santa Monica. Their careers have crisscrossed many times over the decades, but coming together as a trio seemed like it might be a new development.

“Have the three of us ever played together?” asked Hamilton.

Forman replied, “Yeah … somewhere, somehow.”

Hamilton, with a straight face: “That’s right, it was very memorable.”

“You guys are so fuckin’ old,” Clayton retorted.

Having three “old” jazz musicians on the same video chat made for an entertaining Saturday, filled with stories, hilariously terrible jokes and pearls of wisdom. “Barney said to me when we were on the road, ‘You ever wonder why I picked you?’” Forman recounted. “‘I like you because you play the way I play, but you don’t sound like me.’”

Hamilton recalled that Ray Brown admonished the then-young drummer, who had dutifully learned everything his mentor Shelly Manne had played on their albums, down to the shakers and triangles. “We know what Shelly Manne can do,” Brown told the young drummer. “We hired you for you.”

“I remember at some point,” added Clayton, “I don’t know what it was I was doing, but he stopped me and pointed his finger in my face, which he often did, and he said, ‘Do your shit. Play your music.’” He exhorted Clayton to keep it honest and to be himself.

“The interesting thing is they didn’t think of themselves as being ‘pioneers’ and ‘cutting edge’ and all that stuff,” Clayton elaborated. He said Ray Brown had transcribed so much of Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford that he became known early on as Slam Pettiford. “Thank God no one said to him, ‘Get your own shit.’ Nobody did that to him!” he exclaimed, without irony. “People get hung up on this idea of ‘finding your own voice.’ That’s bullshit. You have your own voice, anyway, and it’s going to change, because you change. If you listen to your music now versus five to 10 years ago, it sounds radically different now. That was your voice 10 years ago, this is your voice now — and you’re going to have a different voice five years from now.”

“The problem with that,” Hamilton interjected, “is now I have all these voices in my head that I’m trying to get rid of.”

Forman offered, “The thing that I’ve found when I’ve played with people who are directly quoting other players, is that they’re not present on the bandstand. They’re somehow dancing with a ghost that the other players aren’t playing with.”

There seems to be a fine line between an imitative loss of self and an irreverent blindness to the rich tapestry of what has come before. Wherever that line is, Forman and his cohorts are committed to toeing it with the grace and athleticism of seasoned trapeze artists. Their trio album, Reunion!, is designed to capture the sprit of the old Poll Winners records, but Forman was careful to stay away from any direct lifting of arrangements from the earlier albums, enabling the three of them to play music authentic to them on their terms. Regardless, the homage to Kessel, Brown and Manne still can be heard, amplified by the fact they are performing on their mentors’ instruments. Hamilton felt that more through hearing Kessel’s guitar rather than playing Manne’s drums.

“I felt like I was channeling more of Shelly’s concept — not what he was playing, but what he would think in responding to what Bruce was playing, just based on the guitar.”

Clayton noted, “When I got together with Bruce and Jeff, I noticed it sounded like we were influenced by their sound and concept. What they did dictated was what I was supposed to do, which is of course, what Ray Brown did. I wasn’t trying to copy him, but it just fell into that. It’s hard to explain. It felt like there was a vibe in the room.”

Was that “vibe” from dancing with the ghosts of the men who might still inhabit their instruments? Forman pondered that question. “Can an instrument hold someone’s soul inside of it? The answer is … probably not. But it can enable us to tell stories, to bind generations, and it’s enabled the three of us to get together. So, in a weird way, the answer now is kind of … yes! There was no attempt by any of us to channel these guys, but of course they were in the room.”

Since Forman met one of them inside his car, it’s certainly a possibility. DB



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