By Armand Lewis
In 1947, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre wrote a composition featuring a four-part harmony arrangement for the saxophone section of the Woody Herman Orchestra. Though Giuffre was not a member of Herman’s band at the time, saxophonists Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward and Serge Chaloff were. The resulting 78rpm record, titled Four Brothers, was a hit and not only established the featured saxophonists as stars in their own right, but it created a saxophone sound that would define Herman’s bands for years and influence jazz musicians around the world.
The Four Brothers sound itself was based on tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s light-vibrato tenor sound as played in the Count Basie band of the 1930s and ‘40s. Big, rich and at the same time nimble and light, it consisted of three tenor saxes and one baritone plus the rhythm section. The format would serve as something of a bridge between the big band format of the swing era, which by the late 1940s was beginning to lose popularity, and the emerging modern/bebop movement with its emphasis on smaller groups. Ultimately it would point the way to the entire West Coast “Cool” style that would emerge as the swing era ended by the early 1950s.
The format was widely copied by saxophonists in small groups, jam sessions and as features within big band concerts. By the 1950s, records were made and promoted as having the “Four Brothers Sound” including LPs by Stan Getz (The Brothers on Prestige) and Jimmy Giuffre (The Four Brothers Sound on Atlantic). There was even a follow up LP made in 1957 titled Four Brothers — Together Again featuring the original line-up with Al Cohn replacing Getz.
It wasn’t long before the format reached Europe, and in 1960, one ex-pat American, one French jazz legend and two German saxophonists would try their hand at it. This 1960 concert has recently come to light and has been released as simply Four Brothers (Sonorama C-87) featuring tenor saxophonists Lucky Thompson and Barney Wilen along with Helmut Brandt and Bent Jaedig and a rhythm section of Roland Kovac (piano), Larry Atwell (guitar), Jurgen Ehlers (bass) and Rudy Pronk (drums).
As so many musicians of the era did, Lucky Thompson started out in the big band era and his style was something of a link between the swing era and the more intellectual and complex bebop genre. Barney Wilen, thirteen years younger than Thompson, began his career in the mid 1950s in his native France, when the big band era had already ended. This did not stop Wilen from becoming one of the premier modernists in France — playing with American masters such as Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.
Starting out with Bobby Timmons’ composition “This Here” (not to be confused with his more famous piece “Dat Dere”), the brothers’ saxophone harmony creates a rich mix of sound carrying the loping, rolling tune through to the solos by Barney Wilen on soprano and Bent Jaedig on tenor.
Lucky Thompson’s tenor is featured on his own composition “Why Weep.” A fast paced bop number featuring just Thompson and the rhythm section, while guitarist Larry Atwell stands out in a brief, but very effective solo.
Baritone saxophonist Helmut Brandt’s “Have a Light” features a dreamy ethereal sound that both evokes the big bands and frames Brandt’s own solo. Likewise on the standard “I Want to be Happy,” with Atwell again soloing before turning over the tune to (in succession) Wilen, Jaedig, Brandt, Thompson and finally pianist Kovac.
The Four Brothers sound would soon come to exemplify the “cool” West Coast sound in the 1950s. Lucky Tompson would bounce back and forth between Europe and the U.S. for the next decade before settling in the Seattle area. Barney Wilen would traverse the globe performing with jazz, rock and even punk bands before returning to work on European films and recording an extensive series of jazz albums in both France and Japan during the 1980s and ‘90s.
Today, the “Band of Brothers” is truly immense, with concerts and recordings made in every country where jazz is played using the four brothers format at some point. With the addition of this rare concert recording, the brotherhood just keeps getting bigger.
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org