One of the best indicators of artistic ambition is avoiding creative stagnation. For those who’ve achieved some early success there’s always a tendency to regurgitate old game plans hoping for the same returns and yet all that winds up showing listeners is a lack of confidence in your ability to hit with something new.

Although the success that saxophonist Freddie Mitchell had found soon after arriving at Derby Records in the spring of 1949 came with ideas that were hardly innovative, there are increasing signs he’s been using these records as a form of public experimentation, trying out various approaches and seeing what works aesthetically and then letting the commercial response work themselves out.

Case in point are the two sides of this – his fifth – single. Whereas the top side was steeped in the vestiges of the past, affixing a new arrangement to an old song, the side we’re examining today is an original composition which contains a decidedly more modern outlook.


Just Getting Started
The first batch of songs we’ve encountered from Freddie Mitchell have been cut from the same basic cloth, albeit with improved execution on his part.

He’s still relying a little too much on the piano as a second voice, something that would be more acceptable if the full 88 keys were being used rather than merely the sixteen or so residing on the far right of the instrument, but Freddie’s own horn work of late has shown a greater understanding of the necessities of what goes into a strong sax solo – power, grit and harsher tones while stressing the rhythmic side as much or more than the melodic aspects.

But to date the structure of the songs themselves have been fairly predictable, whether original compositions or old warhorses like Christmas tunes and big band classics from years gone by.

Because of this the gradual steps he’s been taking as a musician to better fit the role he’s being asked to perform have sometimes gotten lost a bit in the conceptual repetitiveness of the arrangements.

Which is why I Told You We Were Through is such a welcome sight for those hoping Mitchell takes a giant leap after a series of baby steps on his journey, in the process showing that he’s got a more creative spirit than we may have given him credit for.


Heating Up
This is a radically different approach than anything Freddie Mitchell has tried before and for that reason alone we have a strong rooting interest in hoping he can pull off what he’s attempting, for if it were to fail then who knows when he’d have enough courage again to try breaking the mold he’s gotten into.

The most obvious addition to the mix is the emphasis on drums, an instrument that was severely underutilized in the past, asked to provide only the barest of accompaniment on his earlier singles where it was the piano and bass that handled the majority of the rhythmic responsibility.

But not so today where all elements of the rhythm section are front and center playing a complex pattern that immediately sets this apart from Mitchell’s earlier work, but also distances it from most rock arrangements we’ve come across. The few times we have heard something in this vein, most notably on Joe Swift’s That’s Your Last Boogie, the results have been intoxicating, the interlocking rhythms working their magic until you were all but powerless to resist their addictive charms.

That’s clearly what I Told You We Were Through is going for in how the piano, bass, drums and claves are working in tandem to each lay down their own distinct pattern that when blended together create something greater than the sum of their parts.

The introduction is absolutely captivating, you don’t know which way to turn and as soon as you focus on one instrument then you start to notice a different one that draws your attention away from the first. The combination of sounds and the herky jerky rhythm have a vaguely Latin American feel to it, a hint of the exotic that draws you in further before we’ve even heard Mitchell take out his horn.

When he does appear he’s not alone as he and the baritone are engaged in a tango of sorts, with Freddie playing a quick melodic line that’s immediately answered in the lower register by the other. The back and forth exchanges are kept suitably brief, avoiding the risk of either one overstaying their welcome and forcing them to artificially extend their riffs beyond the breaking point. That it works so well is also due to the still-churning rhythmic bed the others are providing which is now in the background but no less appealing when it pokes its head out into the gaps provided by the horns.

The first forty-five seconds of this record are just about flawless – in concept and in execution – which of course is invariably a sign that it will soon trip itself up.


We Aren’t Through Yet
Had they somehow been able to harness the creativity which marked that first section with something equally creative to give the second section its own identity, well, then I suppose we would hardly need to be telling you any of this because the record would’ve already been immortalized.

But the reason why songs like this are so hard to keep up their early promise is because the initial ideas shown are so good, so idiosyncratic, that they don’t lead into something just as good, but altogether different, very easily.

As a result the same basic theme is continued throughout these types of records because it’s so catchy, yet because doing so without ANY variations on top of it would be too repetitive the soloing instruments attempt to change things up to give it a different feel.

That’s a sensible idea of course, but really hard to pull off, although Mitchell tries his best by simply focusing on increasing the urgency of his playing, blowing harder, honking more, using all of the tricks that have made sax instrumentals such a cornerstone of rock. The problem though is while those techniques fit well in most songs in this idiom, they don’t mesh well with the slinky vibe of I Told You We Were Through.

The first sign of trouble is when Mitchell adjusts the tail end of the last few lines in that first section, setting the stage for what follows. But this has the unfortunate propensity of snapping you out of the carefully conceived groove you’ve been following and without something similarly alluring to attach yourself to you bristle at the change.

As he goes into the second section this emphasis on the raunchier sounds of his sax further remove you from the aura you’d been enjoying so much, as now Mitchell is blowing fiercer, which itself is okay, but less melodically which is not as pleasing, primarily because you lose you the conga-line feel and it becomes too freewheeling to keep you locked in quite as much.

But you might tolerate that change a little better had the interlude they chose to set you up for Mitchell’s grand return had been better equipped to handle the task. Instead the chore falls to the piano which rather than simply play that same slinky part in isolation that had captivated you so at the start, Art Sims starts doing a two-finger concerto giving it a more gimmicky feel and almost descending into a caricature of the Latin mood they’d been so successful in conveying earlier, even closing it out with showy and fairly unnecessary glissando. It’s memorable for sure and somewhat catchy, but it’s a decided step down from what preceded it.

When Freddie storms back in however he is determined to go for broke, romping around without restraint, playing with undeniable gusto and adding a rougher edge to the song, yet in the process he’s losing the sense of order and discipline it had relied on at the start.

They don’t quite let it get totally out of control and fall into disarray thanks to a judicious use of the electronic fade (something of a Freddie Mitchell trademark which had yet to catch on in the industry) and that helps to get things settled back down, albeit somewhat artificially, but even so your overall impressions of this can’t help but vary wildly depending on which aspect of the recording you’re referring to at the time.

Toldja So
Even with its rather shambolic second half though this record reflects such a genial atmosphere and unbridled creativity that you’ll forgive it for losing its way the longer it went on. In the heat of the moment in the studio – and surely in the midst of hearing it play in a crowded club – the excesses down the stretch would be less apparent as everyone got caught up in the sheer joy of the festivities.

I Told You We Were Through is a story in two parts – the first is as an example of an exquisitely performed record, something that is technically precise yet emotionally free at the same time. The second story is one best appreciated in less confined quarters than one would listen to a record, a performance that is best experienced in an open setting where the atmosphere overrides any quibbles about the declining technical merits to be found.

Either way though this is by far the best record Freddie Mitchell has given us over the past year and a sign that his development as an artist is progressing nicely.


(Visit the Artist page of Freddie Mitchell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)