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DERBY 737; APRIL 1950



The sensation of déjà vu is one of life’s more eerie occurrences.

That distinct feeling that at some previous point in life you’ve had the exact same experience you’re currently in right down to the very smallest detail can be so overwhelming you may start questioning your sanity.

What makes it all the more unsettling is the sheer fact you’re fully aware of it happening as it’s going on, almost as if you’re watching yourself from afar and yet still somehow unable to alter your course.

In music déjà vu has a different name… it’s called Freddie Mitchell, who once again is making us all feel as if we’re going through the same frustrating experience each time he releases a “new” single.


Have We Met Before?
There are times when Freddie Mitchell seems to be progressing as an artist, not so much by heading in a new direction as much as how fervently he carries out his responsibility as the featured tenor sax player on his records.

When he digs deep and seems intent on defining the song with his horn regardless of what his cohorts are up to the results have been appreciably better, yet even when he’s exceeded our expectations in that area, such as last month on Easter Parade, he never really changes his approach which puts an unfortunate limit on his true development.

On each record the title may change, as does the melody, but the song’s arrangements remain maddeningly consistent. In all of them an excessively trebly piano being played with one or two fingers (rather than all ten) gives way to his sax before they trade off again and wrap things up two and a half minutes later without bothering to really acknowledge any other instruments other than as a distant indistinct backdrop.

Had this structure been innovative and exciting the first time around a year ago and been met with wild responses giving him a massive hit record then his sticking with it for so long might’ve been understandable, if not exactly admirable creatively. But instead, while he’s had some modest success, the records have been aesthetically lacking for the most part and the improvements shown are sporadic rather than consistent and never have anything to do with changing up his methods.

Even if you wanted to give Mitchell the benefit of the doubt and say he adopted the extreme piano interludes as his trademark to stand out from the rest of the tenor sax brigade you’d still have trouble defending it lo these many months on its repetitiveness alone.

With rock music progressing stylistically at such a rapid pace there can be no excuse for standing still in one spot for this long, and so once again it’s hardly surprising that with Rockin’ With Coop we’re left to try and find some new way to voice the same old complaints.


Same Ol’, Same Ol’
The good news this time around is for once we can actually tell you that there’s a third instrument to be found in the forefront of a Freddie Mitchell record as the stand-up bass shares the spotlight in the intro with that sickly piano. Even after Mitchell takes over we can still faintly hear the bass keeping time, which makes Rockin’ With Coop as an aberration if not quite a revelation.

Other than that unexpected anomaly probably meant to get our hopes up before dashing them against the rocks, the record is mostly flat and uninspiring.

Mitchell’s sax is played with a little bit of gusto early on, hardly giving us anything to complain about, but neither is what he playing anything to brag about. This is 1950, not early 1948 when this might’ve earned slightly more praise for being reasonably energetic. But when over the last two years this kind of workmanlike blowing has become the minimum standard required for rock instrumentals – and has been routinely blown to smithereens by countless musicians weilding their horns like a wrecking ball – it’s frankly hard to get too worked up over anything so simplistic.

There’s no wild runs to the extremes of the instrument’s range… no rapid-fire playing where the notes fly out like bullets from a tommy-gun… no attempts to add any real character with an innovative melody. It’s decent enough playing, but it’s also the kind that would be far better suited as the brief solo in a rousing vocal group number rather than the showpiece for the headliner.

If The Keys Don’t Fit…
If that were the biggest criticism of this record – an all too modest sax solo – we could reasonably live with it provided the rest of the time we got something that captured our interest. But when everything else this contains has us craving to hear MORE of that modest sax solo then you know Rockin’ With Coop has no chance to make the grade.

The decision to hand over half of the all of his records playing time to a piano is not the worst idea in the world on paper, but to have that piano only utilize half the keyboard – if that – on each and every song is inexplicable.

When the instrument is taken full advantage of those 88 keys hold limitless possibilities. It can be used for melody or rhythm with equal effectiveness. It can show-off or it can blend in. More than anything though it’s a full rich sound that really resonates, sustaining the notes in a way that allows you to play less yet get more out of them. But not here where once again by focusing on about twelve keys at the upper end of its range it’s only giving us a sound that’s excessively tinny and fragile.

It doesn’t rumble in your ears with a soul-filling echo but instead it rattles around, aggravating your aural senses. Lastly, though it’s playing something designed to be melodic the nature of the keys being used to deliver it robs the melody of its impact. It’s Schroeder sarcastically playing Jingle Bells in A Charlie Brown Christmas… minus the over-enthused Lucy Van Pelt punchline.

Instrumental song structure in rock has usually followed a fairly simple, but reliable, game plan. The secondary instruments, which would include the piano, construct the familiar hallmarks of a song – catchy melody, strong rhythm, tight groove – while the saxophone upends it with a solo that is far more wild. A push-pull, yin-yang kind of set-up.

But these guys too often cheat you of the first (the foundational pieces) and then shortchange you on the second.

About the only real sign of any creativity here comes in the extended fade as the other instruments start to drop out and that tinkly piano gets further distant sounding, tricking you to believe there might be a sudden explosion of sound back at full volume, horns blasting, drums crashing, bass thumping to create a big finish.

Instead it just keeps fading away, slightly clever maybe to get you to think of where he’s headed, but ultimately when he does vanish you’re glad to see him disappear from view.


Back Where We Started
So just what do you DO with a record like this?

Evaluating it on musical grounds if taken in isolation you certainly aren’t going to find much to praise, but there’s nothing so off-putting that you’d shred it to pieces either.

When mixing and matching it with the majority of Mitchell’s output over the past eleven months Rockin’ With Coop would be no better and no worse than much of it, giving it about a (4), indicating it’s just a slightly subpar record, albeit with no major faults that make it unlistenable.

But we don’t view music that way here which is why at a certain point we have to be more harsh in our response.

The point of charting rock’s entire course one record at a time is to see – and credit – the progress being shown. That generally means the advances rock as a whole is making, but we’re also looking for signs that each artist is intent on advancing the ball themselves in each of their releases, either by seeing what new ground they can explore, or at the very least tightening up their ideas and polishing them to perfection.

But Freddie Mitchell thwarts that goal almost every time out by purposefully repeating the formula over and over again without improving upon it and unless they’re stealing Irving Berlin melodies that are durable and well-known they aren’t coming up with anything particularly good on their own. That the records themselves are tolerable when heard on shuffle play with the rest of the rock community’s output at any given time may make it easier on the ears, but at a certain point it can’t help but get on your nerves… as much for their lack of ambition as anything else… and for that he’s eventually got to pay a price.

Freddie Mitchell is no longer merely repetitive, he’s now giving us a disturbing sense of musical déjà vu and as with the actual occurrence of that in everyday life
it gives us an uneasy feeling to confront the fact that we have no control over this facet of our lives anymore.

In a way we’ve become mere observers to our own existence, forced to witness the same scene repeating itself over and over again in a never-ending loop, unsure of when – or if – we’ll ever be able break free of this schism before it drives us all completely mad.


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