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APOLLO 806; JANUARY 1951

 
 

 

As a general rule hybrid records don’t satisfy fans of either of the styles they’re using to craft that song. When only parts of a record are suitable to one constituency it means by definition the other parts, which are designed to appeal to a different constituency, will be alienating to the first.

Yet hybrid records remained a fairly common tactic during periods of musical upheaval to try and bridge the gap between an older established sound and a newer one which was becoming more economically viable than the former.

Yet there are exceptions to every rule and while this record came and went without notice at the time, and hasn’t been all that talked about in the years since for that matter, it is one of those rare cases where the combination of disparate influences somehow manages to create something worthwhile.
 

 

The Siren Call Of Gatortail
So much of the best music, certainly interesting music whether or not it’s ultimately successful, comes from an artist taking pieces of two disparate things and trying to fit them together. A lot of times it fails miserably, the two components wind up clashing and showing why they’re incompatible.

But at other times you find ways to make them work together and on The Call Of The Gators former aspiring jazz musician turned rock sax player, Willis Jackson figures out how to use jazz concepts for a song that was surely going to be heard in much different circumstances than it was probably best suited for.

To be fair, this is not your traditional prim and proper kind of singles-oriented jazz aimed at having it go down easy. It’s not sweet jazz, not big band or even be-bop, instead it’s moody, atmospheric and mysterious, a beguiling sound full of intriguing possibilities.

Brilliantly written, arranged and performed it was flexible enough to serve equally well as the soundtrack for a scene of a gangster being hunted on the waterfront in a black and white noir or as the backdrop for a seductive wordless flirtation between two people at a nightclub in an elegant high society romp in full color.

But was it fit for a rock ‘n’ roll single that would be played on jukeboxes in conditions far less evocative than a film?

No, and that was the problem.
 


 
 

Calling All Music Fans
As written and arranged by Jackson this shows how skilled he already was before turning twenty years old, as the first section lays out a series of set pieces for various instruments that build on one another until it creates a vibrant scene.

We get slowly echoing drums to start with that build tension, a deliberate herky-jerky piano line to increase the anticipation, the first appearance of Jackson establishing a really intriguing melodic line to pull you in and get you to drop your guard followed by a squawking trumpet to startle you just enough to keep you on edge while hinting at some conflict lurking around the corner in the shadows, the last two sections repeated again for effect.

It’d be hard to paint a more vivid scene on any canvas than The Call Of The Gators does during those first fifty seconds. It’s an exercise in stimulating your imagination and it works wonderfully in that regard, but for a rock fan who doesn’t expect something so cerebral when they cue a record up it definitely might seem out of place.

This is jazz, they’re surely saying, and while it might not qualify strictly as such, it’s still closer to it than it is the heart of rock ‘n’ roll which is much more direct and unambiguous in its approach than this.

But then even when the pace picks up and you expect things to take an abrupt turn Jackson is still playing jazzy. Go figure.

The next section is the most easily dismissed and not until we reach the halfway point of the record does Jackson consent to ramp up the intensity and start blowing in a manner more befitting a rock act. He’s still not really grinding anything out, nor is he playing anything flamboyant enough to get you excited, but his tone has coarsened, his pace has quickened and the rhythm has been emphasized enough to not be alien to a rock fan’s experiences.

If you singled out that part of the record then filled it out with similar parts that fit the basic motif you’d have… a decent but hardly scintillating rock instrumental.

But with the cryptic opening – and the fact they return to it to close out the record – you have something far more memorable than most of the honking, squealing, sweaty sax based tracks that we’ve celebrated so unabashedly over the first three seasons of rock.

Call it what you want but this was undeniably something different.
 


 

An Unanswered Call
Whether that “something” was simply a more sophisticated attempt at rock ‘n’ roll, or more likely a hybrid record that fused some milder rock aesthetics into the middle of an avant garde modern jazz piece is up for debate.

Its failure to draw much praise from either field – or stir any real commercial interest – though shouldn’t detract from its quality as a composition or a performance.

The Call Of The Gators is something that is to be appreciated more than enjoyed viscerally and that alone makes it out of step with rock, at least until perhaps the mid-60’s. This record, hardly heard at the time or the years since, was not in any way responsible for the eventual focus on crafting more intricate productions but it at least showed that creatively such ambitions were worth pursuing.

But that’s still a hard thing to quantify. As a record it failed to make an impact on an audience, certainly at least the rock audience. As such it failed to meet Apollo Records hopes in sales or jukebox spins. It may have helped Jackson’s reputation among musicians, producers and the astute music figures, but it didn’t help advance rock ‘n’ roll in any significant way, at least not directly and that’s always one of the most important factors when deciding how to judge these records.

Yet in spite of all that The Call Of The Gators is such an intriguing record, such a distinctive and memorable one in almost every way, that it stands out amidst the more predictable, more successful and more easily accessible records it was competing with.

That’s a rarity and while it may be certainly argued that when judging by more objective measures it was an ambitious failure at best, it can also be argued – as this review just tried to – that it was an aesthetic success if nothing else and when you have talented people heading into a studio to make a record what are the two things in an artist’s control do you hope to get from them?

An ambitious idea and the skill to make those ambitions come together to wind up with something aesthetically interesting.

Willis Jackson fulfilled those two requirements here and for that deserves credit even if the response to it – which was out of his hands – was underwhelming.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Willis Jackson for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)