As of this writing, Chico Hamilton - drummer, composer, bandleader - is still going strong. As of this writer, Mr. H is one of the most underrated jazz players around. Like his contemporary Shelly Manne, his career spans the tail-end of the Swing Era through bebop, cool (he was in one of the earliest versions of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet), the avant-garde, fusion, etc. Like Mingus and Blakey, his bands are "finishing schools" for tons of musicians: Larry Coryell, Gabor Szabo, Eric Dolphy, Arthur Blythe, and Paul Horn are just a few of the hepcats to pass through Hamilton’s various ensembles. While no innovator, Hamilton is a masterful drummer with an ear for employing/deploying talent for very accessible (though not always "commercial") jazz, blurring the lines between the various "schools" of the music.
This CD is a re-release of two Hamilton albums from 1958 and ’59. Both feature essentially the same quintet but highlight different "concepts" a la Sinatra’s 50s albums (Ol’ Blue Eyes pretty much "invented" the "concept album"). Three Faces is just that. Mr. H as bandleader, solo instrumentalist, and singer. You read right: he sings on about a third of the album. While he’s no Nat Cole or Johnny Hartman, he is a very decent, coolly/drolly effective crooner in a Chet Baker/Dean Martin manner. (The vocal tracks also feature some rather nicely arranged albeit uncredited big-band accompaniment.) His drums solos are concise gems. They are nifty short compositions, not merely hey-looka-me showoff exercises. The quintet pieces are swell, swinging, vigorously arranged, cool-accented hard-bop. Eric Dolphy hadn’t quite developed his "vocal" style on the alto, but he was close, and his flute is as sublime as it ever was.
Gongs features originals and standards with Asian overtones - but before one begins thinking "ah, early example of world-fusion," the result is more Martin Denny than Yusef Lateef. Which isn’t to imply it’s not very good jazz. Dolphy, in particular, grooves on the bass clarinet, Dennis Budimir is a fine guitarist in the Tal Farlow mold, and the quintet is sharp as a tack, no wasted or extraneous notes whatsoever. But the South Seas/Pacific Rim influences are mostly (but entertainingly) superficial in a 50s soundtrack fashion. Chico Hamilton fans have indeed cause to rejoice - newcomers, unless enamored of Dolphy and/or 50s West Coast sounds, are directed to his Impulse discs and his more recent work.