The Complete Verve Johnny Hodges Small Group Sessions, 1956-1961

Johnny Hodges

These exhaustive six-disc box sets were recorded during the same era, yet capture the hall-of-fame reed players at opposite ends of their storied careers. A tenor saxophonist on the rise, “Weird” Wayne Shorter was 26 when he debuted on Chicago’s Vee Jay label in 1959, months before his first recordings with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Alto saxophonist Johnny “Rabbit” Hodges, meanwhile, was already well established by the late ’50s as a longtime star in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Yet Duke is nowhere to be found within the Hodges package–and that’s OK, because these exquisite takes reveal the casual side of his sexy, vibrato-drenched reed playing. The dress code reads: no ties; collars open. Liberated from Ellington’s top hat-and-tails big band writing style, Rabbit is unshackled, hopping free and easy between loosely structured blues and ballads. There’s a smoky after-hours feel to the proceedings, as Hodges spars with all-star trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Clark Terry, saxophonist Ben Webster and one helluva pianist.

Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s alter ego and Rabbit’s soul mate, fingers the ivories for 40 of the 122 selections. His accompaniments are always understated–and often perfect. The finger-poppin’ arrangements, many of which were created on the spot in the studio, also bear Strayhorn’s trademark panache. How do you write the blues draped in flowers? Somehow, Strayhorn knew the answer.

While Strayhorn and Hodges’ stylish strut was rooted firmly in the Swing Era, trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist Shorter were trailblazers. The popular jazz of the day was hard bop, a rough-edged blend of the bebop of the ’40s tempered by the funky-butt accessibility of the then-emerging sounds of rhythm and blues. At it’s finest, hard bop could mess up the mind and move the feet–and the Morgan/Shorter juggernaut scored on both counts.

These rip-snorting Vee-Jay sessions foreshadow the success that the duo would achieve as band mates in the Jazz Messengers. Here Morgan, a precocious spitfire, emerges as a playful virtuoso, tossing out mercurial horn lines that approximate the curves of hearty laughter. Shorter, meanwhile, is the cerebral twin, his big-toned tenor possessing a bittersweet quality as he sketches sharp angles and asymmetrical shapes. The enigmatic Shorter, then as now, seldom plays the obvious note.

Today, four decades down the pike, Shorter is recognized as one of the pre-eminent composers in jazz. It turns out, however, that many of the saxophonist’s now-familiar compositional trademarks were apparent right off the bat: unlikely harmonic twists, oddly configured melodies and stop-start rhythms. For Wayne as writer, The Vee Jay Sessions represents ground zero. So, if you’re a fan of his later work with Miles Davis or Weather Report, this is a chance to push rewind and discover the genesis of Shorter’s delightfully unconventional muse.

These limited edition jazz reissues are only available by mail order at (201) 327-7111 or online at