Al Belletto: His tight groups had a West Coast jazz feel – rich in melody, fugue-like harmony and space: Photos, Video

- in ARTISTS, VIDEOS

In the early 1950s, just as the 10-inch album and 45 was becoming standard formats, Capitol decided to showcase artists who played in Stan Kenton’s bands or artists Kenton fancied at the time.

The label put Don Hassler in charge of producing the “Kenton Presents” series, which switched to the 12-inch format when the LP format expanded in 1956.

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Most of the artists who recorded for the line were familiar names. They included Claude Williamson (Keys West, Salute to Bud), Frank Rosolino (Frankly Speaking, Frank Rosolino), Bob Cooper (Shifting Winds and Group Activity), Serge Chaloff (Boston Blow-Up!), Bill Holman (Group Activity), Boots Mussulli (Little Man and The Alto Sax of Boots Mussilli), Sal Salvador (Sal Salvador) and Ken Hanna (Jazz for Dancers).

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And then there was Al Belletto. The saxophonist and clarinetist never recorded with Kenton and was based mostly on the East Coast and in Chicago. He also was a superb arranger. His first Kenton Presents EP in 1954—An Introduction to the Al Belletto Quintet—featured four songs and Jack Martin (tp,fhr,b), Jimmy Guinn (tb,vcl), Al Belletto (as,bar), Fred Crane (p,bar) and Charles McKnight (d). I’m guessing the group was recorded for Kenton Presents because they also sang vocal harmony on tracks in a style similar to the Four Freshmen.

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In 1954 and ’55, Belletto recorded Sounds and Songs. The album featured Jack Martin (tp,fhr), Danny Conn (tp,Mellophone,b), Jimmy Guinn (tb), Al Belletto (as,bar), Fred Crane (p), Skip Fawcett (b) and Charles McKnight (d).

When Woody Herman heard Belletto’s sextet on Capitol, he decided to include them in his State Department tour of Central and South America in the late 1950s. Born and raised in New Orleans, Belletto returned to the city in the early 1960s as the entertainment director of the Playboy Club chain. He also was on the board of New Orleans’s JazzFest in 1968. He successfully pushed for a policy that the city’s prominent black musicians would perform at the festival and that they’d be compensated on par with white musicians.

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As you’ll hear, Belletto sounded very much like Art Pepper, and his tight groups had a West Coast jazz feel—rich in melody, fugue-like harmony and space. He recorded Half and Half in 1956, Whisper Not in 1957 and a superb album with singer Jerry Winters in ’57 entitled Somebody Loves Me. His Jazznocracy big band album in 1997, his last, also was a knockout.

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An added bonus on the Capitol recordings is the inclusion of Fred Crane, a rarely recorded jazz pianist who was a major influence on Bill Evans.

Al Belletto died in 2014.

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