Saxophonist Phil Urso, who passed away yesterday at the age of 82, was another one of the many high-quality under-the-radar musicians from the 1950s and 1960s who never gained much of a profile beyond the immediate world of fellow artists and jazz devotees. While I’ve longed to hear some of his leader dates (such as the one pictured at left with Bob Brookmeyer), I know him only through the wonderful Chet Baker group of 1956, which included Bobby Timmons on piano, Jimmy Bond on bass, and Peter Littman on drums. This quintet, which Baker formed out of the remnants of his previous quartet that toured Europe with the late, fabled Dick Twardzik on piano, recorded only 21 sides, available on the CDs Chet Baker and Crew and Young Chet. (A previous Night Lights program covers Baker’s career before the trip to Europe and the formation of the 1956 group with Urso.) It’s one of the best instrumental Baker albums from this period, in part because of Urso’s presence; as Woody Woodward points out in the LP’s original liner notes, “The group’s remarkable extroversion can be credited to Urso. He innately possesses that rollicking, free-wheeling, rhythmic feeling that is so much a part of the Zoot Sims concept.” Urso was indeed part of the post-Prez 1950s generation, but his sound was a slightly harder blend of East Coast hardbop and West Coast cool.
Urso returned to his childhood home city of Denver in the 1960s and spent much of the rest of his life there. He stayed in touch with Baker (“I have always felt you were and are the most underrated of America’s jazz players and composers,” Baker wrote him in 1971), made some more records with him in the mid-1960s, and near the end of his life recorded a tribute to the trumpeter. In his later years he struggled with dental problems that hindered his playing; sadly, he also didn’t seem to always get the respect he deserved from the local musical community.
You can hear some of Urso’s early writing on the CD Chet Baker Big Band (the tracks “Phil’s Blues” and “Worryin’ the Life Out of Me”) and catch more of his playing on the Baker-Art Pepper album Picture of Heath (aka The Playboys), which throws pianist Carl Perkins and bassist Curtis Counce into the bargain as well. He also appears in Gordon Jack’s book Fifties Jazz Talk. I’ll update this post with any other tributes that appear online in the next few days; special thanks to KBCS jazz DJ Bill Barton for the link to the in-depth 1999 article about Urso that covers his life and career in remarkable detail.
UPDATE: An amazingly comprehensive tribute from Jazzwax blogger Marc Myers, including the interview he did with Urso just a few weeks ago.
UPDATE: a very good Urso tribute from jazz historian Ted Gioia.
UPDATE: An Urso obituary in the Rocky Mountain News.
UPDATE: a poster at Organissimo put up a link to the following YouTube video montage, which shows Urso with Eliot Lawrence’s big band in 1949 (shortly before he joined Woody Herman’s orchestra):