While the classic Red Nichols and his Five Pennies sessions are in the Brunswick series, Nichols was so prolific during the 1920s that there is much more to be heard from the cornetist. The three-CD set The Red Heads, 1925-27 has the recordings that he made for the Actuelle, Perfect and Pathe labels with the Red Heads, plus six early titles for Columbia that were released as being by Lanin’s Red Heads.
The Red Heads mostly preceded the Five Pennies (which did not have its first session until Dec. 8, 1926) although it had similar personnel. On this extensive release, which has Nichols, trombonist Miff Mole and drummer Vic Berton first teaming up on the Lanin Red Heads titles from 1925 with pianist Arthur Schutt joining the group on the first Red Heads session in November, one can hear the concept of the Five Pennies being formed.
The close interplay between Nichols and Mole, the trombonist’s often-eccentric solos (which featured him playing impossibly wide intervals that put him ahead of other trombonists of the time), the mixture of arranged and jammed ensembles along with some surprising endings, and the occasional use of whole-tone scales resulted in Red Nichols’ music being in its own category.
A variety of clarinetists and saxophonists filled out the core group until the brilliant Jimmy Dorsey (on alto and clarinet) became part of the Red Heads in Sept. 1926. Among the other key musicians who make contributions to these sides are Joe Tarto on tuba, banjoist Dick McDonough, guitarist Eddie Lang, violinist Joe Venuti and, on a classic version of “Baltimore,” trumpeter Wingy Manone. In addition to the Red Heads performances, a similar group is heard on sessions led by Cliff Edwards (“Ukulele Ike” who was arguably the first male jazz singer on records) plus three songs featuring vocalist Jay C. Flippen.
Despite expert remastering, the recording quality is a bit rough on the earlier acoustically recorded sides (Actuelle was not known for its quiet surfaces) but both the phrasing (rhythmically awkward on some of the first titles) and the recording quality improved steadily during 1926, The 74 performances (which include 16 alternate takes) have many more hits then misses and add to the underrated but rather impressive musical legacy of Red Nichols.
The Red Heads 1925-27 (Jazz Oracle BDW 8043, 74 selections, TT =3:46:49)