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The Small Combos
In the groups from quintet to sextet size, except for the Dixie­land combos, the general pattern marked another step away from the polyphonic days of the '20s. Most of the arrangements were "heads," i.e., dreamed up during the session, using little or no manuscript paper. The usual pattern involved the establishment of a riff (a repeated phrase) played by the horns (with piano and guitar sometimes also included in the voicing to fill out the harmony) for the first and last chorus. In between there might be four-bar bridges by soloists and/or ensemble to link the im­provised solo choruses. To some extent these little combos were offering a condensed and more informal presentation of the big bands from which they were drawn. The Ellington small groups can hardly even be considered as combos, since in the main they were simply the Ellington band in miniature, concentrating on a couple of the soloists. On these sessions one found more prepared music and fewer head arrangements. Since Ellington s band was nearing the peak of its glory, the results more often than not were delightful.
During this period another combo arose that went out of its way to recast the mold. This was the John Kirby Sextet, led by the former Fletcher Henderson bassist, and featuring, during the period of maximum influence, the arrangements and the trumpet of Charlie Shavers. The aim here was a frothy, amiable lightness of tone color and a precise, compact format in which ad lib solos were sandwiched between impeccably played ensembles. Since the front line comprised an alto sax (Russell Procope), a clarinet (Buster Bailey), and a trumpet that was usually muted, the basic sound of the group was said by some critics to 'lack bottom." In terms of frequency range this was literally true, yet the group had many endearing qualities by way of compensation. The light timbre was unique and inimitable; the rhythm section (Billy Kyle, piano; the late O'Neil Spencer, drums, and Kirby) swung as gently as the horns. Scoring its first big success at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, the Kirby combo benefited from a contrast with the raucous and scarcely organized sounds of most of the small groups along that jazz-happy block. It cut a wide swath of moods, sometimes "jazzing the classics" with Humor-esque or Anitrcfs Dance, then playing a Shavers original such as