Ain’t But a Few of Us Left is one of the best albums Milt “Bags” Jackson ever recorded. It is billed as a Jackson CD, but it is less about him than an encounter of four masters: Jackson on vibes, Oscar Peterson on piano, Ray Brown on bass, and Grady Tate on drums. It is a marvellous testimonial to the delight of making music and, as the title implies, a tribute to the golden days of jazz, the days of Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Coleman Hawkins.
It was Peterson who first drew my attention to this CD. In January 2003, he arrived for an interview with it in hand. He said, “I keep this CD in my car to listen to. There’s a feeling when something is going well. Everything meshed perfectly. It just flowed on the title song.”
Peterson’s comment takes on meaning when you consider the musicians who appear. Milt Jackson was one of the founders of the Modern Jazz Quartet and is considered one of the four top vibraphonists. Grady Tate played drums on recordings by Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Nat Adderley, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie and was a strong and steady timekeeper. Ray Brown was a major presence in jazz from the 1950s until his death in 2002. He was highly versatile and at home in a number of settings. Oscar Peterson is one of the greatest pianists in jazz.
Ain’t But a Few of Us Left [Concord/Original Jazz Classics #785] features six selections recorded in one day in New York City in 1981. When Brown and Tate were late for the start of the session, producer Norman Granz, who wanted to make use of the studio time, recorded a duet with Jackson and Peterson. “A Time for Love” is Johnny Mandel’s beautiful ballad and on it both Peterson and Jackson’s playing is cool and sweet.
The quartet is present for the remaining songs, “Stuffy,” “Body and Soul,” “If I Should Lose You,” and “What Am I Here For?” The title song, “Ain’t But a Few of Us Left,” is worth the price of the CD. It is seven minutes and twenty-six seconds of glorious jazz played by four confidence musicians, who enjoy one another’s company and love the music. Brown and Tate lay down a perfect rhythmic bottom end so the soloists can do their thing. Jackson is a good listener who plays with a fluid clarity, and Brown and Peterson speak a common language that comes from decades of playing together.