Once upon a time in the bye gone era of the 1950’s, groups such as The Cadillacs and The Hi-Lo’s dominated the airwaves with the sweetest of vocal harmonies, and the Four Freshmen belong to that period in time with a slight twist. They were interesting in harmonizing jazz and related styles, and while there is undoubtedly a quaint charm to their sound, they utilized the top session musicians at Capitol records for whom they recorded, and this is in practice meant serious jazz musicians coming on board. Conducted and arranged by Pete Rugolo and with other instrumentalists of the calibre of Laurindo Almeida and Herbie Mann, this is music that may have been easy on the ear, but one that had more serious intent underneath and expertly arranged. In some respects, they were a precursor to the kind of sound that Manhattan Transfer and others would revisit two decades later.
Four separate albums are included here and chronologically, they are not in the correct order or, in the case of ‘Freshmen Favourites Vol. 2’ complete, something that has been picked up by online reviewers elsewhere who would have preferred the whole of one album to be contained on the same CD, rather than sold separately. That caveat aside, the complete ‘Four Freshmen and Five Saxes’ from 1957, and ‘Voices in Latin’ from a year later, do grace the first CD and are the star turns on this quadruple bill of recordings. For the former, five saxophones to some jazz devotees might conjur up more avant-garde musings. However, here the combination works in perfect harmony with the vocals and the quartet work their way diligently through the Great American Songbook, interpreting ‘East of the sun’, ‘For all we know’, and ‘The very thought of you’. Among the saxophonists present, West Coast legend Bud Shank performs alongside Bob Cooper and Ted Nash. Hints of other vocal influences that have guided the Four Freshmen surface on ‘This love of mine’, co-written by Sinatra, and, in general, this is an enjoyable, if not entirely taxing listen.
Things liven up considerably on the follow up with a strong Latin flavour throughout, possibly influenced by the Nat King Cole album of Cuban compositions from the late 1950’s. An epic and dynamic sounding ‘Granada’, has a Hollywood-esque quality about it, with Chico Guerrero on drums, Conrad Gozzo on fiery trumpet, and Herbie Mann intervening at various stages on flute from a period when he was getting heavily into Latin rhythms. Stylistically, the cha cha cha rhythm predominates and enables the vocalists to lay down individually and collectively their identifiable sound. Highlights include, a rendition of ‘Brazil’, giving Grant Green a run for his money; an uplifting ‘The Breeze and I’, and the three cuts included from ‘Freshmen favourites vol. 2’, retain an essentially Latin undercurrent. The second CD tends towards the lusher, more romantic side on ‘Voices in love’, which also happened to hit number eleven in the pop album chart in 1958. Of greater interest is ‘The Four Freshmen in person vol. 1’, which is in fact a live performance from the same year, with the quartet doubling up on instruments including bass, mellophone, drums, guitar and trumpet. Once again they interpret the standards, with Billy Eckstein’s ‘Mr. B’s Blues’ – impressing. The Four Freshmen are a breath of innocent fresh air viewed and heard from a distance of some sixty years, and best digested in small, but nonetheless regular doses.