Best known for his soundtracks, particularly for Clint Eastwood films such as Bird, Lennie Niehaus (b. 1929) is also a fine cool altoist and a skilled jazz arranger.
Shortly after graduating from college, Niehaus joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra, playing alto and contributing occasional arrangements. To his dismay he was drafted within a year but, after his discharge in 1954, he rejoined Kenton for five years before becoming a freelance arranger.
During 1954-1956, Niehaus led five record dates for Contemporary, all of which have been reissued in the Original Jazz Classics series. Vol. 1: The Quintet has three different four-song sessions and matches Niehaus’s alto with either tenor saxophonist Jack Montrose and baritonist Bob Gordon or Stu Williamson on valve trombone and trumpet and pianist Hampton Hawes. Zounds!, also known as Vol. 2: The Octet Pt. 1, has concise selections utilizing the instrumentation of alto, tenor, baritone, trumpet or French horn, trombone, piano or tuba, bass, and drums, performances that helped to define West Coast jazz. Vol. 3: The Octet #2 has a more conventional instrumentation and such all-stars as Bill Holman on tenor, baritonist Jimmy Giuffre, valve trombonist Bob Enevoldsen, pianist Pete Jolly and drummer Shelly Manne.
Vol. 4: The Quintets & Strings showcases Niehaus’s alto with a string quartet and a rhythm section on some numbers and jamming in a quintet on others. Finally, on Vol. 5: The Sextet, he teams up with Williamson, tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins, and baritonist Jimmy Giuffre in a pianoless sextet. Throughout each of these projects, Niehaus’s writing uplifts the music beyond that of a jam session, giving the performances meaning, direction, and a forward momentum along with subtle surprises.
By the 1960s, Lennie Niehaus had deemphasized his saxophone in favor of writing film scores, but during the last decade he has returned to active playing while continuing to be one of jazz’s top arrangers.