Charlie Mariano died Tuesday in Cologne. I first heard him playing in Eberhard Weber's Colours band, in the 1970s, with Rainer Bruninghaus and Jon Christensen--Yellow Fields (1975) remains one of my favourite records. Interestingly, Charlie played mostly soprano sax (and nagaswaram, the Indian oboe), for Colours, although he was by trade an altoist. I remember seeing them sometime in 1978-79 at the Round House, and being mesmerised by the way, playing live, they could add layers to the music they were recording, and how Mariano's work seemed somehow stronger live, his presence almost mystical.
Doing some research, I hadn't realised he was born in Boston, and came up with guys like Quincy Jones and Herb Pomeroy, played with Serge Chaloff and Dick Twardzik. He played in Stan Kenton's and Charles Mingus' bands, and as an accompanist; in fact as I looked deeper into his history I realised he was unique in having careers in Europe and Asia as well as America. I haven't heard his recordings with his Japanese wife, Toshiko Akiyoshi, on piano, nor had I realised he was an early teacher at the Boston music school which became Berkelee, which is where she was a student.
In Europe he played in a couple of jazz-rock bands, the German Embryo and in the Dutch combo Pork Pie, with Jasper van't Hof on keyboards and Philip Catherine on guitar; they made duo and trio albums which are often interesting. His versatility is amazing; another of my favourite records is Blue Camel, with Mariano accompanying the Lebanese oud virtuoso Rabih Abu-Khalil.
I followed Weber and Mariano to the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, a fusion band of sorts with a horrible name but often some very captivating music,in a fine horn section with (from left to right, Mariano second from left), Barbara Thompson on tenor, the great German trombonist Albert Manglesdorff, and Ian Carr, Ack van Rooyen, and Kenny Wheeler on trumpets. They were excellent live, not quite as good on record. Mariano was never a standout in any of those bands, never up front, never showing off. In that sense, he was the perfect sideman, and it helps explain how he could fit in so seamlessly with so many different kinds of players. You have to admire his creativity, and his flexibility, his curiosity and his openness to new musical directions. It's what jazz is all about.