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The Contemporary Records Story by Various Artists

Lester Koenig’s Contemporary Records was the leading West Coast jazz label at its most prolific period in the 1950s and 1960s. This delightful 4 CD box captures the magic of the label in performances recorded over a period of 1952 to 1977. The 10 page Richard S. Ginell-penned booklet outlining the label’s rich history is a spellbinding read, as is the exquisite music it depicts. That music consistently rises to deliciously exciting levels in this vital box set. Of the 57 tunes collected herein, a few favorites stand out.

Disc OneHoward Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, based out of the Hermosa Beach club that gave them their name, was at the epicenter of West Coast jazz, so it is fitting that the first two cuts here are from that aggregation. The opening "Big Girl" is an R&B-infused number cut in 1952 that reminds of Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vincent’s early R&B. The following "Viva Zapata!," recorded live at the club in February 1953, is a big band samba sparked by percussion and the fat brass of Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Cooper, and Milt Bernhart, along with pianist Frank Patchen and bassist Rumsey. Drummer Shelly Manne and conga player Carlos Vidal are featured here and they drive their band mates hard. We’re treated, too, to a mellifluous "You and the Night and the Music" from Shelly Manne & His Men, who included Art Pepper, Jimmy Giuffre and Bob Cooper among its number; Barney Kessel’s swinging "Lullaby of Birdland" with Bud Shank on a sweet flute; a sultry "Day By Day" from a 1954 Lennie Niehaus Quintet date; and a nonet session led by celeste player Lyle Murphy on "Blue Moon." Though Lyle doesn’t enjoy household name recognition status, he is joined on the 1955 session by Abe Most, Andre Previn, Buddy Collette, Curtis Counce and Shelly Manne. The urbane Manne also works with a trio of Previn and bassist Leroy Vinnegar on an upbeat bluesy take of Oscar Pettiford’s "Collard Greens & Black Eyed Peas."

Disc Two The second disc opens with a lush Gerald Wiggins version of "Serenade in Blue," cut in October 1956 with bassist Joe Comfort and drummer Jackie Mills. Alto sax giant Art Pepper follows with two back-to-back gems in "All The Things You Are" (with Warne Marsh, Ronnie Ball, Ben Tucker, and Gary Frommer from November 1956) and the spellbinding "Star Eyes," perhaps my favorite piece in the collection, with Red Garland, Paul Chambers and the great Philly Joe Jones, recorded in January 1957. Pepper has never sounded as commanding and mesmerizing. Working with one of the great rhythm sections of all time certainly adds to the magic. Sonny Rollins’ 1957 version of "I’m An Old Cowhand," with Shelly Manne supplying the "hoofs" and Ray Brown at the anchor, is one of his classic numbers for good reason. Brown and Manne join guitarist Barney Kessel on Duke Jordan’s swinging "Jordu". The Benny Carter group assembled for "Old Fashioned Love," with Kessel, Vinnegar and Manne augmented by trombonist Frank Rosolino, tenor legend Ben Webster and young pianist Andre Previn, sounds wonderful, but its Carter’s alto that shines. Harold Land’s "Grooveyard" is a particular favorite, as well. Here the tenorist is joined by Rolf Ericson (trumpet), Carl Perkins (pianist), Leroy Vinnegar (bass) and Frank Butler (drums) on a 1958 Elmo Hope arrangement of Perkins’ composition. Benny Golson’s "Whisper Not" is a treat, and Ornette Coleman’s adventurous 1958 "Invisible," though it breaks with the tradition, is one of the more invigorating pieces on the collection. Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, Walter Norris and Don Payne join the alto saxophonist on the number

Disc ThreeThe third disc opens with the ultra-hip "Hip," with pianist Hampton Hawes, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Frank Butler joined by the fluid and fanciful Harold Land on tenor winging through the 1958 Hawes original. This is followed by the equally hip Art Farmer’s interpretation of Benny Golson’s "Stablemates," on which the flugelhornist is joined by the irrepressible Hank Jones, drummer extraordinaire Roy Haynes and Art’s twin brother Addison Farmer on bass. Cecil Taylor’s "African Violets," from a June 1958 session, features the pianist on a relatively in-the-box recording with Earl Griffith on vibes, Buell Neidlinger on bass, and a busy Dennis Charles on drums, and pianist Andre Previn delivers a beautiful solo rendition of "Autumn In New York," showing the pianists to be kindred spirits.

Sonny Rollins is joined by Hampton Hawes, Leroy Vinnegar, Barney Kessel and Shelly Manne on "I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star"; Benny Carter, this time on trumpet, enlists the company of Vinnegar and Manne, along with the great pianist Earl Hines for his wonderful take on "Someone To Watch Over Me"; and pianist Elmo Hope works alongside bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Frank Butler for his dramatic original "Barfly." Kessel again shines on "Down Among the Sheltering Palms" and Pepper’s "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise" with Conte Candoli, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb on hand, is a treasure. Teddy Edwards' version of Hawes "The Sermon," with Joe Castro, Vinnegar and Billy Higgins, is a treat, as well.

Disc FourThe final disc opens with a wonderful 1960 live "Stardust" from Ben Webster, on which the tenor giant is joined by Jimmy Rowles, guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Red Mitchell. Webster’s touch here is delightfully delicate. Teddy Edwards is equally charming on his May 1961 version of "Misty," on which Phineas Newborn, Jr., Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen join the tenor saxophonist. And, as gorgeous pieces go, Art Farmer’s "My Funny Valentine," performed in duet with pianist Hampton Hawes, is one of the most emotive versions of the classic I’ve heard. Hawes follows with his sleepy "Morning", a lovely trio piece with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne.

Art Farmer runs through a quick tempoed "Will You Still Be Mine?" brilliantly performed with Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, and Brown offers a swinging "Love Walked In" with Elvin Jones and Cedar Walton that is simply spectacular. The closing version of "Over the Rainbow" recorded solo by Art Pepper at the Village Vanguard on July 28, 1977, is breathtaking.

Mr. Koenig’s impact on jazz was enormous. Jazz fans have long recognized this simple fact. The assemblage of these 57 superb tunes in one impressive box set makes that legacy that much more apparent. This is one of the most satisfying collections of music released this year, if not the single best. As an overview of the West Coast scene it is in a class by itself. Not all of the most important music of the era was being made on the East Coast, as this more than adequately demonstrates. In a 10-star world, this is a 20-star collection.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
  • CD Title: The Contemporary Records Story
  • Genre: Cool Jazz
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Reissue Original Release: 1952-1977
  • Record Label: Contemporary
  • Rating: Five Stars
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