Possibly because of its many stylistic variants and the large number of musicians involved in the music during its heydays, recorded jazz has been more closely tied to various camps and independent record labels over the years than any other genre of music. So if the East Coast trendsetters were Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside during the ‘50s and ‘60s, the West Coast equivalent was arguably the Contemporary label, founded in 1951 by screenwriter-cum-record producer Lester Koenig.
Not only did the label carve a niche with an idiosyncratic catalog that put quality music at a premium, but Contemporary was also a leader in production values by entering the stereo market as early as 1956. Recording engineers Roy DuNann and Howard Holzer set up shop in the back warehouse section of the Contemporary offices and by keeping things simple and straightforward they achieved a pure and lifelike reproduction of instruments that could arguably by rivaled only by Rudy Van Gelder. Even today, audiophiles revel in the honest and true fidelity of recordings from the Contemporary catalog, with many of the classics even surpassing today’s digital technology.
A great deal of the history of Contemporary is contained within the confines of this four-disc set, from archival photos to detailed information about the day-to-day operations of the label. From the first recordings of Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars in 1952 to Art Pepper’s 1977 comeback at the Village Vanguard, there are 57 tracks in all. The set gets underway with music from Howard Rumsey, Shelly Mann, and Hampton Hawes, three of the most important early contributors to the label. Interestingly enough, Koenig had an interest in contemporary classical music and so a piece like the "The Flip" hints at a third stream approach that finds Shelly Manne, Shorty Rogers, and Jimmy Giuffre intertwining their lines in collective fashion. Lyle Murphy also gets a lush orchestral sound out of his opening voicing for "Blue Moon." Certainly, the cooler approach that many associate with West Coast sounds is part and parcel of many of the tracks on this opening disc.
Things start to heat up a bit more as disc two kicks in with bop-inflected numbers from Art Pepper and Red Norvo. Sonny Rollins weighs in with the quintessential "I’m an Old Cowhand" from his Way Out West
LP and hard swinging numbers from Leroy Vinnegar, Harold Land, and Victor Feldman eventually give way to "Invisible" from Ornette Coleman’s 1958 debut Something Else!
. While not as radical as later Coleman recordings, Koenig was definitely going out on a limb with the two albums he produced for the saxophonist considering his preference for more mainstream productions. Disc three also stretches the boundaries with some early work by Cecil Taylor and the chamber jazz sensibilities of the Bill Smith Quartet performing "Greensleeves."
The heydays of Contemporary peaked in around 1962, with the early ‘60s being an especially productive period for the label. The fourth disc squeezes in many of the gems from Teddy Edwards, Howard McGhee, Phineas Newborn, and Shelly Manne, the latter giving us the inspired concept album My Son the Jazz Drummer
which spotlighted sagacious updates of Jewish and Israeli folk songs. Unfortunately, none of the labels more adventurous albums from the middle to the end of the decade are sampled. Classics from Sonny Simmons (Rumasuma
), Jimmy Woods (Conflict!
), and Shelly Manne’s later ensembles (the intriguing Outside
album comes to mind) are peculiar by their absence. In the last bit of concentrated activity from 1975 to 1977, Koenig cut albums by Art Farmer, Hampton Hawes, Chico Freeman, Ray Brown, and Art Pepper (all get features here), but by this time much of the excitement and creativity from a production standpoint were lacking in comparison with earlier glories.
Aside from the aforementioned exclusion of some of the label’s experiments with the avant garde movement of the ‘60s, it would be hard to imagine a better testament to one man’s artistic vision and a more concise introduction to a treasure trove of immortal jazz.