For those of us who weren't able to attend any of the now-becoming-legendary Left Bank Jazz Society sessions, Label M's continuing documentation of the excitement within the Famous Ballroom provides the best available substitute for having been there. Better yet, these Left Bank Jazz Society sessions now are being documented for the attention of the world beyond Baltimore, allowing jazz fans to realize how legendary jazz musicians performed in the informal venues that were less controlled than the studio recordings, but at the same time were also more interactive.
It's hard to compare the Left Bank Jazz Society performances that Label M has released so far because they're as individual as the musicians whom the Society recorded on its little reel-to-reel machine. Stan Getz' was just as inspired as Sonny Stitt's. A large part of the reason for the excitement inherent in the CD's is the crowd reaction, raucous and good-humored. These events must have been eagerly anticipated by jazz-hungry Baltimoreans because the musicians' oneness with the audience is reminiscent of that of the big bands' in the 1930's and 1940's.
The horns are doubled on Jazz Gems, Jimmy Heath obviously having a good time in concert with Freddie Hubbard from beginning to end. Indeed, the intensity of the music grows through the recording, eventually reaching multi-chorused Heath improvisations on "Autumn Leaves" after he seemingly yielded the spotlight to Hubbard for most of the night.
Heath and Hubbard capture the audience's imagination from the start as they trade phrases on "All Members," Knox providing the drum rolls between choruses and the noise from the crowd growing audibly over the tune's five minutes. When the group stretches out on the next tune, "Bluesville," the crowd without exaggeration goes wild, whooping and hollering as Hubbard plays with a gritty drive over a cadence like Benny Golson's "Blues March."
The encouragement of the crowd leads Hubbard to half-valve and smear and growl and flutter and buzz his way through "Lover Man" as Heath provides the harmonic lines behind him. The stretched-out versions of "What Is This Thing Called Love" and "Autumn Leaves" leave the Left Bank Jazz Society members with memorable performances that they must have talked about for years afterward.
In the liner notes, Jimmy Heath writes that he still remembers that evening in Baltimore. A local favorite, Heath's profile appears on the LBJS's logo, and the Society recommended him for an honorary doctorate degree. An important connection between the Baltimore jazz enthusiasts and the New York musicians, Heath was instrumental in securing the talent that the Society craved.
Producer Joel Dorn and recording engineer Gene Paul remember the indescribable excitement within the jazz venues like the Famous Ballroom, and they took great pains to leave in the crowd's reaction, as well as to enhance the clarity of Heath's and Hubbard's playing. As the Left Bank Jazz Society releases continue, it becomes obvious that the feel of those venues doesn't exist today at the same level. As documentation of jazz musicians playing at their height in reaction to the crowds' encouragement, the Label M releases are proving to be unique and irreplaceable.
Track Listing: All Members, Bluesville, Lover Man, What Is This Thing Called Love, Autumn Leaves