Why isn't John Graas more well-known as a jazz musician? Partly because he spent his time on the West Coast in and out of studio bands, recording infrequently with jazz bands or leading his own sessions. It could also be that his chosen instrument, the French horn, is the awkward kid standing off to the side at the dance as far as jazz instruments go. Or maybe it's because he died at the age of thirty-seven, before he could really put his mark on the scene.
Whatever the reason, Lone Hill Jazz is determined to keep this excellent musician from obscurity. Over the course of six CDs, John Grass's entire output as a leader is once again available, a boon for West Coast jazz fans who may only know of him from a few Shorty Rogers albums.
The first half of the album does not feature Graas at all, but is part of the "Jazz Studio sessions which Graas later became a part of. Therefore, it is included for sake of continuity, and it's a stunner. Recorded in 1953, it features a group a musicians who aren't the most well-known on their instruments, but are capable of turning in a solid performance when surrounded by comparable talent.
Most will snap up this CD for the presence of Johnny Smith, whose recorded output is in short supply beyond The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions (Mosaic Records, 2003) box set. The first half of the original release features what must surely be one of the longest versions of "Tenderly ever recorded; everyone gets a run through at ballad tempo before kicking up the pace for the second half. "Let's Split is a typical burner that brings out the fire in all the performers. One look at the personnel should be enough to tell you that this one is worth hearing, and it doesn't disappoint; this is small group swing at its finest. A real find.
Sadly, the John Graas session doesn't quite live up to the first. As Tom Mack points out in the liner notes, the West Coast is known for organization, an approach which sometimes leaves the music sounding overly studied and clinical. With Marty Paich, Graas, and even Jimmy Giuffre on board for this 1954 outing, it was perhaps inevitable that the tracks sound overly fussy. Everyone solos well and the ensemble playing takes the best of the big band approach and hones it to a point. It's just that it would be nice for the guys to break a sweat once in a while. The guy who really came to play is Herb Geller, whose passionate, blistering solos are easily the highlight of the record, and among the finest work he's done.
Jazz Studio 1/2> will no doubt appeal to the West Coast fan who is eager to hear Graas out on his own. Yet many will find themselves drawn to the pristine first half rather than the second. No matter; good jazz is good jazz.
Personnel: Joe Newman: trumpet (1, 2); Bennie Green: trombone (1, 2); Frank Foster: saxophones (1, 2) Paul Quinichette: saxophones (1, 2); Hank Jones: piano (1, 2); Johnny Smith: guitar (1, 2); Eddie Jones: bass (1, 2); Kenny Clarke: drums (1, 2). Don Fagerquist: trumpet (3-8); Milt Barnhart: trombone (3-8); John Graas: French horn (3-8); Herb Geller: alto sax (3-8); Jimmy Giuffre: clarinet, tenor sax, baritone sax (3-8); Marty Paich: piano (3-8); Howard Roberts: guitar (3-8); Curtis Counce: bass (3-8); Larry Bunker: drums (3-8).