As it says in the liner notes to Night Lights, “West Coast Jazz rides again.” Not quite as high as it did in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but one must give due credit to Silicon Valley’s Octobop for helping to enliven and preserve the spirit of some of the greatest Jazz ever written or played. Yes, there was much more to appreciate about “West Coast Jazz” than its laid-back hipness, the “cool” facade that came to epitomize the movement and by which it was universally, albeit inaccurately, known.
This is the second album by saxophonist Geoff Roach’s eight-member ensemble, and it’s an earnest salute to many of West Coast Jazz’s leading lights, including Gerry Mulligan, Marty Paich, Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, Art Pepper and Bud Shank. What it lacks, of course, is Gerry, Art, Shorty, Bud, Marty, Bill and the many others who made the West Coast sound so memorable—but those guys are (in most cases, sadly, were) geniuses and thus irreplaceable, as were Chet, Shelly, Coop, Conte, Perk and a veritable who's who of their West Coast colleagues.
Inspired by their example but unable to call on them for help, Octobop does the best it can to rekindle the mood and magic of that wonderful era, canvassing four exemplary compositions by Mulligan, two by Shorty and one each by Paich, Holman, Pepper, Shank, Dave Pell and Neal Hefti. When I say that Octobop is doing the best it can, I mean exactly that. The charts are well-designed, the players competent, but there’s no more than a trace of the electricity that brightened the originals (I can still hum from memory many of the improvised choruses on albums from Pacific Jazz, Contemporary and other West Coast labels).
An unfair comparison? Of course. But as I said, the musicians who established the West Coast school of jazz were in a class by themselves. Just look at the names; there’s no way anyone could ever match what they did, or even come close. On the other hand, Octobop is quite good on its own terms. These gentlemen aren’t amateurs, they clearly love the music that turned heads on the West Coast and everywhere else some forty to fifty years ago, and do their utmost to breathe new life into it. No one can carp about that.
Of the dozen tunes performed by Octobop, all save one, Mulligan’s “Night Lights,” nicely sung by Nancy Gilliland, are instrumentals. They include three more of the baritone giant’s striking compositions—“Rocker,” “Walkin’ Shoes,” “Jeru”—along with Shorty’s “Jazz Wagner” and “Short Stop.” No less persuasive are Paich’s “Blue Mist,” Holman’s “Jazz Goes to Siwash,” Shank’s “Cotton Blossom” or Pepper’s “Minor Yours.” Pell wrote the perky “Prom to Prom,” Hefti the popular “Girl Talk.” Even with none of the music’s architects able to lend a hand, Night Lights is a well-shaped session of smooth West Coast-style jazz by an ensemble whose commitment to the music is wholehearted and impressive.
Personnel: Geoff Roach, alto, baritone, bass sax; Matt Kesner, soprano, alto, tenor sax; Randy Smith, trumpet; Darrell Jefferson (1, 2, 4, 6-12), Bob Boring (3, 5), trombone; Bill Hazzard, vibraphone, marimba; Bob Calder, guitar; David Kopf, bass; Jon Wagner, drums; Nancy Gilliland (3), vocal.