Lennie Niehaus: Vol. 1: The Quintets (1954)
Cool jazz has always represented the tweed jacket and horn-rimmed glasses approach to the music and has often been criticized for stealing jazz away from smoky bars to college lecture halls and living room hifis. A style that could only have been conceived during the optimistic bliss of the Eisenhower administration and the warm breezes of California, cool jazz was doomed to be overrun by the turbulent 60s and the angry, socially conscious music that was its byproduct. Indeed, cool jazz disappeared as quickly as it started and truly represents an anomaly; no one is really doing anything today quite like those guys were in the fifties.
One would be hard pressed to find an album more representative of West Coast jazz than this one. For starters, the cover features three guys who, except for the horns, look like college professors working on math problems (many critics of cool jazz say that it's too intellectual and studied). The men in question are Lennie Niehaus, Jack Montrose, and Bob Gordon; musicians who, while not that well known, were key to delineating a West Coast sound. Niehaus was first and foremost an arranger for the Stan Kenton band and his crisp charts for the front line mask the fact that a piano is absent from the first quintet. Instead of sounding hollow, the musicians fill the empty space with great depth and imagination. Niehaus, who sounds like a more restless Lee Konitz, plays swift cat and mouse games with Montrose and Gordon, especially on "Whose Blues". Gordon (who lived a tragically short life) always manages to blow the paint off of the walls on every session he's at; this one is no exception.
The second set of quintet cuts are less inspired; Montrose and Gordon are replaced by Hawes and Williamson and the interesting counterpoint of the three horns is lost. Niehaus plays with the same enthusiasm, but Williamson sounds a bit hesitant; only when he switches to trumpet for one cut do they reach the same level of accomplishment as before. Manne, a standard bearer for West Coast jazz, provides snappy brushwork on both sessions.
Greeted with either indifference or scorn by many, West Coast jazz deserves wider attention than it has been given. Reissues like this one may help convince listeners to give this pleasant genre a second look.
Track Listing: I Remember You, Poinciana, Whose Blues, Prime Rib, I Should CAre, Inside Out, I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me, You Stepped Out Of A Dream, I'll Take Romance, Happy Times, Day By Day, Bottoms Up.
Personnel: Lennie Niehaus, alto saxophone; Jack Montrose, tenor saxophone; Bob Gordon, baritone saxophone; Stu Williamson, trumpet and valve trombone; Monty Budwig, Red Mitchell, bass; Hampton Hawes, piano; Shelley Manne, drums.
Record Label: Fantasy Jazz