Bob Weinstock loved older jazz but rarely recorded it: apart from some Jimmy McPartland sides, the first decade of Prestige was strictly modern. In the late ‘Fifties he started to diversify: new labels were set up (including Swingville), and records were cut. The assembled roster was amazing: big stars (Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell) and overlooked swing masters (Budd Johnson, Tiny Grimes, Al Casey.) Claude Hopkins fits the latter category: popular bandleader in the ‘30s, he arranged for most of the ‘Forties, while playing in various small groups. He led three albums for Swingville; the last two are here, and they work their charm slowly. With stately tempo and simple charts a bunch of old pros give you the good stuff – a “playing team”, as the notes call them, and they play to win.
The first session is loaded: Budd Johnson on left speaker, Vic Dickenson to the right, and Claude nestled in the middle. Budd starts “I Cried for You” confident and smooth; he leans back and tells you how he feels. Bobby Johnson uses the mute nicely; Claude throws some notes in the middle that are just gorgeous. Nothing unusual here: it’s light, it’s bright – and it’s right.
The horns prove themselves often, winding slowly as Claude gives the chords. Bobby goes mute on “Somebody Loves Me”, to great effect: of him the notes say :...pretty sound, good range, fine control, a special little muted thing, and he plays in tune.” Dickenson (a veteran of Claude’s big band) drawls sweetly on “Stormy Weather”, answered by the lonely mute. Wendell Marshall opens “Love Me or Leave Me” with flair, and then it’s Budd. The tone has grit, but the feel has leisure: a gentle surge so vital to the old school. Vic is buttery rich, and Claude is spare on a nice bit: a little stride with lush moments. It leaves as it came, and you’ll love it.
Claude’s “Mitzi” is nice, with hints of “Blue Skies”. The opening chart sparkles, as they all do: Budd and Vic did the honors. Check out the rusty ‘bone; Vic’s mute make a great noise and sets the mood. Claude gets two solos, the last being best. A similar mood is “Sunny Side:, with its loud riff and easy solos. Claude’s is nice, and more active than normal. Bobby takes honors here – with the others close behind. The end starts sloppy, but shapes up fine, and we coast out with a good feeling, a nice band, and half an album to go.
The quintet date, from 1961, is looser, with more room for Claude. The tone is set with “Offbeat Blues”: bright cymbals from J.C. Heard and a nice persistent riff. Buddy Tate comes on with a mission; his tone is like Budd's but his attack is stronger. Joe Thomas says a little, but the star is the riff, which could go on all night. “I Surrender Dear” is big and lonely, slowly than normal with full chords. Heard's brushes work as much as Claude does, and the mood is delightfully thick. Tate shows his vibrato on a tender “I Apologize”; breathy and beautiful. Thomas answers with a distant mute, and when Claude tremolos to keep it tender, you are hooked.
“Late Evening” brings us a lazy porch, and Tate’s clarinet. He sobs high, a world away from the tenor sound. Claude trembles as Thomas goes mute. It’s the same feel, and it feels good. “The Way You Look Tonight” has a Latin beat, and a breathy Tate. Thomas answers on the other speaker, open and warm; Claude goes dainty as the cymbals grow thick. It’s his best turn, and it’s great when the horns come back. “Anything for You” was the Hopkins band’s theme song, and it swings here too. Claude strides light, Tate goes a bit smooth on the tenor, and Thomas’ bit glows with sunshine. “Safari Stomp” is edgier than most, but that feeling is here. Tate goes first with Thomas in counterpoint; this is his best. Buddy returns the favor for Thomas’ solo, also good. It kicks up at the end, and we go home happy. I can ask nothing more.