The Contemporary Records Story
Contemporary Records, the stylish West Coast label that flourished from 1952-77 under its founder, Lester Koenig, is wonderfully represented in this boxed set from Fantasy Records that ingeniously condenses the singular nature and quality of those twenty-five years into four remarkably comprehensive and illustrative compact discs.
This isn’t the complete story, as the discs cover the period from the label’s creation until Koenig’s passing at age 60 in 1977 but don’t include the later recordings made by Lester’s son John after he and his sister Victoria inherited the company, nor the continuation of the legacy after Contemporary was acquired by Fantasy. They represent instead an assessment of Koenig’s vision, which was as broad as it was open-minded. The discs are arranged chronologically, with the first covering the years 1952-56, the second 1956-58, the third 1958-60 and the last 1960-77, closing appropriately with a poignant unaccompanied rendition of “Over the Rainbow” by one of Contemporary’s most brilliant yet self-destructive talents, the great Art Pepper. Disc 4 has the largest gaps in continuity, skipping from 1962 (Shelly Manne’s “Exodus”) to 1970 (Woody Shaw’s “A Deed for Dolphy”) and from there to 1976 (Art Farmer’s “My Funny Valentine”). Surely there must have been albums released between 1963-69 and 1971-75 but none is represented here. At 71:28 there isn’t room for much more; perhaps Fantasy thought of adding a fifth disc to the set but it wouldn’t fit in the box.
Be that as it may, what remains is quite impressive, including benchmarks by such acclaimed artists as Pepper, Manne, Shaw, Farmer, the Lighthouse All-Stars, Lennie Niehaus, Red Norvo, Benny Carter, Leroy Vinnegar, Benny Golson, André Previn, Harold Land, Gerald Wiggins, Victor Feldman, Hampton Hawes, Sonny Rollins, Barney Kessel, Teddy Edwards, Howard McGhee, Ben Webster, Ray Brown, Buddy Collette and others. Koenig’s ears were always open to new and innovative music, represented here by pacesetters Shaw, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Elmo Hope. and Chico Freeman. There’s even a track on Disc 3 by clarinetist Bill Smith, known in the world of classical music as William O. Smith, whom Koenig had earlier signed and recorded with other classical artists for Contemporary, which began life as an outlet for modern classical music.
Koenig’s first album when Contemporary added Jazz to its catalog in 1952 was “Sunday Jazz à la Lighthouse,” featuring bassist Howard Rumsey’s working group from nearby Hermosa Beach, and it is the Lighthouse All-Stars who open Disc 1 with two selections, Shorty Rogers’ “Viva Zapata!” (from that first album) and Jimmy Giuffre’s “Big Girl.” Besides Rogers, Giuffre and Rumsey, the sidemen include drummer Manne, tenor Bob Cooper, trombonist Milt Bernhart, pianist Frank Patchen, and (on “Zapata!”) trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and conguero Carlos Vidal. Groups led by Manne, Kessel, Niehaus, Hawes, Collette, bassist Curtis Counce, pianist Lyle Murphy, arranger Duane Tatro and one more by the Lighthouse All-Stars complete Disc 1, with appearances as sidemen by Pepper, Giuffre, Rogers, Cooper, Previn, Vinnegar, Land, Max Roach, Marty Paich, Bud Shank, Claude Williamson, Bob Gordon, Russ Freeman, Red Mitchell, Bob Enevoldsen, Frank Butler, Joe Maini, Bill Holman, Gerald Wilson, Jack Sheldon, Red Callender and others
Pepper is prominent on Disc 2, placing his indelible stamp on a pair of enchanting melodies (“Star Eyes,” “All the Things You Are”) with other selections by Wiggins, Norvo, Rollins (the kitschy “I’m an Old Cowhand” from his album Way Out West ), Carter, Vinnegar, Golson, Previn, Mitchell, Land, Feldman and Coleman. Again, the list of sidemen reads like a who’s who of West (and East) Coast stalwarts including Manne, Kessel, Collette, Webster, Brown, Butler, Warne Marsh, Paul Chambers, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, Carl Perkins, Billy Higgins, Gigi Gryce, Wynton Kelly, Charli Persip, Stan Levey, Don Cherry, Walter Norris and others. Coleman and Cherry disrupt the otherwise straight-ahead groove with their quintet outing, “Invisible” (which sounds rather tame by today’s standards).
Hawes opens Disc 3 with his own composition, “Hip” (featuring Land’s supple tenor), Pepper reappears with a mini-big band on “Airegin” (from the album Art Pepper + Eleven ) and leads a quintet on “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” and there are encores by Previn, Rollins, Carter, Manne and Kessel. Farmer’s quartet plays Golson’s “Stablemates,” blues singer Helen Humes belts out “Bill Bailey,” clarinetist Smith fronts an all-star quartet (Manne, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Monty Budwig) on “Greensleeves,” the Teddy Edwards Quartet performs Hawes’ “The Sermon,” and the cutting-edge Cecil Taylor Quartet is heard on “African Violets.” Among those laboring in the trenches are Vinnegar, Freeman, Budwig, Edwards, Kessel, Butler, Scott LaFaro, Hank Jones, Roy Haynes, Frank Rosolino, Earl Hines, Conte and Pete Candoli, Herb Geller, Med Flory, Joe Mondragon, Mel Lewis, Jimmy Rowles, Richie Kamuca and Jimmy Cobb.
Besides the songs already mentioned, Disc 4 contains selections by Edwards, McGhee, Hawes, Freeman, Brown and Phineas Newborn Jr., opening with Webster’s soulful reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and closing with Pepper’s heart-wrenching version of “Over the Rainbow,” taped during a concert date in ‘77 at the Village Vanguard in NYC. The sidemen include Rowles, Hall, Mitchell, Butler, Rogers, Feldman, Budwig, Sam Jones, Louis Hayes, Al Viola, Gary Bartz, Benny Maupin, George Cables, Ron Carter, Hilton Ruiz, Cedar Walton and Elvin Jones. Brown, whose trio (Walton, piano; Jones, drums), performs the Gershwins’ “Love Walked In,” places his powerful bass in the service of Edwards on the lovely ballad “Misty,” Hawes on “Morning,“ Farmer on “Will You Still Be Mine?“ Newborn, who brandishes his remarkable chops on the fast-paced “Oleo,” is the pianist on McGhee’s “Summertime,” Edwards the tenor on Manne’s rendition of the theme from the film Exodus, Hawes the counterweight to Farmer’s flugel in a duet recording of “Funny Valentine.”
While the music itself is reason enough to endorse the compilation, the package in which it housed is first-class, consisting of a sturdy outer cover in which are enclosed photos of many of the musicians, comprehensive listings of the various selections with album titles, recording dates and personnel, reproductions of most of the album covers, and a well-written and informative sixteen-page bio-history by Richard S. Ginell of Lester Koenig and Contemporary Records. The sound reproduction is topnotch, and each of the four discs has a playing time of more than seventy minutes.
When it came to choosing musicians and signing them to his label, Lester Koenig had impeccable taste, an opinion that is consistently verified throughout this marvelous tribute to his sound judgment, strong leadership and unequivocal love for the music in whose creation he played such an important and inspiring role. One of the best and most welcome reissues of the year.
Disc 1 — Big Girl; Viva Zapata!; You and the Night and the Music; Lullaby of Birdland; Bags’ Groove; Day by Day; Flip; Billie’s Bounce; The Champ; Blues the Most; Blue Moon; Easy Terms; Collard Greens and Black-eyed Peas; Ruby; I Could Have Danced All Night; A Fifth for Frank (72:18). Disc 2 — Serenade in Blue; All the Things You Are; Star Eyes; Paying the Dues Blues; I’m an Old Cowhand; Jordu; Scrapple from the Apple; Old Fashioned Love; On the Sunny Side of the Street; Whisper Not; I Could Write a Book; Grooveyard; Serpent’s Tooth; Invisible (74:52). Disc 3 — Hip; Stablemates; African Violets; Autumn in New York; I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star; Someone to Watch over Me; Bill Bailey; Peter Gunn; Barfly; Greensleeves; Airegin; Down Among the Sheltering Palms; Blue Daniel; Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise; The Sermon (73:59). Disc 4 — Stardust; Misty; Summertime; Oleo; Exodus; A Deed for Dolphy; My Funny Valentine; Morning; Will You Still Be Mine?; Beyond the Rain; Love Walked In; Over the Rainbow (71:28).
Disc 1 — Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars; Shelly Manne & His Men; Barney Kessel; Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars; Lennie Niehaus Quintet; Shelly Manne “The Three”; Shelly Manne “The Two”; Hampton Hawes Trio; Lyle Murphy; Duane Tatro; Shelly Manne & His Friends; Buddy Collette; Shelly Manne & His Friends; Curtis Counce. Disc 2 — Gerald Wiggins; Art Pepper; Red Norvo; Sonny Rollins; The Poll Winners; Red Mitchell; Benny Carter; Leroy Vinnegar; Benny Golson; André Previn & His Pals; Harold Land; Victor Feldman; Ornette Coleman. Disc 3 — Hampton Hawes; Art Farmer; Cecil Taylor Quartet; André Previn; Sonny Rollins; Benny Carter; Helen Humes; Shelly Manne & His Men; Elmo Hope; Bill Smith; Art Pepper + Eleven; Barney Kessel; Shelly Manne & His Men; Art Pepper; Teddy Edwards Quartet. Disc 4 — Ben Webster; Teddy Edwards; Howard McGhee; Phineas Newborn Jr.; Shelly Manne; Woody Shaw; Art Farmer; Hampton Hawes; Art Farmer; Chico Freeman; Ray Brown; Art Pepper.