Lester Koenig (pronounced KAY-nig) was a Hollywood movie executive who was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the HUAC. Having founded the Good Time Jazz label in 1949 to record Dixieland jazz, he created the Contemporary imprint in 1952 for modern classical music and modern jazz to keep himself busy. With The Contemporary Records Story, Fantasy has released a 4-CD anthology of Contemporary recordings presented in chronological order. All CDs are at least 71 minutes long. Koenig was a stickler for sonic fidelity, and built his own recording studio on the premises. These recordings bear the fruits of his demands, particularly in the bass.
Fantasy's selections give each disc its own identity. As one might imagine, nearly all of the artists here were West Coasters; but there are a few selections by visitors to Los Angeles, including Ben Webster, Woody Shaw and Art Pepper's famous meeting with Miles Davis's rhythm section. Only four songs (by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Woody Shaw and Chico Freeman) might be considered out of the mainstream.
The songs of disc one feature arrangements so dry they verge on being Third Stream. This is West Coast Cool without being relaxed. The music is often experimental, with unusual instrument combinations (including the use of the french horn or the oboe) or unusual harmonies. The revelation to this listener is the extent to which Lennie Niehaus sounded like Paul Desmond. Drummer Shelly Manne appears on twelve of the sixteen tracks. The disc's highlights are Manne's "You and the Night and the Music" and Lyle Murphy's "Blue Moon."
The music of the second disc is more emotional and less cerebral than that of the first, and the emotion is light and bouncing. The tempo is decidedly more upbeat and swinging. Disc two gets going early on with two Art Pepper tracks. The highlight is Harold Land's "Grooveyard."
The first two-thirds of disc three consist of a collection of pensive recordings, including a New York tape of Cecil Taylor. This mood is interrupted by Helen Humes' "Bill Bailey" and Shelly Manne's "Peter Gunn." The final third returns to the breezy style of disc two. The highlight is Manne's "Blue Daniel."
There is little trace of the West Coast Cool sound on disc four. A number of the tracks are melancholy ballads. The disc is made up of five songs from 1960-1962, one from 1970, and six from 1976-1977. The fidelity of the '70s recordings is noticeably superior. The highlight is Art Farmer's "My Funny Valentine." Koenig died in 1977, and the collection ends with his final project, Art Pepper's Village Vanguard engagement.
The Contemporary Records Story is an enjoyable collection. The album from which each selection is taken is noted, giving the listener plenty of ideas for future exploration.