Bebop trumpet pioneer Howard McGhee has undergone a lengthy process of rediscovery and reassessment since his death in 1987. A one-time Downbeat Poll Winner (1947), it's probably not much of an exaggeration to say he had been largely forgotten, even by trumpet players. Yet Gunther Schuller (1989) and Scott DeVeaux (1997) soon published searching and sophisticated analyses of his contribution and playing. More recently, trumpet player Brian Lynch offers a terrific appreciation of McGhee in his "Unsung Heros of Jazz Trumpet" project, suggesting how McGhee took Roy Eldridge in his own, distinctive direction. Of course, there's also a lot of material available now on YouTube as well including a clip from the 1945 film noir "Crimson Canary" in which McGhee is featured alongside Oscar Pettiford and Coleman Hawkins. Ira Gitler's (1986) oral history of swing to bop is a good place to start as well. There's really no shortage of written material now.
But if you want to hear McGhee play, it's more of a problem. His original Dial and Savoy recordings are findable, but the market is thin and prices vary wildly. Besides, you shouldn't have to collect 78s if you want to hear a decent recording by a foundational figure in bop.
Unfortunately, some of the collections on CD I've heard, and I've by no means heard them all, leave a lot to be desired. McGhee and his bandmates often sound like they're playing under water, and the rhythm sections tend to be inaudible, dropping in and out. It's no way to appreciate McGhee, or anyone decent, for that matter.
That's the reason why this release by Uptown Records in its Flashback Series can only be considered as a big step forward in the appreciation of McGhee's body of work. While about a third of the tracks are genuinely novel, 1945 broadcasts from Streets of Paris club in Hollywood, there is also a 1945 Philo recording session that will absolutely astound. The digital restoration by Andreas Meyer is a revelation. Such McGhee standards as "Mop Mop" "Intersection," "Stardust" and "Lifestream" have all been remastered and cleaned up. All have been transferred at a slightly slower speed ("Mop Mop" more than slightly) thus restoring correct pitch.
AS a result the sometimes noticeably sharp intonation that characterizes many of McGhee's existing recordings is gone. He still has a biting attack, but he's in tune. McGhee's already remarkable technique is clearer: what sometimes sounds like muddy or stumbling articulation at very fast tempos comes off cleanly. McGhee's presence is altogether better and the sense that his forays into the upper register were sometimes not quite controlled is gone. This was Howard McGhee at the peak of his playing and he sounds resurrected. To paraphrase Gunther Schuller, you realize that if McGhee wasn't the equal of any other player in 1947, he wasn't very far behind.
This is a wonderful restoration project combined with some fresh, if less exciting broadcast material. The liner notes by Kirk Silsbee are excellent. The photographs in the accompanying booklet are alone with the price of admission. Early bop aficionados and students of bop trumpet will certainly enjoy the entire package.
Intro/Night Mist; A Night in Tunisia; Rockin' Chair; Dark Eyes; Don't Blame Me; Howard's Blues; Killin' Jive(Nagasaki); The Man I Love; Mop Mop; Intersection; Stardust; Lifestream; Night Mist; Hoggin; Sweet Potato; Blues a la King; Ornithology; Body and Soul; The Man I love.
Howard McGhee: TPT; Teddy Edwards: TS, CL; J.D.King: TS, VOC; Sonny Criss: AS; Vernon Biddle, Hampton Hawes: PNO; Bob Kesterson, Addison Farmer: DBL BS, Roy Porter: DR.