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Harold Land: Westward Bound!

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Over the years, tenor saxophonist Harold Land has been positioned as unheralded, underappreciated and not fully celebrated. He has also been referred to as John Coltrane's true heir and a genius. None of this is true, of course. Land recorded 15 leadership albums between 1958 and 2001 and four times that number as a sideman. Jazz fans have known about him for decades, since his early recordings with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet in 1954. A genius? My definition of a jazz genius is someone who invents a jazz form so potent or is such a strong influence that the music's direction is altered. There are probably 10 of these “geniuses" in all.

What Land was is a superb jazz saxophonist who, for whatever reason, remained on the West Coast longer than he probably should have. Had he moved to New York and been signed by Blue Note or Prestige, he might have become a household name like Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Coltrane and many other tenor saxophonists who rose to prominence on the East Coast.

Instead, Land chose to remain out West, where opportunities for Black jazz artists in the 1950s and '60s weren't as abundant as they were for white jazz artists for a variety of unfair reasons outlined in books such as the oral history masterpiece Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1999). So whenever recordings by Land surface, they are worth a careful listen because he was as tasty and as gifted as any of his East Coast counterparts.

Now we have Harold Land: Westward Bound! (Reel to Reel), a new collection of previously unreleased live recordings at The Penthouse in Seattle over three different dates. Here's how the tracks break out:

Vendetta, Beepdurple and Happy Dancing/Deep Harmonies Falling were recorded in December 1962. The gig featured Land (ts), Carmell Jones (tp),  Buddy Monteogery (p), Monk Montgomery (b) and Jimmy Lovelace (d).

My Romance and Triplin' the Groove were recorded in September 1964. They featured Land (ts), Hampton Hawes (p), Monk Montgomery (b) and Mel Lee (d).

Autumn Leaves, Who Can I Turn To, Beau-ty and Blue 'n' Boogie were recorded in August 1965. The musicians were Land (ts), John Houston (p), Monk Montgomery (b) and Philly Joe Jones (d).

Co-produced by Zev Feldman and Reel to Reel Recordings' founder, saxophonist Cory Weeds, the album features material Zev first encountered while exploring tapes of live radio broadcasts from The Penthouse in 2010. Zev is tireless and when he has music he sinks his teeth into something special, he finds a way to drag it to market, regardless of the obstacles. Jazz fans owe Zev a great debt, considering how much music he has unearthed and turned into award-winning product. Not an easy task by any means. Cory also should be commended for understanding why special music needs a champion and a label.

The music on this album is so good it needs to be heard three or more times in a single sitting. The first listen allows your ear to hear the big picture. The second listen allows your ear to pick up on the music's special corners. By the third listen, your ear can fully appreciate what's playing and the distinct personalities of the different ensembles featured. It would be folly to compare one session with the other two. Instead, all are tantalizing for different reasons, with Land (and Monk Montgomery) functioning as the common denominator.

Land weaves and bobs melodically, with his powerful, biting tone pushing notes around like folding chairs while Montgomery plays off of him perfectly, serving up big, warm, spirited bass notes. In this regard, these sessions should be heard as saxophone-bass duets supported by the other musicians on the dates. Land was exceptional, as these recordings demonstrate. Just remember to give the album three consecutive listens. By the third swing-through, you'll experience what I did—a revelation. [Photo above, from left, of Philly Joe Jones, Monk Montgomery (unseen) and Harold Land, at Seattle's Penthouse in 1965]

Harold Land died in July 2001. 

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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