Joe Castro: Passion Flower

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Joe Castro was a captivating figure. A multi-talented West Coast bop pianist in the early 1950s and beyond, Castro also was a tasteful recording-session leader and soloist. He had the sturdy keyboard command of Dave Brubeck, the bounce of Hampton Hawes and styling of Dodo Marmarosa. And like Brubeck and Armstrong, he also had one of the broadest and most eager smiles. Unfortunately, Castro never broke into the big time with a working group or a contract with a major record label.

Instead, the dashing, elegant Castro became romantically involved with a wealthy benefactor in the late '50s and tried to go it alone. Fortunately, Castro's darting contribution to jazz was well documented. On the newly released six-CD box set, Joe Castro: Passion Flower for Doris Duke (Sunnyside), co-produced by James Castro, one of Joe's sons, and Daniel Richard, the music fills in what wasn't covered by the first superb Castro box in 2015: Joe Castro: Lush Life, a Musical Journey (Sunnyside). For me, the new set is among the most rewarding jazz boxes of the year.

The first CD in the new set features Castro's lyrical bop trio recordings of 1955 and '56. They were recorded in a studio at Falcon Lair, the mansion in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles owned by energy and tobacco heiress Doris Duke, with whom Castro had a romantic relationship. The mansion had been built in 1925 by leading actor Rudolph Valentino and was sold to Duke in 1952. It still stands today above Benedict Canyon. On these trio sessions, Castro was backed by different leading bassists and drummers, including Leroy Vinnegar and Jimmy Pratt; Red Mitchell and Pratt; Vinnegar and Lawrence Marable; and Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

The second CD features a bunch of Castro's friends who recorded in 1956 at Duke Farms, Doris Duke's estate in Hillsborough, N.J. These friends included pianist Paul Bley, bassist Hal Gaylor and drummer Lennie McBrowne as well as vocalist Flo Handy and her arranger-pianist and husband George Handy. Flo, the sister of singer Ella Mae Morse, would divorce Handy and go on to marry tenor saxophonist Al Cohn.

The Handy tracks are especially interesting, since Flo would record only one album with guitarists George Barnes and Carl Kress in 1964. These duo and orchestral tracks unearthed with George Handy apparently are the alternate takes, since George Handy took the master tapes and either wiped or destroyed them. The Handy-Flo-Cohn love triangle is fascinating all by itself.

The third CD includes Castro's richly articulated Mood Jazz, recorded for Atlantic and released in 1957. The box features bonus tracks and alternate takes. Arrangements were by Ray Ellis and Neal Hefti. Guest soloists include Nat Adderley and Cannonball Adderley. The music is a nifty intersection of pop and jazz without the commercial trappings. It's just fascinating music.

The fourth CD is Castro's Groove, Funk, Soul, released on Atlantic in 1960. He was backed by Vinnegar, who had become his working bassist, drummer Billy Higgins and tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards. Pure West Coast jazz with Central Avenue flavor, as it was meant to be. The original album's tracks are joined here by previously unissued bonus tracks and alternate takes.

The fifth CD is a previously unreleased album project by Castro called The Sidewalks of New York, recorded in 1965. The album was recorded around the time of his break with Duke, a rupture that led to a legal scrap in '64, a dropping of legal action and reunification. In '66, Castro would separate from Duke permanently and marry Loretta Haddad, a pianist-singer. The session included bassist Teddy Kotick and drummer Paul Motian.

The sixth and final CD is a previously unreleased project Castro recorded in 1965 for Clover Records, which he co-owned with Doris Duke and Duke Ellington. Dissatisfied with the trio sound, Castro overdubbed horns by the Bob Cooper Ensemble. Unfortunately, the label folded in '66 after his final split with Duke. On this disc, we hear Doris Duke on piano on Passion Flower and an alternate take of Remind Me

I love this box and find it to be among the hippest sets of the year. There's so much variety here, and all of the material is tasteful and in the pocket. When you put all of the pieces together, one can't help but wonder if Castro remained with Duke to ensure that he had a great studio to record in or if they both loved jazz so much that they were bonded to each other for artistic reasons. Doris Duke, clearly was a fascinating figure in her own right, as the world's richest woman who constantly was in the news for a range of daring and sordid reasons. She also was the one who first floated the idea of an outdoor jazz festival in Newport to George Wein after classical concerts didn't quite work out.

Or perhaps Castro loved Duke, but between his touring and Duke's own dalliances, their only real love connection was jazz. Or Duke only felt truly alive when Joe and jazz filled her home. Whatever the reason, their passion for the music and each other adds a dramatic and sensual backstory to the joyous music on this box. Frankly, the love story and their life at Falcon Lair are as intriguing to me as the music. 

Doris Duke died in 1993, Loretta Haddad died in 2008 and Joe Castro died in 2009.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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