The Contemporary Records Story

David Rickert By

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The Contemporary Records Story

While the East Coast is often heralded as the hotbed of jazz performance in the fifties both live and in the studio, there was also quite a bit of superb playing on the West Coast as well. Along with Pacific and Fantasy, Lester Koenig at Contemporary was responsible for documenting the scene for 25 years, and his tireless efforts captured some of the classic recordings of the time. Starting out as a screenwriter, Koenig was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and turned his efforts to producing and recording the music that he loved. The Contemporary Records Story documents his efforts and along with superb packaging, captures some of the greatest artists jazz produced.

This box set is not a complete look at the West Coast scene, but nevertheless is an excellent representation of what was going on at the time. The fifties were the heyday of cool jazz, a style of playing that is well documented here. Through the earliest recordings one can see the principal players carving out the warm, breezy swing that echoed the climate of the California setting, particularly those tunes recorded at the jam sessions at the Lighthouse. Virtually every important artist from the area appeared on that stage from Shorty Rogers to Jimmy Giuffre to Bob Cooper, and these live sessions not only jump started the Contemporary label, but also served as the genesis for the tight ensemble playing that was associated with the West Coast.

The dominant force on most of these recordings is drummer Shelly Manne, who appears as a sideman on many sessions and, as a leader, represents the label at its most popular ( My Fair Lady ) as well as it’s most critically acclaimed (the live Blackhawk sessions). Two of the more interesting recordings from Manne, as well as the most obscure, are “The Three” and “The Two” sessions, in which Manne plays with either Rogers and Giuffre or pianist Russ Freeman in one of the earliest expressions of free jazz. The other jewel in the Contemporary roster was Art Pepper, whose two undeniable classics, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section and Art Pepper Plus Eleven , showcase the hot, passionate playing of a saxophonist who was unbeatable despite being dogged with personal problems.

There are also some obscure recordings that even the most serious collectors might have missed, such as the scholarly approach of Lennie Neihaus and the atonal compositions of Lyle Murphy and Duane Tatro. One of the strengths of the box as a whole is it wisely mixes the well-known material with recordings that may be unfamiliar. Other artists who never quite achieved the merit they deserved also get their due, from pianist Hampton Hawes, who recorded often for the label, and Victor Feldman, a reliable vibraphonist and pianist. Also rounding out the sessions are veteran performers such as Benny Carter and Ben Webster, backed by a cadre of sidemen who earned their chops as studio musicians in LA, and hotter performances from the Curtis Counce Group and Harold Land, who tear through numbers in fiery performances in line with the hard bop in full force on the other side of the country.

Koenig also recorded other important sessions featuring players that over time weren’t associated with the West Coast at all. Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West features an early experiment in a pianoless setting on “I’m An Old Cowhand” and in an odd reversal, Ornette Coleman appears on his first session with a piano, an approach he quickly abandoned. Cecil Taylor also makes an early appearance with a decidedly more accessible approach than what would come later. All this goes to show that the fifties were a time of intense exploration and development in jazz, a period of growth that Koenig documented well on one side of the country. In fact, we only reach the sixties at the end of the third disc

The fourth disc finishes out the sixties when the glory days of cool jazz were long over and the lean years of jazz began. However, Contemporary was revived in the seventies due to the interest of the enthusiastic Japanese market and Koenig cranked out a few worthwhile sessions before he packed it in, featuring newer and decidedly more explorative artists like Woody Shaw and Chico Freeman, as well as holdovers like Hampton Hawes and Ray Brown. But the real accomplishment is the revival of Art Pepper, whose solo recording of “Over the Rainbow” demonstrates why at the end of his career he was able to renew the popularity he achieved on the earlier recordings.

It’s hard to find fault with the representation of albums (although Harold Land’s The Fox should be here), leaving listeners only to quibble about the selection of songs from those particular classics. “Blue Daniel” isn’t the hottest that Shelly Manne’s groups got at the Blackhawk, and the infamous “Imagination” from Art Pepper’s Rhythm Section might have been a more apt choice, but in both the selection of sessions and artists, one can’t complain. While the Comporary label may not stack up song for song with the recordings on Blue Note or Columbia, nevertheless this box set is a fitting tribute to the work of the tireless Koenig recording the music that he loved. The Contemporary Records Story is one of the best box sets devoted to a label, and a terrific listening experience.

Visit Fantasy Records on the web.

DISC 1: 1. Big Girl—Lighthouse All-Stars 2. Viva Zapata—Lighthouse All-Stars 3. You And The Night And The Music—Shelly Manne & His Men 4. Lullaby Of Birdland—Barney Kessel 5. Bags' Groove—Lighthouse All-Stars 6. Day By Day—Lennie Niehaus Quintet 7. Flip—Shelly Manne 8. Billie's Bounce—Shelly Manne 9. Champ, The—Hampton Hawes Trio 10. Blues The Most—Hampton Hawes Trio 11. Blue Moon—Lyle Murphy 12. Easy Terms—Duane Tatro 13. Collard Greens And Black-Eyed Peas—Shelly Manne & His Friends 14. Ruby—Buddy Collette 15. I Could Have Danced All Night—Shelly Manne & His Friends 16. Fifth For Frank, A—Curtis Counce

DISC 2: 1. Serenade In Blue—Gerald Wiggins 2. All The Things You Are—Art Pepper 3. Star Eyes—Art Pepper 4. Paying The Dues Blues—Red Norvo 5. I'm An Old Cowhand—Sonny Rollins 6. Jordu—The Poll Winners 7. Scrapple From The Apple—Red Mitchell 8. Old Fashioned Love—Benny Carter 9. On The Sunny Side Of The Street—Leroy Vinegar 10. Whisper Not—Benny Golson 11. I Could Write A Book—Andre Previn & His Pals 12. Grooveyard—Harold Land 13. Serpent's Tooth—Victor Feldman 14. Invisible—Ornette Coleman

DISC 3: 1. Hip—Hampton Hawes 2. Stablemates—Art Farmer 3. African Violets—Cecil Taylor Quartet 4. Autumn In New York—Andre Previn 5. I've Told Ev'ry Little Star—Sonny Rollins 6. Someone To Watch Over Me—Benny Carter 7. Bill Bailey—Helen Humes 8. Peter Gunn—Shelly Manne & His Men 9. Barfly—Elmo Hope 10. Greensleeves—Bill Smith Quartet 11. Airegin—Art Pepper + 11 12. Down Among The Sheltering Palms—Barney Kessel 13. Blue Daniel—Shelly Manne & His Men 14. Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise—Art Pepper 15. Sermon, The—Teddy Edwards Quartet

DISC 4: 1. Stardust—Ben Webster 2. Misty—Teddy Edwards 3. Summertime—Howard McGhee 4. Oleo—Phineas Newborn, Jr. 5. Exodus—Shelly Manne 6. Deed For Dolphy, A—Woody Shaw 7. My Funny Valentine—Art Farmer 8. Morning—Hampton Hawes 9. Will You Still Be Mine?—Art Farmer 10. Beyond The Rain—Chico Freeman 11. Love Walked In—Ray Brown 12. Over The Rainbow—Art Pepper


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