At first it was hard to get noticed. Articles on the Dave Brubeck Octet were sent to jazz journals in 1948, but none were printed; it took the words of a New York critic to attract attention. In 1951 a bunch of Stan Kenton musicians decided to stake out on their own, while living in L.A. ("We'd meet after these occasional gigs ... and compare notes about how horrible it was and the things we had to play...") Then the unexpected: disc jockey Gene Norman recorded Shorty Rogers and his Giants, leased the sides to Capitol, and played it endlessly on his show. This led a new label, Pacific Jazz, to record the Gerry Mulligan quartet, which introduced Chet Baker to the world. This record put Pacific Jazz on the map, other labels started up and a lot of hungry musicians got their chance.
The sound they created, while hard to explain, had a flavor all its own. It was often an arranged sound, as many of the players (Bill Holman, Marty Paich, Jimmy Giuffre) had crafted charts for big bands. It could be bright and airy, with unusual instruments: the first jazz oboe, and many big flutists, came from out West. And while it was often stereotyped as "cool" or "laid-back", the scene also bred many fiery players such as Art Pepper and Harold Land. It's not an easy style to define, but this set does an admirable job, using cuts from many labels to show the players, and the evolution of what we call "West Coast Jazz'. Based on this box, the style deserves a closer look; certainly a closer listen.
Like many Fantasy boxes, this one runs in rough chronological order. The first track, "Move", dates from 1951 and is a heady taste of the club scene on Central Avenue, L.A.'s version of 52nd Street. This potent jam stars Wardell Gray, with solos from Dexter Gordon, Clark Terry, and Sonny Criss. Sonny gets his own track with "Intermission Riff", from a Billy Eckstine concert of 1951. With a different all-star band (Lockjaw, Joe Newman, Kenny Clarke), Criss blows up a storm and works the crowd to a frenzy.
A few cuts later, we get a different kind of live track: Dave Brubeck at Oberlin. Paul Desmond's stately alto, here sounding like a clarinet, wistfully gives us "Stardust", as Brubeck follows with thick heavy chords. The music school crowd appreciates it, and you will too, as we begin to hear the familiar West Coast sound. We also get a track from Shorty Rogers' breakthrough LP, and two slices of definitive Mulligan: "Bernie's Tune" and "My Funny Valentine". The Lighthouse All-Stars (in many ways the house band of this sound) are heard several times, including a live track with Miles Davis sitting in. The band is tight, many members having played together with Stan Kenton. So far we've heard swing, bebop, and the beginnings of something else. On Disc Two, covering the years 1953-56, the new voice grows stronger.
With the new disc we get new instruments. It opens with the Brazilian guitar of Laurindo Almeida; Roy Harte uses brushes on conga to get a light sound from a loud instrument. As the notes state, this is not bossa nova, but the feel is familiar. The saxman on this track, Bud Shank, picks up his flute for two gentle numbers, one with Bob Cooper on oboe. This flute-oboe experiment became a regular feature at the Lighthouse and led to its own album. From this comes a succession of unusual combos: Lennie Niehaus' fine quintet of three horns and no piano, the Cy Touff Octet, with the leader's trombone -like bass trumpet, and the first of two selections from Chico Hamilton. If one group defined the West Coast Sound, it's Chico's: moaning cello and ringing guitar spar with Buddy Collette and his many horns. The bass takes turns bowing with the cello and plucking with the guitar. It's gentle and moody, experimental and accessible. As different as this sounds, putting Chico's ! track with similar groups gives us a message: he wasn't alone.
We hear some dignitaries visiting the coast: Clifford Brown doing "Daahoud" with a hot septet, Art Tatum with the slow blues, and John Lewis with MJQ mate Percy Heath, sounding the classic "Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West". And the disc is sompleted by some tasty piano trios, including a track from the Andre Previn/Shelly Manne My Fair Lady album. The trios work among the unusual combos: they show that the boys out West could also do conventional jazz, and do it very well.
Disc Three, mostly 1957 and '58, is similar to the last, only with the heat turned up a little. The early tracks give us typical West Coast from Jimmy Giuffre and from the Poll Winners (showing great interplay between the bass of Ray Brown and Barney Kessel's guitar). Then Sonny Rollins comes to L.A. The trio formed for Way Out West (we hear the title cut here) is introspective, weaving subtle backgrounds against which Rollins blows strong. It lacks the intensity of his trio album Freedom SUITE, but in many ways is a better album. The high standard is kept by Benny Carter; his "Walkin' Thing" takes a leisurely swing thanks to giants like Kessel and Frank Rosolino. Frank also has his own cut, from what was meant to be the first West Coast hard bop album (it didn't get released until 1986!) "Love for Sale" is the standout from that album, Rosolino and Harold Land going great guns as Victor Feldman taps an insistent piano behind them.
Bop doesn't get much harder than "Katanga" from Curtis Amy, best known for the sax solo on the Doors' "Touch Me". Amy blasts deep, and is outmatched by the little-known Dupree Bolton, a powerhouse on trumpet. The disc ends with two men who would soon go east. Chico Hamilton is heard again, this time with Buddy Collette's replacement, Eric Dolphy. His playing is conservative by his standards, but very smooth and very beautiful. And Ornette Coleman shows us "The Sphinx", from his first and most conventional album. The piano sounds a bit lost as Coleman and Don Cherry go on their merry way. From these two you hear the future, and you hear the West beign left behind.
The box concludes with 1964, when the era had basically ended. (Ben Webster, after hearing his 1960 live date at the Renaissance, tearfully said "Why can't I get to play with guys like that any more?") This disc might be the most varied, giving us trios (Elmo Hope, Phineas Newborn, Vince Guaraldi's huge hit "Cast Your Fate to the Wind"), hard bop (Harold Land's "The Fox", Teddy Edwards' "Together Again"), big bands (Gerald Wilson, Terry Gibbs, Art Pepper + Eleven), and a modal blues ("Something Blue" by Paul Horn, several years before his Inside albums). In a neat touch, the box ends with the start of another great career, Joe Pass' "For Django". Jazz in L.A. would continue, and with many of the players heard here. But the sense of a different "school" was over.
Five hours later, you have been through a world of music, sampled dozens of major talents (most heard on at least two cuts), and felt many changing moods. The notes say "Those of us privileged enough to have lived through that era ... tend to smile broadly whenever someone's comments or a snatch of music conjures up that scene." After hearing this, you see why.