Herbie Harper with Bud Shank, Harry Babasin, Bob Enevoldsen, Virgil Gonsalves, Lou Levy and Jimmy Rowles: The Complete Noctourne Recordings Jazz in Hollywood Series, Volume 1

Harry Babasin and Roy Harte started the Nocturne label in 1953, when West Coast jazz was reaching full bloom. With bassist Babasin, drummer Harte, and pianist Jimmy Rowles as the core rhythm section, Nocturne operated for a couple of years. Many of Los Angeles’ young jazz stalwarts took part in the sessions. Everyone listed above recorded for the label, with sidemen including Shorty Rogers, Larry Bunker, Howard Roberts, Bob Gordon, Marty Paich, Don Heath, and Buddy Wise.

Since the 1950s, except for sporadic European efforts, the Nocturnes have remained unissued. Now, two companies have simultaneously released batches of them on CD. Fantasy’s OJC program has them as five individual discs. Jordi Pujol’s increasingly active Fresh Sound label, working from Nocturne’s master tapes, puts eight sessions on three CDs in a box. Fantasy has two dates by tenor saxophonist Steve White that are not included in the Fresh Sound box. Fresh Sound, but not Fantasy, has a Jimmy Rowles trio session recorded but never issued by Nocturne. It turned up briefly on a Liberty LP as Rare But Well Done. This leaves consumers with choices and expense, but they can be grateful; for 40 years the choices did not exist.

It is conventional wisdom in some circles that West Coast jazz was over-arranged and anemic. You would not think so from hearing these records. For the most part, they have much in common with the Prestige (East Coast) modus operandi of the time: Show up, agree on some tunes and blow. Exceptions are the tight ensemble writing of Paich and John Graas for one of trombonist Harper’s quintet dates, the compact charts of Virgil Gonsalves’ sextet, and Rogers’ quintet writing for the Bud Shank date. Still, ensembles are one thing; improvisation is another. These dates had some of the most unrestrained playing of the period.

High points:

The Bud Shank session, his first as a leader, has him on alto and flute and Shorty Rogers introducing the flugelhorn to jazz recording. Both of them and Rowles play beautifully. The date is a classic.

The first Harper quintet session has the remarkable Bob Gordon on baritone saxophone, playing with taste and power. He died in a car crash in the summer of 1955.

Bob Enevoldsen plays fluent, gutsy valve trombone, of course, but his tenor saxophone isn’t as well known. He may surprise new listeners with the grit and humor of his adaptation of Lester Young.

Steve White, another Young student, was said to have once cut Zoot Sims and Wardell Gray in a tenor battle. His only Nocturne 10-inch LP quickly disappeared. In the OJC Nocturnes, he gets a CD and a half, most of the music never before issued. His playing and his off-the-wall singing come as a revelation. He and Rowles seem to encourage one another’s risk-taking.

Lou Levy, fleet and full of Bud Powell juices, turned in one of his best early trio performances with Babasin and drummer Larry Bunker. His “Tiny’s Other Blues” is breathtaking.

Rowles’ playing, heard on about half the Nocturne dates, is a joy. In his notes for the OJCs, Ed Michel quotes Richard Bock as telling him, “I started Pacific Jazz so I could record Rowles.” Nocturne and Pacific Jazz occupied the same building in L.A. The Shank-Rogers session with Rowles, in fact, was once reissued as half of a 12-inch Pacific Jazz LP.

The OJCs have period cover photographs and informative notes by Michel, who produced the reissues. The 84-page booklet that accompanied the Fresh Sound box carries reproductions of the original Nocturne covers and liner notes, reviews from the jazz press of the day, newly written recollections by many of the musicians and dozens of photographs by Tom Hefernan and Dave Pell.