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Various Artists: The Commodore Story

The Commodore Story is a good introduction to Milt Gabler’s invaluable jazz label. Those unfamiliar with his achievements might try playing it through first without consulting the good accompanying booklet. That way, they will experience many surprises, and possibly make some unexpected new evaluations of both artists they know and artists they don’t know. For example, on the first disc one is soon made aware of Milt’s affection for Eddie Condon’s guys, and of the importance of “Strange Fruit,” his big Billie Holiday hit; but then there is an extraordinary duet by Don Byas and Slam Stewart, followed by the mighty soprano of Sidney Bechet. Next are Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins three times (once with Art Tatum and once with Benny Carter), Ben Webster with Sidney Catlett, Roy Eldridge with Chu Berry, Benny Goodman with Mel Powell, Jelly Roll Morton all by himself, Bunk Johnson, and very early Bob Wilber (1947). The second disc classifies artists by instruments and presents Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davison, Hot Lips Page, Muggsy Spanier and Sidney De Paris in one section; trombonists Jack Teagarden, George Brunies and the too-often forgotten Miff Mole are next; Pee Wee Russell, Edmond Hall, Bud Freeman and Chu Berry illustrate reeds; and last, are no less than eight pianists: Art Hodes, Joe Sullivan, Jess Stacy, Eddie Heywood, Albert Ammons, George Zack, The Lion and Ralph Sutton. The way Lips Page and Catlett stroke up Ammons’ “Jammin’ the Boogie” is very exciting. So for young listeners this could all be a warm welcome to yesterday, and the now-overlooked talents of musicians like lips Page, Muggsy Spanier and George Zack. Zack who? Zack was a favorite of Gabler’s, but he reputedly drank too much to get many record dates.

Although Gabler was unquestionably a good businessman, he let his heart and taste rule in cases like Zack’s, We owe so much to such people who then worked in the field of jazz recording more for love than money. Some judicious additions of material recorded by, for example, John Hammond, Bob Thiele, Leonard Feather, Timme Rosenkrantz, Alan Lomax and Gene Williams were to prove of considerable value to Commodore.

The Lester Young set is one of several admirable collections devoted primarily to a single artists. It begins with two takes each of five titles recorded in 1938 by the Kansas City Six, where Young is supported by Buck Clayton, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones and, on trombone and amplified guitar, Eddie Durham. Green made his debut here on “Them There Eyes” as a vocalist, but it held no promise for the future! Young and Clayton performed creditably, as expected, but the rhythm section (without Basie) is not impressive at all. Much interest attaches, however, to Durham’s electric guitar solos, which are full of ideas that partly presage the coming of Charlie Christian. The set ends with four tracks by the same group, minus Young, as recorded by John Hammond earlier in 1938. In between these two dates is Gabler’s far more successful 1944 session, when Dicky Wells and his old friend, Bill Coleman, replaced Durham and Clayton, and the rhythm section consisted of Joe Bushkin, John Simmons and Jo Jones. Wells is in brilliant form and seems to stimulate the leader. It is too bad that this great trombonist’s own records, especially the outstanding Dicky Wells in Paris, have not been reissued on CDs.

The 25 tracks on the Jelly Roll Morton disc were originally made for the General label in 1939-40. They were his last commercial recordings and among the thirteen piano solos that begin the program are some of his best. Five of them have vocals of a rare and touching authenticity-authenticity of accent and lyric content. For examples of genuine jazz singing, these should always be kept in mind. Like the best of those by George Thomas with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, they are part of a tradition now almost totally exhausted. The piano solos, too, show that Morton had lost nothing since the ’20s. Traces of ragtime certainly survive, but his style is largely independent of stride as developed in New York. Pianistic legerdemain is not his objective, but rather storytelling with dramatic touches, singable melodies, and a rhythmic impulse of varying intensity. He may not have been quite so unique as available records imply, but he was probably more influential than we know. Younger pianists like Hines found his braggadocio amusing, not offensive. And for “sporting houses”, where brassy bands could never have been welcome. his piano repertoire must have been highly appropriate.

Eight tracks by a septet and four by a sextet are oddly disappointing. The personnels don’t jell, although Morton had called upon four New Orleans worthies: Red Allen, Albert Nicholas, Wellman Braud and Zutty Singleton. Joe Britton’s trombone, dropped from the second date, and Eddie Williams’ alto seem to be incompatible with Morton’s idiom, but the numbers are uninspired and here his jive vocals are unconvincing.

Originally Published