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Various Artists: The West Coast Jazz Box: An Anthology of California Jazz

The rap on West Coast Jazz, that it was a bloodless, overly cerebral, pale imitation of the real thing as known in NYC, gets reconsideration here. The even paler productions of today’s wunderkinder should be enough to make even hard core hard bop fans nostalgic for this stuff. Contemporary has leased material recorded between 1950 and the mid ’60s from several other labels to compliment their own catalog. The organization is strictly chronological, which makes for quite a juggling act when trying to assemble music that varies keys, tempi, and feel to create a listenable effect. A good representation should also cover obvious and less obvious stylists and mix famous performances with less obvious but complimentary tracks. And while no two people would agree on exactly how this should be done, few will quibble with the extraordinary success rate of this generous package.

There are artists we don’t think of as “West Coast” even though they lived there (Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Ornette Coleman) and “guest” appearances by the likes of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. If this seems like cheating, it should be remembered that relatively few musicians were native New Yorkers and that out-of-towners on East Coast recordings went unnoticed. It is interesting to compare Rollins’ appearance with a California rhythm section and Art Pepper’s playing with “The” East Coast team of Garland, Chambers, and Jones. Great jazz, but no better than the local nexus of bands lead by Curtis Counce and Harold Land featuring pianists Elmo Hope and the desperately underrated Carl Perkins.

Disc One starts off with a Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray tenor battle and a similar JATP rouser with Sonny Criss, Joe Newman, and others. Chet Baker is featured on four tracks, two as leader and two with Mulligan, and there are five by the Shorty Rogers-Shelly Manne-Howard Rumsey groups that have been the focus for much of the negative criticism. I myself tread seldom and lightly in this realm, but certainly “Popo” and “Swing Shift” are strong. Fair-to-middling Brubeck and Getz and Miles’ lively spot with Rumsey round out an enjoyable listen.

Disc Two is the acid test, with later Manne and Rumsey groups flanked by the likes of Bud Shank, Buddy Colette, Stan Kenton, and early Chico Hamilton. Interesting Bill Perkins and Cal Tjader tracks and appearances by Clifford Brown and Art Tatum help bring this disc up to an acceptable level, but I think that while much of the proceedings are historically interesting, it’s easy to see why some people don’t go for this stuff. Others do of course, so here it is.

Things pick back up with Disc Three, buoyed by Jimmy Giuffre, Benny Carter, Brew Moore, an excellent Leroy Vinnegar group, Rollins, Counce, and Ornette. A rare look at tenor Curtis Amy with the fine trumpeter Dupree Bolton is noteworthy, as is Eric Dolphy’s presence (on flute) in another Hamilton line-up.

Disc Four starts with two great Pepper tracks and two even better from Land and Hope. Larger ensembles (lead by Richie Kamuca/Bill Holman, Terry Gibbs, and Gerald Wilson) take over before Paul Horn slows things down. Webster, Phineas Newborn, Howard McGhee/Teddy Edwards’ “Together Again”, prime Joe Pass and inevitably, Vince Guaraldi’s tuneful hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” round things out in style.

Three of four discs are solidly enjoyable, which ain’t bad, and the context enhances our appreciation of some truly great jazz. Several friends have complained of reading Ted Gioia’s fine book on the subject and running out to buy stuff that dampened their ardor in a hurry. That won’t happen with this set, which confirms that Art Pepper and Chet Baker were great jazzmen, that Land and Hope were spectacular, that much early cool experimentation stands up very well, and that some West Coast Jazz doesn’t. Like I said, three out of four ain’t bad, especially when the presentation is this attractive.

Originally Published