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Wardell Gray: Vol. 1 1944-46

This is the first of a projected complete series of possibly 15 (!) CDs from France, where intelligence and thoroughness are generally applied to reissues. The set begins with 13 performances by the Earl Hines band of 1944-46, five of them broadcasts, most of the rest from ARA sessions in Hollywood. These last had poor distribution here on 78s, but are far better known in Europe via LP releases. Two of the better tracks are unfortunately not included in this instance, because Gray didn’t solo on them, but “Blue Keys” and “Let’s Get Started” give a good idea of the band’s considerable capabilities. The trumpet solo on the former, incidentally, is by Billy Douglas, not Willie Cook, and a number of other identifications needchecking.

Gray’s contributions throughout are serious and thoughtful, but his playing, as annotator Claude Carriere observes, has a “firmer tone and greater authority” on a rare session with Gerry Wiggins and Buddy Collette made under Joe Swanson’s nominal leadership. This date is preceded by an equally rare one in a group led by bassist Vernon Alley that included Ernie Royal and Jerome Richardson. The set, in short, furnishes a significant introduction to a career terminated tragically all too soon, as well as, needless to say, some fine piano playing by both the Fatha and the Wig. “Blue Keys” is worth remembering as a quiet masterpiece.

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