In the second decade of the new millennium, Zev Feldman has become the most important producer in the field of archival jazz recordings. He made his reputation with the Resonance and Elemental labels by finding great lost music and publishing it in classy packages. These two albums by Cannonball Adderley and Etta Jones are Feldman productions and the “co-inaugural” releases of a new archival label, Reel to Real.
Through the 1970s, the Left Bank Jazz Society presented Sunday concerts at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore. A self-trained engineer named Vernon Welsh recorded hundreds of shows at the ballroom on his Akai home tape deck. Material from Welsh’s enormous repository has been released before, on labels like Hyena and Uptown. A second cache of Left Bank tapes was discovered in a Society member’s closet in 2016. It included an Etta Jones concert from February 27, 1972. Feldman pounced.
Jones was not a major singer. Her voice was nasal and shrill. Her primary influence was Billie Holiday; on her biggest hit, “Don’t Go to Strangers,” she says, “Billie might have sung it like this,” and does a spot-on Holiday impersonation on the bridge of the song. But they were different singers. Holiday’s voice, sliding across bar lines, is coy. Jones’ voice is the personification of tough love. She was loose with phrasing and free with melodies. Subtle nuance was not her bag. “If You Could See Me Now,” Tadd Dameron’s elegant masterwork, is shrieked. “For All We Know,” taken hard and fast, is no longer poignant. But Jones never cheated. She spilled her guts on every song.
The source for the Adderley release is another huge, rich tape stash, still mostly untapped. Between 1962 and 1968, jazz DJ Jim Wilke (who’s still going strong) broadcast a radio program every week from the Penthouse, Seattle’s most important jazz club at the time. The radio station, KING-FM, recorded the programs. Swingin’ in Seattle comes from four different gigs at the Penthouse in 1966 and 1967. During this period Adderley’s quintet (with brother Nat, Joe Zawinul, Victor Gaskin, and Roy McCurdy) made their hit album, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! It was a move toward commercialism, but Adderley’s live gigs were still mostly undiluted postbop. “Somewhere” is uncharacteristically sweet, but “Big P,” “Sticks,” and “74 Miles Away” prove that this band could make music in which intellectual depth was commensurate with greasy funk. When Adderley plays a Charlie Parker bop tune, “Back Home Blues,” and smokes it, he still sounds innocent and joyful. Nat’s cornet solos are sly, tart asides. As for Zawinul, no one that nasty has ever come out of Vienna, Austria.
Both albums contain 28-page booklets full of rare photos, interviews, and essays. Musicians speak with authority. Critics weigh in. Friends share cherished memories. These two archival projects place Jones and Adderley in historical context, in the fullness of their respective moments in time. The Famous Ballroom and the Penthouse, both demolished long ago, live again through music.