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Howard McGhee: West Coast 1945-1947

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The Uptown label specializes in reclaiming valuable jazz artifacts from the dustbins of time. Their albums are peepholes into the shadows of history-like Los Angeles in 1945, when Howard McGhee, just in from New York, was playing bebop on Central Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard.

The leading figures of L.A.’s early bop scene populate West Coast 1945-1947. Some names are familiar, like Teddy Edwards, Sonny Criss and Hampton Hawes. Some are not, like Bob Kesterson, J.D. King, Roy Porter and Vernon Biddle. The material comes from radio broadcasts, some previously unknown, and from 78s with spotty reissue histories.

Among bop trumpeters, McGhee was not on Dizzy’s level (no one was), but he was in the second echelon right below him, edgier than Fats Navarro, more polished than early Miles Davis. McGhee in his mid-20s was quick-on-quick and bursting with fresh ideas. He could improvise in his extreme upper register, and he could handle the chordal complexities of the new music. His single most striking characteristic was his merciless hard brassy sound. He incinerates “Mop Mop” and “A Night in Tunisia.” McGhee, Edwards and 19-year-old Criss all smoke “The Man I Love.” They sound as current as last Saturday night. It is 1947.

You can stare for a long time at all the black and white photos in the CD booklet. McGhee, always in shades, reed-thin in double-breasted suits, was clearly a badass hipster, not a hair in his conk out of place. The photos, along with Kirk Silsbee’s detailed, heartfelt liner notes, take you back to a long-lost time and place. The most important achievement of this project is the clean, clear sound provided by the digital restorations of engineer Andreas Meyer. Howard McGhee lives again, biting and brassy and bold.

Originally Published