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Joe Castro: Lush Life: A Musical Journey

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Up until now, historians considered pianist Joe Castro (1927-2009) noteworthy for two reasons: He was the first Mexican-American jazz bandleader to achieve any great fame, and he was the consort of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, the wealthiest woman in the world during her lifetime-worth approximately $1.3 billion when she died in 1993. It turns out, however, that Castro was also an important chronicler of the ’50s and ’60s West Coast jazz scene, a fact that has only come to light with the release of this six-CD set, assembled from his tape library.

In 1953, all that cigarette money helped Duke buy a Beverly Hills mansion formerly owned by actor Rudolph Valentino and equip it with a rehearsal and recording studio for Castro. Loose jam sessions recorded there and at Duke’s Somerville, N.J., farm make up the bulk of this box. The first disc, recorded in 1954 and featuring Buddy Collette on flute and clarinet and Chico Hamilton on drums, is the biggest revelation: three long, episodic pieces that seem completely improvised, although one suspects Castro had some back-pocket motifs ready whenever inspiration flagged. Intriguing as this early taste of the freeform is, it’s hampered by poor audio quality.

The much-better-sounding disc three, from 1956, offers the most enjoyable music here, matching up Castro’s laser-show piano with Oscar Pettiford’s astonishing bass playing and Zoot Sims’ and Lucky Thompson’s meaty tenor work. The rest is an odd grab bag of rather elementary ’60s big-band sessions and several more ’50s jams, a few of which don’t feature Castro at all. (The great Teddy Wilson occupies the piano bench for one whole disc, and it’s most pleasant to hear his bouncy aplomb set against the cool brilliance of Stan Getz on five cuts.) Despite its unevenness, Lush Life opens a surprising and valuable door into the history of West Coast jazz.

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