CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Various Artists: The Complete Bee Hive Sessions

By 1977, jazz had turned its back on tradition, its biggest stars playing varieties that sounded more like pop, disco and prog-rock. Weather Report’s easy-on-the-ears sound took the jazz world by storm, and Chick Corea was making jazz versions of Tales From Topographic Oceans. Wynton Marsalis and the rest of the Young Lions, meanwhile, were still in high school. So what Jim and Susan Neumann of Evanston, Ill., did that year was completely counterintuitive, even radical. They launched a record label-Bee Hive, named for a Chicago jazz club-out of their home in Evanston, and invited hard-bop veterans to record whatever they wanted. Over the next seven years, Bee Hive Jazz Records would release 16 albums by artists whose heyday had passed as well as those who had not been given their due as leaders. They played their own compositions, and they covered jazz standards. Better-known guys-Pepper Adams, Roy Haynes, Dave Holland, Joe Morello, Jimmy Cobb-served as sidemen. To a man, they played as though their everlasting reputations would depend on it. The sessions were urgent and spontaneous, a welcome respite from the tightly scripted sides coming out of the major labels.

These albums have been all but forgotten. At a time when the big labels trade on legacy-releasing yet another previously unheard Miles Davis concert and an expanded version of a bestselling album on the occasion of its 50th anniversary-there is no room for Dick Katz’s In High Profile, Arnett Cobb’s Keep on Pushin’ or Sal Salvador’s Starfingers. Which means we owe just as much debt to Mosaic Records for bringing the Bee Hive recordings back to life as we do to the Neumanns for making them in the first place.

It is abundantly clear that the artists were in charge, because the styles vary widely within the hard-bop framework-from the gritty, three-baritone-sax workout of Nick Brignola’s Burn Brigade to the classic hard-bop attack of Roland Hanna’s The New York Jazz Quartet in Chicago to the silky sounds of Johnny Hartman’s Grammy-nominated Once in Every Life. That these records were heretofore unavailable on CD is a crime.

Every moment is top shelf. First track out of the gate, Brignola and Pepper Adams use Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” as a stage for a baritone-saxophone battle, with the battery of bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes fueling intense aggression. Tenor saxophonist Sal Nistico and pianist Ronnie Mathews engage in a happy-go-lucky take of “Like Someone in Love,” just the two of them going round and round each other, bouncing on air. Trumpeter Dizzy Reece leads his sextet through a frenetic, 12-minute run-through of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘N You” that’s propelled by Haynes’ restless drumming. Tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan blows passionately and soulfully on the brief ballad “I’m Glad There Is You.” Johnny Hartman’s warm-honey baritone is as smooth and strong on the languid “Easy Living,” the laidback “Wave” and the giddy “I Could Write a Book” as it is on his landmark album with John Coltrane. Guitarist Sal Salvador begins a tender reading of “Darn That Dream” with a two-minute unaccompanied solo whose sophisticated introspection recalls Jim Hall, and leads his sextet through his rousing original “Blue Gnu’s Blues.” Mathews’ band gives the M*A*S*H theme (“Suicide Is Painless”) an unexpected cha-cha treatment. Pianist Junior Mance’s quartet, featuring tenor saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, turns in a thick piece of soul-jazz blues on “Mean Old Amtrak.” And hard bop has rarely sounded more perfect than on pianist Roland Hanna’s “Raise a Ruckus” or pianist Dick Katz’s “But Not for Me.”

One might ask: Does the world need another 12-CD set of classic hard bop? Well, does the world need another great period novel, sci-fi movie or impressionistic painting? Of course it does. Few and far between are box sets that dazzle from start to finish. The Complete Bee Hive Sessions is one.

Originally Published