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Various Artists: The Complete H.R.S. Sessions

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Back in the mid 1930s, when jazz itself was as young as most of the musicians playing it, a handful of devoted fans banded together to share their love for this music with others. They were all record collectors who believed that jazz was more than just a passing fad and that its performers were more than mere entertainers. Modeled after discographer Charles Delaunay and critic Hugues Panassie’s Hot Club of France, the Chicago Rhythm Club, begun in 1935 by Helen Oakley and Squirrel Ashcraft, was the first to produce racially mixed jam sessions, including the first public performance of the Benny Goodman Trio. Meanwhile, at the same time in New York, Milt Gabler of the Commodore Music Shop and Stephen W. Smith founded the United Hot Clubs of America (U.H.C.A.). Two years later, in 1937, with an advisory board consisting of, among others, John Hammond, Marshall Stearns, Charles Edward Smith, Wilder Hobson, William Russell, Delaunay, Panassie, and Sinclair Traill (later founder of the British magazine Jazz Journal), Steve Smith initiated the Hot Record Society.

While U.H.C.A. specialized in the reissue of long unavailable jazz classics, H.R.S. concentrated on mail order auctions and sales of original jazz and blues 78s. In 1938, when both Columbia and Victor (on its 35-cent subsidiary, Bluebird) began their highly successful series of classic jazz reissues, Gabler and Smith decided to get into the business of making new records, with Commodore becoming the first and most prolific of the independents. (It was soon followed by Blue Note, Keynote, Signature, and dozens of others.) In 1939, the same year that the influential book Jazzmen was published, Smith, one of its major contributors, opened the H.R.S. Record Shop in midtown Manhattan, where he sold both new and used jazz recordings, and, of course, copies of Jazzmen, The H.R.S. Society Rag, and the few other jazz books and magazines that were then available. The complete Commodore catalog has already been reissued in three mammoth LP sets by Mosaic, and the present collection represents their efforts on behalf of H.R.S.

After the dissolution of H.R.S., many of the sessions appeared on such LP labels as Riverside and Atlantic, as well as a slew of European bootlegs, but these repressings uniformly suffered from distortion, crackle, over modulation, and limited frequency reproduction, thereby making a less than favorable impression on listeners who had never heard the original 78s. First reissued on muddy sounding, low-fi Riversides, selected titles were later picked up and “stereo-enhanced” for budget-priced marketing in department stores, supermarkets, and drug stores by even less conscientious labels. Mosaic, however, has corrected all of these technical problems by having such top-rate remastering engineers as Malcolm Addey, Jack Towers, John R.T. Davies, and others go back to the source recordings and start from scratch, so to speak. The result is a reissue set that recaptures the warm, spacious sound of the originals at the same time as virtually eliminating the surface noise that plagued so many shellac recordings in the 1940s.

H.R.S. recorded 124 performances in 25 sessions between August 1938 and September 1947, and this set includes them all, even the eleven alternate takes that Smith never released. Musically, they run the gamut from the classic Chicago cum New Orleans jazz ofee Wee Russell’s Rhythmmakers and The Bechet-Spanier Big Four, through small and big band swing, to the burgeoning modern touches of early bop. Russell’s eight-piece jam combo with Max Kaminsky, Dickie Wells, James P. Johnson, and Zutty Singleton opens the set with six band tracks, including two alternate takes, and a majestic coupling by the clarinet/piano/drums trio of Pee Wee, James P., and Zutty. This is classic Pee Wee and should not be missed. On an equal if not superior level of achievement are the ten 1940 tracks, inclusive of two alternates, by a quartet composed of soprano saxist/clarinetist Sidney Bechet, cometist Muggsy Spanier, guitarist Carmen Mastren, and bassist Wellman Braud, who had also appeared on the Russell session. Using a handful of time-honored classics, Sidney and Muggsy join their ideally contrasted horns, one broad-toned and sweeping and the other concise and pungent, to produce yet one more example of the many textural varieties inherent in chamber jazz.

The next two sessions were also recorded in 1940 and feature stellar personnels under the leadership of Rex Stewart and Jack Teagarden, with featured soloists including Lawrence Brown, Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, and Billy Kyle. The widely esteemed Dave Tough is the drummer on both. As with the two preceding groups, an equally extended commentary could be made about the excellences of those closely related dates. Between them, they only produced eight titles, but they are virtually all winners. Because of several already well-known factors, no commercial recordings were made by any label between August 1942 and late 1944, so H.R.S. did not resurface until 1945, when Smith recorded two sessions by a big band under the direction of Ellington-influenced guitarist/arranger Brick Fleagle; an excellent combo date by trombonist Sandy Williams featuring trumpeter Joe Thomas, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney; and a single coupling by trombonist J.D. Higginbotham with trumpeter Sidney DeParis and altoist Tab Smith. In light of the then common contractual practice-the production of at least four masters per each three-hour recording session-the absence of two titles poses a question as to the fate of these never listed, presumably flawed performances. (Assuming that all eight musicians were paid union scale for the four-tune date, then the cost for the rejected performances, including studio time, had to be assumed by Smith, no insignificant matter for an independent in those days.)

In 1946, with wartime shortages no longer a major problem, Steve Smith went on to record scads of fruitful combo dates, all of which centered around the mainstream jazzmen currently based in New York. The leaders of these invariably well-conceived and rehearsed sessions were arranger/pianist Jimmy Jones, Joe Thomas, Harry Carney, Dicky Wells, Sandy Williams, Buck Clayton (in a softly winging Kansas City-tinged quartet with Pres-like clarinetist Scoville Brown and guitarist Tiny Grimes), Trummy Young, Billy Kyle, Russell Procope, Brick Fleagle (this time with a quintet fronted by Rex Stewart), pianist Billy Taylor, Stewart once again with his own quartet, and bassist Billy Taylor (no relation to the pianist). Outstanding soloists not already mentioned include trumpeters Pee Wee Erwin and Dick Vance, clarinetist Buster Bailey, altomen Lem Davis and George Johnson, and tenormen John Hardee and Budd Johnson, who is especially forward looking on his quartet date with Jimmy Jones.

Mosaic has arranged this set so as to present almost all of the combo dates in chronological sequence, while reserving Brick Fleagle’s uncharacteristic big band offerings for the final disc. One price paid for this admirable decision is the inclusion here of Fleagle’s quintet date with Rex, but it is an understandable compromise. Along with Mosaic’s customarily complete discographical listings, Dan Morgenstern’s well-researched background notes and session-by-session analysis will provide all of the many details of performance that this brief coverage cannot.