Deeper Into the Vaults

Weird Nightmares and Other Forgotten Dreams

Reissues usually get their due at year's end, when they come gift-wrapped in cloth or steel boxes with fancy prices and hyped-up art direction, but record companies stay alive and keep their distributors happy by recycling old records all year long. Many classic LPs remain unissued after 20 years of digitalization (for one, Columbia's 1963 Miles in Europe) and a trunkful of 78s that never even made it to LP (like Eddie South's sessions) linger in the vaults, awaiting their second acts. Yet now that most of the better-known product has returned in two, three, and more CD incarnations, labels are burrowing deeper, proving that surprises and, occasionally, revelations are still possible.

The year's most remarkable spelunking expedition has produced Charles ''Baron'' Mingus, West Coast, 1945-49 (Uptown), 23 sides made under Mingus's leadership for five fly-by-night labels that couldn't distribute farther than their car trunks. The names alone smack of Central Avenue postwar optimism and desperation: Excelsior, Four Star, Dolphins of Hollywood, Fentone, Rex Hollywood. Some of these platters were so hard to come by that the Smithsonian abandoned an attempt to create such a collection in the 1980s; they are cited with errors, or not at all, in Mingus discographies and biographies. Research by coproducers Robert E. Sunenblick, whose blindingly detailed notes make up the bulk of a 96-page booklet, and Chuck Nessa correct a number of long-held assumptions. For one thing, Mingus is not the cellist on "He's Gone"; it's Jean McGuire, one of many people Uptown interviewed. For another, the long-sought mystery record, "God's Portrait," recorded for Fentone, was never issued. Ralph J. Gleason either pretended to review it in 1949—on Mingus's say-so, the producers argue—or heard a long-lost test. In any case, he sent a generation of collectors on a wild goose chase for a record that does not exist, when, in fact, Mingus did record the piece a few weeks later, for Rex Hollywood, as "Inspiration," which turns out to be an early version of his trademark melody, "Portrait." (As a work of scholarship, Charles ''Baron'' Mingus is marred only by the inexplicable absence of Gene Santoro's Mingus biography from the bibliography.)

The music will fascinate Mingus buffs, Central Avenue buffs, and 1940s buffs, and some of it is actually very good. A cursory examination suggests a parallel to Sun Ra's The Singles. The range is certainly comparable, from r&b and jump to Ellington and Kenton to bebop and ballads to classicism and an ur-Mingusian mess, "The Story of Love," which prefigures Tijuana Moods, complete with tambourine and "Night in Tunisia" derivation. Indeed, much of this work is derivative. Mingus's r&b ballad, "Baby, Take a Chance With Me," recorded three times, is so generic one is startled to find his name on it and realize it wasn't a hit. Vocalist Charles Trenier is a brazen chameleon who affects Cleanhead Vinson's high glissandi on one number and Herb Jeffries's froggy croon on another, while tenor saxophonist William Woodman blusters with the rote authority of Bumps Meyer. But there are also versions of "Weird Nightmare," a blueprint for "Boogie Stop Shuffle," attempts at vastness (as played by a 22-piece orchestra), and glimmerings of Lucky Thompson, Willie Smith, Britt Woodmann, Buddy Collette, Art Pepper, and an awkward 20-year-old Eric Dolphy. And there is more bass playing than you might expect in this period, outside the Ellington fold. Mingus is instantly recognizable—game, dauntless, and stirring.

One doesn't expect a two-and-a-half-minute ballad recording from 1949 to begin with a 16-bar bass solo, yet that's the agenda on Irving Berlin's "Say It Isn't So." Mingus is followed by Helen Carr, a Billie Holiday-influenced singer with a smile in her voice, a ticklish melisma, and personality to spare. Dead at 38 and soon forgotten, she would be no less obscure than Mingus's other vocalists except that she recorded two 1955 albums, which have just been reissued as Helen Carr: The Bethlehem Collection (Avenue Jazz). Even so, she is not mentioned in any jazz or pop reference book, proof that there were more golden-voiced warblers in that era than we know. She had a knack for finding overlooked songs—such as "Not Mine," "Summer Night," or "Moments Like This"—by the usual gang of golden-age writers, and could put her own stamp on moldy hits from the past, such as "Got a Date With an Angel" and "Do I Worry." She could swing when she had to, but that wasn't her métier. In her ballads, you may glimpse Mildred Bailey and Anita O'Day, an unlikely couple. But they are merely in the shadows of her own distinctive élan.

Another long-forgotten Bethlehem album features the former Ellington vocalist Herb Jeffries, who is approaching 90 and still singing. (He did a memorable week at the Village Vanguard a few years ago, singing cowboy music with jazz backing.) Say It Isn't So, from 1957, begins with his mannered bass-baritone drawl, located somewhere between Crosby and Eckstine, and before long you find yourself getting lost in the lyrics, which he patiently interprets with an oddly vivid result. You can't escape their meanings, their relentless woe. While it's hard to imagine the strapping Bronze Buckeroo, as he was billed on movie marquees, pining for jilting women, as opposed to fighting them off with his six-shooters, he convinces you over the course of his 12 thematically constant standards that Sinatra had it reasonably easy, crying in his beer to barkeeps. Jeffries is afraid to leave his room, asking one lover to return to save him the embarrassment of everyone knowing she dropped him: Hey, "It's the Talk of the Town." They're laughing at him in "Angel Eyes." He orders "Dinner for One, Please James," though "He's Glad to Be Unhappy," and "If You Could See Me Now," you'd know "I Only Have Eyes for You." His "Ghost of a Chance" is almost as good as Eckstine's, and his "It's Easy to Remember" is almost as good as Crosby's, but as many times as I have heard them sing those and the other songs, I have never been quite so conscious of what they are about. Russ Garcia's attentive strings sound like a choir listening and weeping in commiseration.

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