Out of the Vinyl Deeps


All music lovers become record lovers and many record lovers become collectors. Records are like Malraux’s muse um without walls, offering an inexpensive opportunity to pursue not only masterworks and favorites, but oddities that fill the side galleries where dilettantes rarely venture. Before the late 1930s, old records were relegated to bargain labels, but now there is a respectable market that buys only old, supporting an endless stream of reissues. Yet the vaults remain jam-packed, timed to burst open in a couple of decades when the vintage stuff goes public domain (as it already has in Europe). In the interim, record companies go about their business with the cryptic motives that have long made them so beloved—numerous jazz masterpieces remain unavailable, while relative obscurities bob to the surface. Fortunately, some of those obscurities really do deserve a second chance. They may not be master pieces, but they’re at least as good as and more revealing than the bottom-drawer output of many icons.

I revel in them—albums I once by passed by artists I hadn’t heard of or didn’t like; albums that disappeared so quickly I never caught up; albums I coveted but couldn’t afford. With mono LPs going for $2.49 in the mid ’60s (a buck more for stereo), and no chance to audition them in stores or on radio, one made choices. So until Koch began leasing LPs from their indifferent owners, I never heard, for example, These Are My Roots: Clifford Jordan Plays Leadbelly, a 1966 Atlantic that remained sub-rosa even after Jordan became more prominent a few years later. Unlike anything in his oeuvre or in jazz, it’s a shrewd, authoritative take on a hero of the ’60s folk boom that never sounds patronizing or touristic. Deploying a septet for diverse effects (the great rhythm section of Cedar Walton, Richard Davis, and Tootie Heath is augmented by Chuck Wayne’s banjo), the ensemble can sound dense or stark, dark and brooding or big and bright, and Jordan’s tenor has rarely been better framed. Even the unknown woman singer on two tracks, Sandra Douglass, is first-rate.

A more recondite Koch reclamation is The Most Happy Fella, by the Jazz Modes, a 1957 Atlantic session I’d never heard of. The Jazz Modes lasted on and off for four years, a collaboration between Julius Watkins, who could make a French horn roar and sputter like the usual jazz brasses, and Charlie Rouse, a cult figure despite all those years with Monk and Sphere; people dig him or shrug their shoulders. I love his soft-shoe sound and jittery phrasing; his solos here are frustratingly short, but enough to warrant attention. Thanks to Shelly Manne’s My Fair Lady bonanza, everyone was jazzing Broadway back then. Some chose well (Oscar Peter son’s Fiorello, Cannonball’s Fiddler on the Roof), while others were saddled with notorious flops (Ellington’s All-American, Roland Hanna’s Destry Rides Again). The Jazz Modes chose a hit, but didn’t record until after it closed. The album is very low-key (East Coast cool), but the charts are clever (notably “Standing on the Corner” and “Like a Woman”), the quintet swings, the solos are pithy, and the unknown woman singer mucks up only one track.

Although a few prominent film scorers were permitted to go into the studio and record de facto suites, most original movie soundtracks, even good ones, consist of a tuneful theme or two and lots of truncated cues. That problem is alleviated on MGM’s reissue of Johnny Mandel’s I Want To Live by the inclusion of the Gerry Mulligan septet recordings that were excerpted in the film and issued separately. (The two albums combined run just short of an hour.) Unlike on his later scores, which recycled variations on a single popular theme (e.g., ‘Shadow of Your Smile” in The Sand piper), Mandel marshaled his vast orchestrating chops to keep I Want To Live edgy and unpredictable. Brief solos by Joe Maini, Bill Holman, and Jack Sheldon enliven a few extended cues, but the stunner is “Stakeout”—a four-minute percussion quartet that anticipates Ellington’s “Maletoba Spank,” not to mention M’Boom. Mulligan appeared in the film but not on the track proper; the pieces Mandel arranged for his small group with Art Farmer, prefiguring the ensuing edition of his quartet and the Concert Jazz Band, are a significant, long-neglected part of his canon.

One major jazz figure who was long a mystery to me is violinist, singer, and composer Stuff Smith. I liked just about everything I heard by him, but never found much to hear. Although he began recording in 1928 with Alphonse Trent (terrific vocal on “After You’ve Gone”), wrote a popular hit for Louis Armstrong (“It’s Wonderful”) and a novelty for himself that made him a star on 52nd Street (“I’se A-Muggin”‘), and died in 1967, after relocating to Europe, available recordings were few: the brilliant exchanges with Nat Cole on After Midnight, the pairing with Ben Webster on Ella’s Ellington Songbook, uneven albums from Europe—I remembered a Violin Summit performance of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” on which he was cut pretty badly by Grappelli, Asmussen, and Ponty. The celebrated Verve al bums were impossible to find until a couple of years ago, when Verve reissued the sessions with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. Mosaic’s The Complete Verve Stuff Smith Sessions should trigger a major reevaluation. Nearly half the material on four CDs was never previously released.

Midway through the second cut, “The Blues I Knew,” I was a goner. Smith named Joe Venuti and Louis Arm strong as influences, and his brew of violin agility and sweep with brusque trumpetlike linearity, buttressed by a truckload of riffs, sets him apart, as do his nuanced blues sound and relentless—at times dizzying—swing. He crackles with melody, his own (the first 13 selections, all previously unissued, are originals) and everyone else’s; he is too much given to quoting—even the theme of “Live and You’ll Learn” is a succession of borrowings. As the first to amplify his violin, Smith might be considered kin to Charlie Christian, a parallel under scored by his harmonic daring, including octaves that prefigure Wes Montgomery and tritones beyond bop, let alone swing. The material with Gilles pie is an apogee of mutual inspiration. On the 11-minute triumph “Rio Pakistan,” taken at a loping tempo, the complicity in style and mood is uncanny. More surprising is a restored 1959 session, from which all tracks with an unknown woman singer were originally excised; the singer was Shirley Horn, 25 and quite wonderful.

While Mosaic specializes incompletist editions of postwar musicians, Tom patrols the outer limits of prewar arcana—dance bands, radio singers, studio orchestras. The latest discovery of Tom’s George Morrow, who did the archival restoration of minstrel Emmett Miller and a definitive three-volume edition of Frank Trumbauer, is Charlie Palloy (possibly a pseudonym), a singer and guitarist who disappeared after recording for Crown in 1932 and 1933. Those were years when the record industry almost collapsed, when labels merged and dissolved so frantically that by 1934 only two were standing—Victor, protected by the RCA network, and ARC, a holding company that picked up Columbia, Brunswick, and others at fire-sale prices. The business turned around after Decca reduced discs from 75 to 35 cents, forcing the others to conform. Before that, bargain labels offered knockoffs of pop tunes by unknown performers using stock arrangements and cheap pressings, sold in chain stores like Woolworth’s for a quarter. Crown, however, was pressed by Victor, so the sound is excellent. And Palloy was a hack with a difference. Though hired to cover Bing Crosby, he was the sort of singer Crosby ran out of town, yet he had a snarky charm and savvy taste in songs (he covered “It Don’t Mean a Thing” before Ellington’s ink was dry). It’s his guitar, however, that makes him remarkable; annotator Allan Dodge calls him a “cut-rate Cros by with a built-in Eddie Lang.” At a time when guitar improvisers were rarer than good baritones, how did a member of the tiny tribe that included Lang, Lonnie Johnson, and Bobby Sherwood avoid history’s radar? He croons, he scats, he swings, he winks, beating Bill Murray to his lounge act by 45 years. And he makes you wonder what else Woolworth’s was selling for 25 cents.

Mosaic and Tom are mail-order com panies: Mosaic is at 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902; Tom is at P.O. Box 25358, San Mateo, CA 94402.