Deeper Into the Vaults


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.

Two better-known but long unavailable vocal benchmarks have also been reissued. Sing a Song of Basie (Verve) was the first and best of the albums by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. The trio did not exist during the year it took to conceive and execute their unique debut, a triumph of multitracking in which three singers become the Count Basie Orchestra (aside from the rhythm section) and capture more of its dynamics and swing than anyone would have thought possible. With Annie Ross hitting the trumpet tuttis and Dave Lambert providing the trombone range and Jon Hendricks wailing the saxophone solos and, in one of the most prodigious verbal feats in jazz history, writing all the lyrics, they replicate the band while infusing it with an exhilaration that only the voice can impart. On their sensational “Everyday,” they increase the drama of Ernie Wilkins’s instrumental prelude, and capture the subsequent accompanying voicings as Hendricks sings the Joe Williams vocal. They make Neal Hefti’s “Little Pony” a horse race, as Hendricks turns Wardell Gray’s tenor solo into a stream-of-consciousness rant, and conclude with sublimely comic esprit. (Brass: “Don’t be quittin’ just when you’re hittin’ the peak.” Gray: “Get a record that will play a week.”) After hearing Ross sing the piano solo on “One O’Clock Jump,” you will never hear the Basie record the same way again.

After living with this album for years or decades, you begin to hear the original instrumentals as though they had all been planned, composed, inevitable. If I haven’t made it clear, there is no scat singing on Sing a Song of Basie. Every note of the original orchestrations and improvisations has a word fitted to it and becomes part of an overall story. As on the original LP, all the lyrics except “One O’Clock Jump” are provided, but one of the startling things about the project is you don’t need them; they are all clearly enunciated, despite bruising tempos. Three negligible tracks have been added, including choir-besotted versions of “Four Brothers” and the Hendricks blowout “Cloudburst,” presumably because the label didn’t want to issue a 30-minute CD. Yet those 30 minutes are magic.

Viva! Vaughan (Verve) was last issued as part of the multibox Complete Sarah Vaughan on Mercury, but has not been seen on its own in 35 years. Recorded in 1964, it fell between the cracks of her jazz following, which at that time felt sorely tested by the meretriciousness of her record company, and the pop world, which could not be seduced by yet another attempt to board the bossa nova bandwagon. Too bad for everyone, especially arranger Frank Foster, some of whose finest post-Basie writing is heard here. Vaughan’s wit is evident with “The Boy From Ipanema” ‘s very first note, a spooky dissonance that slides into pitch, before she embellishes and seduces the shopworn melody into a whole new place. Foster’s wit was equal to the task, and with a big band augmented by strings and bongos, he has the time of his life, thrusting blatting trombones at her at one point, sighing flutes at another, or rocking the percussion brigade beyond the usual restraints of faux-Brazilian writing, as on the backbeat drive of “Tea for Two” or the start-and-stop opening of “Stomping at the Savoy.” Vaughan embellishes everything, practically recomposing a “Quiet Nights” that might have confused the listeners this album never reached. She and Foster have no more than two or three minutes to make their points, so they do what they can. “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” is not the virtuoso extravaganza she later made it, but—like Mingus working his way through weird nightmares—she lets you know she already owns it.