Ah, a new year. With a new year comes the promise to… yeah you’re not here for inspirational fluff. You’re here for jazz records. So to the West Coast we go, where some of the best jazz of the 1950’s was being played!
The Tune: “Full Count”
The Tune: “Groovin’ Higher”
Recorded: 26 July, 1955 in Los Angeles, CA
- Conte Candoli – Trumpet
- Bill Holman – Tenor Sax
- Lou Levy – Piano
- Leroy Vinnegar – Bass
- Lawrence Marable – Drums
It’s been a while since I’ve done a genuine West Coast jazz album, and man what a solid album this is. Everyone on this record was a stalwart of the Californian jazz scene during the golden years of the 50’s. The leader of the date, Conte Candoli, was a California transplant who hitched a ride west with Stan Kenton’s band and decided to stay. When he wasn’t leading groups of his own in the LA area, he could be found playing with Howard Rumsey’s Allstars at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, just a short drive down the freeway. In his later years, Conte (and his older brother Pete) would grace the Tonight Show’s screaming band. Bill Holman was another ex-Kentonite and tasty tenor saxophonist who played in the malted, cool style that Lester Young developed. He was equally skilled at arranging and composing, as his time with Stan Kenton and his later time in studio work aptly displayed. Lou Levy played piano for a while, then opened a record store, only to move to California and play piano again. He quickly found himself playing behind everyone from Stan Getz to Ella Fitzgerald. Hearing him play, it’s easy to understand why. More often than not, Lou was the pianist on numerous record dates during the 1950’s in Southern California. In 1955, Leroy Vinnegar (misspelled ‘Vinegar’ on the album) and Larry Marable were relatively unknown to the jazz public. The jazz public in Southern California, however, was hip to their pluckings and drummings. Vinnegar would later hit it big with Shelly Manne and Andre Previn while Marable would remain an obscure but respected presence on the West Coast.
Now that the biographies are done, what about the music?
Flying in the face of the oft-used and tired claim that West Coast jazz was boring, staid, and effete, this record crackles with life and energy (and that’s not just the crackly vinyl). This music is pure bebop, with all the excitement that goes along with it. The track that best shows this off is “Full Count”. A Conte Candoli original that uses the “I Got Rhythm” changes, this performance features the guys in the most up-tempo cut of the entire album and thriving. Holman’s tone combined with his phrasing imparts a laid-back vibe at odds with the fleet speed of the tune. He yields the floor to Candoli, who somehow maintains the no-sweat attitude while clearly digging into the tune. He even manages to make landing on a wrong note a point of departure for his solo, with Lou Levy appropriately finding the chords to both highlight and mask the peculiar note chose.
My second favorite tune on the album is the very last one. When I first saw the tune was named “Groovin’ Higher”, I raised an eyebrow. “Bold choice to name a tune so closely to a bebop anthem”, I thought. Listening to the tune, I quickly realized that they had basically taken Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” and altered a bit. “Musical gentrification!” I fumed. But then I listened to the solos. When the record was over, I put the needle back to the beginning and listened once again. The melody was super catchy (you can find me at work because I’ll be loudly humming this song), but I was specifically listening to Lou Levy’s piano solo. I couldn’t believe it, but I was not only liking his solo, but DIGGING it.
A bit of an explanation is warranted.
For years, I have claimed to hate the man’s playing. “He plays the same thing in all of his solos”, I charged. Specifically, he does the same lick on the piano on EVERY album he plays on, and nearly every TRACK he plays on. Yes, every jazz musician has a personal or borrowed lick that they keep in their back pocket, but Lou Levy’s usage of his lick was not only predictable, but it was annoying. And then I listened to his playing on this album. Yes, he sneaks it into his solo on “Full Count” (you can find it towards the end of his second chorus. Listen to anything by him and then listen to this and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about), but his playing is so gutsy and exciting that I let it go. But on “Groovin’ Higher”, he reaches a level I didn’t think he was capable of. In his final chorus, he starts adding some reharmonizations full of funky Brubeckian dissonance that made me pause and intensely listen. He does it again during the turnaround, playing the same two notes over a shifting palette of chords. Amen. Due to this and other similar “holy crap he’s killing it!” moments, I am prepared to say that I, Tarik, am now a Lou Levy fan.
The rest of the music on the album is firmly modern, no frills, straight-ahead jazz. Their cover of Miles Davis’ “Four” has some fantastic solos, but the way they state the melody is kind of square to me. They add an extra notes here and change a note there that changes the flavor of Davis’ line and makes it kind of clunk along. A true shame because once they start soloing, they tear it up.
A word about the bassist and drummer. One thing I love about Vinnegar’s bass work is how he stays firmly in the lower register. His support his firm, his sound is large, and he keeps his bass sounding like a bass. It makes for a solid backing. Marable’s drumming is also rock solid, rarely deviating from the steady beat. A better, more sympathetic rhythm section would be hard to find. All in all, this is a great example of the type of jazz being made on the Best Coast during the heyday. It wasn’t all flutes and oboes and Bach warmed over. There was plenty of hard-swinging jazz to be heard that could easily hold its own with the best jazz coming out of the East!
Raggy Waltz Rating: D+
The plus is because I briefly considered the slinky being artsy. The ‘D’ is because it’s a Burt Goldblatt creation. With Goldblatt, it’s a hit or miss. Usually a miss. In this case, what the heck does a slinky have to do with Conte Candoli, not to mention jazz in general? Slinky aside, the color scheme is lazy. “Conte Candoli is Italian and has a super Italian name, so why not put the Italian flag on the album?” Do better, Goldblatt.
The liner notes are somewhat better than the cover art, but then again they misspelled Leroy Vinnegar’s name. Most of the notes are used to teach the reader who Conte and the rest of the guys are. Well, the three white guys, anyhow. Marable and Vinnegar, both black, get about one sentence each that’s specifically about them. Figure that one out. We do get a delightfully retro profile shot of Conte in action. The album jacket has definitely seen better days. Now that I think of it, I don’t think I have very many Bethlehem albums that don’t look like this…
I love old 12-inch records. They’re heavy, thick, and have that delicious deep groove. This record could be used as a weapon it’s so heavy and thick. The labels are classic Bethlehem creations. As for the sound, it’s pretty crackly at the beginning but quiets down the further in the record you go. I personally don’t mind some crackle and surface noise. As long as it doesn’t overpower the music. The mix is kind of soft, but Candoli’s trumpet sparkles through. The main casualty is the bass, as was often the case in the pre-hifi hi-fi days. You know the bass is there, but it sounds rather muddy and plodding much of the time. I tend to ignore all the “Hi-Fi” claims plastered all over records from the early and mid-1950’s. Especially when it’s plastered on a Bethlehem record. While this is definitely the best-sounding original Bethlehem album I own (no doubt because it was recorded on the West Coast and not in New York like most of Bethlehem’s albums), hi-fi it is not. That is to say, it’s a typical-sounding jazz album from the mid-50’s, and that’s not a terrible thing at all. Val Valentin was the engineer, a guy who’s name would eventually grace record companies like Verve. By then, though, his engineering skills had greatly increased.
The Place of Acquisition
While back home in Southern California last month, I made the mandatory trip to the local record store, Redlands Vinyl. As always, when I’m in California, I try to find West Coast jazz albums, specifically from guys like Cal Tjader, Vince Guaraldi, etc. While I did find two (!!) Tjader albums, I found a slew of other West Coast jazz records, including this one. There was no inner sleeve, and the record looked pretty used and dusty, but for $5 I chanced it and asked the guy behind the counter to play it for me. He dropped the needle at the start of “Full Count” and we were both surprised at how great and energetic the music was. He ended up playing the rest of the record while I continued to dig for more albums. I’ll have to write about the rest of the records I found there, because they’re all solid albums. Like the hipster I refuse to admit I am, I secretly hope West Coast jazz remains uncool (the hipster in me found that ironic) so that it stays affordable and relatively easy to find!