Unique Jazz From The Westchester Workshop // The Westchester Workshop (Unique Records LP-103)

It’s been a wild couple of weeks for everyone, with uncertainty and anxiousness everywhere. During stressful times like these, my record library takes on the role of a refuge and safe space. It’s a place where I can recharge, relax and unwind. Luckily, my record shelves are full of the best stress-reducing medicine I’ve found: Jazz. Prepare to get your back scratched.


The Music

The Tune: “Key Chain”

The Tune: “Fruity Tutti”

The Tune: “Carmenooch”

Recorded: 1956 in New York City, NY

Personnel:

  • Joe Shepley – Trumpet
  • Vinnie Riccitelli – Alto Sax, Arranger
  • Carmen Leggio – Tenor Sax
  • Gene Allen – Baritone Sax
  • Eddie Bert – Trombone
  • Dolph Castellano – Piano
  • Eddy Tone – Bass
  • Joe Venuto – Drums

Fresh and cool. Those are the two words that perfectly describe the music on the grooves of this LP. Surprisingly modern even for the mid-1950’s, this octet of musicians came together in the studio to make a single album of lightly head-bobbing music that emphasized dense, colorful ensemble playing but featured more than enough competent jazz solos to keep things simmering throughout. Alto saxophonist Vinnie Riccitelli is the man responsible for these refreshing charts and the leadership of the ensemble itself. Influenced by numerous sources in jazz, the ‘Birth of The Cool’ sessions by Miles Davis and Gil Evans were the direct inspiration for much of Riccitelli’s personal compositions and arrangements, and the ghosts of Evans and Davis lurk throughout the record.

“Key Chain”, the first tune on the album, is a fantastic opener that gives the listener a clue as to what to expect from the group. Simplistic, breezy, stimulating, yet complicated. The music just flows. I personally love when a musical note stays constant over a constantly changing harmonic background, and that’s what happens during the bridge of this cut. While the trumpet bleats the same note, the rest of the group plays a series of beautifully blended chords underneath. Just perfect. If this is all that happened and the song ended, it would be enough. Thankfully, the arrangement unfolds into more than that, allowing both solos and written interludes and support built around and through the solo space. Absolutely delicious.

This type of musical deliciousness abounds throughout the grooves of this record. Flipping the record over, “Fruity Tutti” is so cushioned in warm yet cool creamy goodness that it isn’t until halfway through that you realize that this is a blues, or as Riccitelli says, “this one is actually the blues in A flat with dressed up changes.” In fact, despite being a blues, the colors I see are pink and orange.

Because I dig this album so much, I had to include a third tune, and one of the fastest of all the tunes on the record. Written for and dedicated to the tenor saxophonist in the group, “Carmenooch” appropriately features the laid-back tenor sax of Carmen Leggio. Playing in the then-in-vogue style of Lester Young/Zoot Sims/Stan Getz, Leggio gets an impassioned solo off without seeming to break a sweat, with the hip support of his musical cohorts.

All in all, this album is a sleeper, one that I’m almost positive you’ve never heard of before and one that I’m sure was obscure almost immediately after it was released in the mid-1950’s. When in the 1950’s? Who knows. 1956 and 1957 have been given as the years for recording, with 1956-58 as the years for release. Whatever the origins of the music, this record from the jazz underground deserves to be revisited and re-listened to again. While none of the guys on this record became household names, some of them appeared as sidemen on various albums in the 1950’s and 60’s, Gene Allen and Carmen Leggio in particular. As the liner notes say, “you’ll hear the “cool” sounds and the “swinging” sounds”, or put another way, “the East and West coasts’ styles have been interwoven by Riccitelli’s composing as well as arranging techniques.”

The Cover

Raggy Waltz Rating: B

The photograph is perfect for a jazz album. Moody, smokey, and in black and white, this is evocative cover art. If only the art department had let the photograph do the talking alone instead of plastering a dopey font with dopey colors down the side. It almost makes me annoyed at how they botched such a slam-dunk of a cover.

The Back

Larry Meeks contributes some above-average notes, with heavy quotation from the composer/arranger/saxophonist to augment the prose. Something interesting to see is the price written on the top of the back cover. Written in pencil, the original price of $3.98 is slashed out and underneath that is “sale” with a new price of $2.98. This could be an indication of the reception this album was met with upon its release in 1950-something. Almost immediate obscurity. I’ve posed the question before, but I wonder what and who decides what jazz albums will be popular, underground hits, or just plain obscure, relegated to the dustbin of history?

The Vinyl

These labels are much greener in real life than these pictures show. Truly unique (I’ve been holding out on making puns this whole post), I don’t think I have any other record labels in this green color. Deep groove present, this record was definitely pressed in the 1950’s. I like the font and logo of Unique Records. Recorded before 1958, this album is in mono, but boy does it sound good. The sound is crisp, just a touch of fuzzy, with a cool bite to it. This sounds more like a wine tasting than a sound description, but you get my point.

And who was Unique Records, anyhow? A Google search shows that they were a short-lived venture by RKO, the company most-known for radio and TV broadcasting. In 1955, they decided to try their hand at the record industry and bought a record label named Unique Records. While they released quite a few titles, including some rather interesting jazz titles, the label went under shortly after 1960 began.

The Place of Acquisition

One of the great things about discovering the jazz vinyl community of Instagram has been connecting with so many awesome, friendly people. One of those cool peoples that I got to know off of Instagram is a guy that goes by the name DJ Pari.

DJ Pari examining my two copies of Paul Desmond’s ‘Sketchin’ album on Blue Note while I look over his shoulder.

After numerous interactions (90% of which consisted of him bashing Brubeck, bless his heart), he got to know my tastes in jazz well enough to start suggesting albums to me that I’d like. One day, he told me that I’d really like this record by a random group called the Westchester Workshop. He had found it during one of his vinyl digs and enjoyed it but thought I’d dig it too. I was already buying some records from him, so I decided to trust him and grab it too. I’m glad I did, as it’s EXACTLY the type of jazz that I love.

2 thoughts on “Unique Jazz From The Westchester Workshop // The Westchester Workshop (Unique Records LP-103)

  1. Hi.
    I had never heard of this album or group, I like the chosen songs. I will look for it, although I doubt I can find a copy in Spain.
    I also don’t know Paul Desmond’s Skentchin ‘record, I look forward to a full review. (I loved the joke, it made me smile).
    Greetings and take care.

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