If there’s one thing that I and the Raggy Waltz staff love more than Brubeck and Desmond, it’s starting blog series. Well, here’s another one, inspired by the forced Coronacation we’re all on. Here in the United States, at least, we’re still under travel restrictions and social distancing regulations. As such, I thought it would be fun to travel around the country via jazz album, highlighting and revisiting albums recorded live in front of an audience (gasp!) of real people and, in the process, simulating the shared experience of enjoying a live performance of a great jazz group with other jazz fans.
Naturally, since I’m a Southern California native, we start our jazz journey there in the beach city of Laguna Beach. With the Pacific Ocean a mere couple of miles away, it’s a typically cool night in June. You step out of the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air you rented from the airport, and walk in with the others into the Irvine Bowl.
An outdoor amphitheater, you bring your coat. Sitting down next to some other excited fans, you read your program. Along with the well-known Howard Rumsey Lighthouse All-Stars and a special appearance by Barney Kessel, you note that a guy named Hampton Hawes will be performing with a trio. You settle in as the music begins…
The Tune: “Walkin'”
Recorded: 20 June, 1955
- Hampton Hawes: Piano
- Red Mitchell: Bass
- Shelly Manne: Drums
The Tune: “Casa de Luz”
Recorded: 20, June, 1955
- Howard Rumsey: Bass
- Bud Shank: Alto Sax/Flute
- Bob Cooper: Tenor Sax
- Frank Rosolino: Trombone
- Claude Williamson: Piano
- Stan Levey: Drums
Naturally, due to the time and space constraints of vinyl records, the whole concert couldn’t be released, but some of the highlights did make it onto the album. A favorite of mine and the reason why I bought the album is Hampton Hawes’ outing on the classic blues “Walkin'”. The groove is established immediately, with Red Mitchell’s firm bass walking and Shelly Manne’s no-funny-business brushes laying down the rhythm. On piano, Hampton Hawes gets off a glorious solo that builds leisurely but strongly from single lines to rich chords, back to single groovy lines, then back to some tasty chords.
The highlight of the entire solo is a repeated joyous rippling riff Hamp plays, two-fisted and swinging, towards the end of his solo. He yields to the bass, who plays a wonderfully tasty solo. Surprisingly, the great Shelly Manne doesn’t get any solos on this track, instead tasked with maintaining that infectious groove with his unobtrusive brushing. Clocking in at nearly seven minutes, Hamp’s walkin’ blues is the longest track on the record. Between this track and his other contribution to the album, an up-tempo outing on another blues (Dizzy Gillespie’s “The Champ”), it’s easy to see why a local newspaper review crowned Hampton Hawes’ set as the high point of the entire concert.
Besides a beautiful performance of “‘Round Midnight” by guitarist Barney Kessel, backed by the Lighthouse All-Stars, the rest of album features Howard Rumsey and His Lighthouse All-Stars. Rumsey’s combos always featured the finest West Coast jazz musicians, and in the summer of 1955 his group boasted a formidable lineup of horns. Bob Cooper on tenor sax, Bud Shank on alto sax, and Frank Rosalino on trombone all prove to be a potent group. “Casa de Luz”, which means ‘lighthouse’ in Spanish, is a perfect example of the Lighthouse All-Stars’ sound. Written by former All-Star Shorty Rogers, “Casa de Luz” is a simple but catchy Latin-tinged tune that gives everyone a chance to shine. The applause at the end of the performance shows that the crowd, chilled by the cool Pacific Ocean night air, thoroughly enjoyed the music. Close your eyes, and I’m sure if you concentrate hard enough, you’ll smell the salt air, feel the damp ocean breeze, and see yourself sitting between some thrilled jazz fans enjoying live jazz in the great outdoors.
Raggy Waltz Rating: A-
Lots of ink has been used to explain how West Coast jazz album covers look so different than their East Coast counterparts. Personally, I don’t think it was as systemic as it’s been made out to be, but what do I know? Well, I know that this album cover caught my attention in high school and it remains one of my favorite album covers. The leggy model in her then-chic bathing suit, head thrown back in lusty mirth, exudes a carefree, relaxed vibe – exactly what a lot of West Coast jazz seemed to capture in its sound. The plain white background and the colored titling all add to the aesthetically pleasing album cover.
I like albums with pictures on the back, especially when it’s a live album like this one. There’s a particularly moving photograph of Hampton Hawes included, all taken by Ray Avery. Contemporary Records founder Lester Koenig writes the liners, which are extensive and honest (he admits that there were blemishes in the recording but that’s just the way live jazz is). For a 60-plus year old album, the jacket is in phenomenal shape, with the whites still crisp and the corners relatively perfect.
Speaking of crispy, these labels are deliciously crispy. Contemporary made special labels for the Lighthouse All-Stars’ records, even giving them their own series. The labels are modern and hip, and the thick vinyl and heavy deep groove all make a for a gorgeous record.
The sound is delightfully lo-fi, recorded in such a way that the acoustics of the outdoor amphitheater and the sound system in said outdoor theater are readily apparent. It makes for a realistic-sounding recording.
The Place of Acquisition
I bought it on eBay about two years ago, around Christmas. It was advertised as New Mint, and the pictures sure looked it. Playing it, however, there was some groove wear. Nothing crazy, but it was noticeable on the on the one track that was the reason for me buying the record in the first place (“Walkin'”), so I returned it. A week later, it was back on my doorstep with a note of apology and a full refund. Amen. If only more interactions on eBay were like this.