Let’s Cook! // Barney Kessel (Contemporary M3603)

How many posts have I started with “Here at Raggy Waltz HQ…”? I don’t know, but add this one to the list.

Here at Raggy Waltz headquarters, West Coast Jazz reigns supreme. I dig it and its creators. Which is why yet another Barney Kessel album is being spotlighted. This particular album has been on my turntable frequently ever since I brought it home, and after snapping my fingers to it the other day, I figured it was high time to share it with you. So without further ado, let’s cook!


The Music

The Tune: “Just In Time”

Recorded: November 11, 1957 in Los Angeles, CA

Personnel:

  • Barney Kessel – Guitar
  • Victor Feldman – Vibes
  • Hampton Hawes – Piano
  • Leroy Vinnegar – Bass
  • Shelly Manne – Drums

The Tune: “Tiger Rag”

Recorded: August 6, 1957 in Los Angeles, CA

Personnel:

  • Barney Kessel – Guitar
  • Ben Webster – Tenor Sax
  • Frank Rosolino – Trombone
  • Jimmie Rowles – Piano
  • Leroy Vinnegar – Bass
  • Shelly Manne – Drums

Cook is indeed the word of choice here. In the case of the music here on this record, ‘cook’ is both an adjective and a verb. Things never boil over, explode, or pops off. The music just cooks along, perfectly blending and stirring together under a constant fire.

Recorded in that great year of 1957, but not released until 1962, the music was made by two different group at two separate sessions a few month apart. Shelly Manne and Leroy Vinnegar were the constants, along with Mr. Kessel, of course. The other men used on the two dates were one-offs, but the music is all spiritually related to each other and it works. Again, to use the cooking analogy, the music just simmers along.

The first side features Kessel and Feldman on the frontline, supported by none other than Hampton Hawes on piano. Feldman’s vibes are in the same bag as Cal Tjader’s in that the two vibists preferred to coast on the rhythm section’s fire, building off of their fire as opposed to creating the heat themselves. The result is a cool, calm, and collected approach to the vibes that flows and tinkles like a refreshing stream of water. Feldman even uses grace notes a la Tjader, tasty and cool. Hampton Hawes is a major aid to the music here both as soloist and as accompanist. His logical lines are a joy to hear and his playing stays firmly in the pocket.

Speaking of pocket…

Shelly Manne and Leroy Vinnegar could carve out and maintain a pocket better than any other rhythm section on the coast, and this album showcases this ability repeatedly. Vinnegar’s full, solid sound carries the entire band, and Shelly’s drumming is unobtrusive but firm. “Just In Time” is a perfect example of this group when everything is just working. The arrangement, the solos, the cohesiveness… absolutely tasty.

Incidentally, the title tune, “Let’s Cook!”, is a rather unique blues. Written by Kessel, it’s a standard 12-bar blues for two choruses, then it has an 8-bar bridge that makes things interesting. It’s conducive for stimulating blowing, and at 11 minutes in length, that’s exactly what the guys do.

And that’s just the first side.

As much as I like the first side, the second side is where things really start cooking. With the appearance of two horns, the music becomes earthier, gutsier. And what an eclectic group of guys this is! The legendary Ben Webster, famous for his stint with Duke Ellington’s band in the 1930’s and ’40’s, lends his talents to proceedings. Sharing the front line with him is another veteran of the big band scene, trombonist Frank Rosolino. Jimmie Rowles replaces Hampton Hawes. With this new lineup that encompasses a wide area of the jazz scene, the eclectic group stretch out on two chestnuts that were old hat in 1957. Revamping the outdated tunes, the group proves that good jazz is as good as its creators.

The tune I decided to highlight (and it was a hard decision) is the grandaddy of all jazz tunes: “Tiger Rag”. Written and recorded in 1917 (in fact, one of the first jazz tunes EVER recorded), I was personally intrigued when I saw it was included on an otherwise modern jazz album. “A joke”, I said to myself. “A tongue-in-cheek joke”. Putting the needle down on the record, I soon discovered how wrong I was. The intro alone told me I was in for a fun ride. With its small reharmonizations and brief rubato passage with Rosolino’s almost mournful trombone, it sounds like a completely different song. And that was before the Latin section. That’s right- they freshened it up with a Latin-esque treatment. Just as I was processing this, Vinnegar’s bass began to walk with a strut, and before I knew it, the song had transformed once again into a cooking modern jazz outing.

Webster is up to bat first, and his opening statements is about the smoothest thing you’ll hear all week. Buoyed only by bass and drums, Webster gently caresses his solo out of his horn in his breathy style. Beginning his second chorus, Kessel quietly strums under him, and Webster slowly turns up the heat. By the time Rowles joins in on Webster’s third chorus, Webster is romping, palpably enjoying himself. Closing his solo with a fun trill, he makes way for pianist Rowles.

Rowles is a quiet pianist who values space, and his solo dials down the heat a tad. I admit, I’m not the biggest Rowles fan, as he always plays like he’s hesitant and doesn’t quite feel comfortable with the goings on. It works here though.

Rosolino’s solo is classic Rosolino, which is to say that it’s upbeat and happy. By now, my foot was tapping hard. Rosolino’s closing lick is too cool, and Kessel, obviously digging it too, plays it back as he begins his own solo. He sticks to tasty single lines, his guitar getting that slightly twangy sound that made his guitar so distinctive. When the tune ended, I was surprised. Bowled over, really. I couldn’t believe how perfectly suited “Tiger Rag” was for casual, no-frills blowing. Who knew?

The second tune by this lineup, “Jersey Bounce” is another old tune that the group revisits and spruces up in the process. Unfurling more languidly than “Tiger Rag”, the tune flows stately along like the Mississippi River. The melody as played by the guys is catchy as a rash, and Kessel’s thick chords during the bridge are hipper than Shakira. I strongly suggest listening to “Jersey Bounce” when you have 10 minutes to spare, because before you know it, you’ll be bobbing your head and tapping your foot something fierce. And then you’ll be humming it for the rest of the week.

Opening the liner notes, Leonard Feather perfectly sums up the record and the music on it with his first two sentences.

“In addition to providing a delightful subjective experience for the listener, this album contains the elements of a valuable jazz document for musicologists. Its eclecticism provides a stimulating reminder that there is room in jazz for a variety of approaches, just as there is in classical music, literature, and painting.”

Reviewing the album for Down Beat in 1962, Pete Welding gave it three stars, a “good” rating. Here are a few quotable quotes from his review:

“In any event, the music that resulted from these studio meetings is unpretentious, bright, buoyant, relaxed, and uncomplicated. Kessel plays with his usual lithe, spongy grace, sprightly wit, and consummate ease.”

“Playing with his customary warmth and power, Webster’s soaring work brings both Tiger and Jersey to sudden life and prods trombonist Rosolino into some fine playing.”

“These two pieces have more than a slight edge over the quintet numbers, which are extremely pleasant, airy essays at extended improvisation by Kessel, Feldman, and Hawes. They don’t have anything near the drive and sinew of the lengthy numbers with Webster, however.”

“There is an air of healthy, good-natured fun about all five of these pieces that is most refreshing. There’s not a frantic second in the entire 38 minutes and 45 seconds that make up the collection.”

Agreed.

The Album Cover

Raggy Waltz Rating: C+

I don’t know what it is that’s keeping me from giving this a higher grade. We’ll say this is a nursing school C+, which would be a B- for every other grading scale (that’s right folks. Nursing school uses its own grading scale). To be sure, I like the picture of Mr. Kessel and the effect that they put on it. I also like the minimalist titling in the upper left corner. It’s just that… I don’t know. It almost looks like a generic-brand version of a Blue Note cover. Not terrible, still gets the job done, but its still not the same thing as the original.

The Back

As I mentioned earlier, the liner notes were done by Leonard Feather, one of jazz literature’s big names. As always, he provides insight, behind-the-scenes- info, and critical analysis. His name is one of the few that I use as an indicator of the kind of music that’s on the record inside.

The Vinyl

The labels are Contemporary’s classic yellows, complete with deep groove, which are a rather surprising inclusion being that this record was pressed in 1962. The mono sound is delicious, as is anything recorded for Contemporary by engineer extraordinaire Roy DuNann. My copy is a bit crackly here and there, but the fidelity itself is crisp. In the words of the late great Abraham Lincoln, ” there’s nothing wrong with a little snap and pop.”

The Place of Acquisition

Towards the end of last year, I began spending a lot of time in Long Beach, California. A hip little place on the coast, I quickly located the record stores there that were worth visiting. One of those stores is Third Eye Records, located on a particularly swinging street in a particularly swinging area of the city. I’ve found a lot of gems in there over the past few months, including this record. Their prices are good, if not a bit unusual. This record was $11.99, which is more than fair, but $12 is a pretty specific price! At any rate, Third Eye takes a significant chunk of my paycheck each time I visit them.

Next up, the other half of my interview with the late George Wein.

One thought on “Let’s Cook! // Barney Kessel (Contemporary M3603)

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