Rebirth at Bethlehem

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Rebirth at Bethlehem

In an exciting development for jazz-loving audiophiles, Naxos has acquired the outstanding jazz catalog of Bethlehem Records, and has starting an ambitious release program that will see 25 titles back in circulation by this summer. The records will be available as downloads, CDs, and some also as high-quality LPs. While many if not most of the titles to be released have been reissued on CD at some point, they have never gotten such a high-end treatment. Naxos is maintaining its reputation for presenting quality at reasonable prices, and the inaugural batch of releases demonstrate what we can expect.

Among the first six reissues are two 10-inch records, by Oscar Pettiford and by Chris Connor. Both are excellent, but it should be noted that the only format that lists lower prices for the 10-inch records than for the longer ones is CD. One supposes that most TAS readers would prefer the vinyl, anyway, and are used to paying the same price for the shorter records. But for any who do prefer CDs, it should be noted that the last time Pettiford’s Modern Quintet (BCP 1003) was reissued on CD, it was paired with another of the early, short LPs, Vinnie Burke’s East Coast Jazz. Comparison of these CDs with other fairly recent ones doesn’t reveal much difference in sonics, but the LPs are another matter. 180-gram vinyl, lovingly repackaged in facsimile editions—these are what we want to see being put before us, on our turntables, and on our shelves.

Back to the music: Oscar Pettiford was probably the greatest jazz bassist to emerge between Jimmy Blanton and Charles Mingus. He was also a pioneer of jazz cello, and a significant composer and arranger. His best work occupies a sort of middle position between swing, cool, and bop, and Modern Quintet is a delightful example. This group sounds quite like the one that would form a couple of years later as Les Jazz Modes, which is hardly surprising as the two co-leaders who gave that group its distinctive sound, French horn master Julius Watkins and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, are both present here.

Vinnie Burke’s approach to chamber jazz greatly enhances Chris Connor’s Lullabyes For Lovers (BCP 1002), which must have seemed like a daring departure to listeners who knew the young singer from her work in big bands led by Stan Kenton and Claude Thornhill. Connor’s style is cool and understated, somewhat along the lines of June Christie, Anita O’Day, or Chet Baker. Burke’s quartet features accordion, guitar, bass, and a clarinet doubling on flute, and soloing is minimal. But the instrumentation evokes such contemporary groups as the Tin Hat Quartet, and gives this record added interest, not that Connor’s lovely vocals aren’t enough.

Nina Simone’s Jazz As Played In An Exclusive Side Street Cafe (BCP 6028) had an alternate title of Little Girl Blue, and one wonders why the long, awkward title got chosen for the cover. In any case Nina at age 24 sounds great, her voice a little more lustrous than it would become, though her singing is slightly more mannered. She’s already quite sure of who she is, willing to take on a variety of material and put her own stamp on it, including the surprisingly effective piano version of a song that usually gets turgid by the fourth measure, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Nina’s debut was startling, and she only got better from here.

Two tenor-led dates are both very worthwhile. Dexter Gordon’s Daddy Plays The Horn (BCP 36) is notable in being the first of this titan’s records that really sounds like what he would become in later years. He’s backed on this 1955 date by a quartet featuring Kenny Drew on piano, for a program of standards, bop tunes, and blues, and for the first time we hear him really shed his bebop persona and stretch out as the mature melodist we know and love. Booker Ervin’s The Book Cooks (BCP 6048) is basically a blowing date that matches him with a contrasting tenorman who loved to blow, Zoot Sims. We could label Sims “cool” and Ervin “hot,” but there’s a lot more to it than that; Zoot could swing with the best of them, and Ervin for all his heat was never heedless. Trumpeter Tommy Turrentine and pianist Tommy Flanagan make solid contributions, with the latter’s wild solo on the title track threatening to steal the show before the saxes return for several great choruses trading four-bar statements.

The Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus (BCP 65) is not one of Mingus’s greatest records, but still excellent on its own terms. This is 1954 Mingus, a period when he was really more aligned with the cool school than with the emerging hard bop sound that, in the minds of critics, was some sort of antithesis. The band includes reedmen John LaPorta, who ultimately became best known as an educator, and Teo Marcero, who gained fame as a producer, and the great Thad Jones on trumpet. All give good accounts of themselves, but of particular interest is the push towards group improvisation on several tracks, something that cool-schoolers were doing a bit of, and that Mingus would continue to use as his style became more visceral in the years to come.