Tuesday Mar 26

The Reawakening of Vee-Jay Jazz


This [1993] is Vee-Jay Records' fortieth anniversary year, but for nearly half of those years the company has been in fitful hibernation. Internal management disputes, poorly handled expansion, and legal entanglements brought the company to bankruptcy court and liquidation in 1966.

During Vee-Jay's golden age, it was the country's preeminent black-owned record company. The label's string of pop and R&B hits is legendary, as is the fact that it was the label that introduced the Beatles to the American market. Vee-Jay's venture into jazz is less well known, with one stunning exception: Eddie Harris' serendipitous hit with the "Theme From Exodus."

"Exodus" was not on the original list of tunes for Harris' Vee-Jay album. In fact, Vee-Jay didn't see Harris as a sax star but rather as Vee-Jay's answer to the success that Chess Records, another Chicago-based company, was having with pianist Ramsey Lewis. They thought Harris was going to do just a couple of tunes on sax, but for most of the album, he'd be at the keyboard. "But I rehearsed up a whole album on saxophone," Harris says, "because I really didn't want to play piano."

A couple of days before the session, Harris was having dinner in a restaurant with his wife-to-be, and the Ferrante and Teicher version of "Exodus" on the jukebox caught his ear. "I thought it was an out of sight tune," Harris remembers. "I put in about three dollars worth of dimes so I could write it out."

It was too late to work up a formal arrangement. "So I just experimented with it when I got home, playing it out of the regular range of the tenor saxophone. When I got to the studio, the other musicians didn't like it much it because it was too simple."

"Exodus" was the second tune Harris played on the date and when the Vee-Jay bosses heard Harris' unusual sax sound, "they flipped and forgot all about having signed me to play piano." After taping a full-length album performance of "Exodus," the group cut a shorter single version for the pop market and in a few months, it was Harris' own "Exodus" recording that was sucking dimes into jukeboxes all over the country.

The Exodus to Jazz album climbed to number two on the pop charts in 1961. No jazz album had ever sold so well before. A year later, Stan Getz' Jazz Samba hit number one. It's likely that Harris' success paved the way for Getz by introducing the public to the pleasures of a light, swinging tenor sax with guitar accompaniment.

It also exposed the general public to a number of straight-ahead swinging jazz performances. Every Vee-Jay jazz album from the very first teemed with them, thanks to Sid McCoy who directed Vee-Jay's jazz division.

That first Vee-Jay jazz venture was recorded in 1958. It was a jamming session released under the appropriate title The Swingin'est. Trombonist Bennie Green and tenor sax giant Gene Ammons shared credit as leaders of a small band swung through a few classy charts (penned by Frank Foster and Frank Wess who also played on the date) and some riff-based head arrangements. It was an auspicious beginning for Vee-Jay jazz.

McCoy and Vee-Jay hit cruising speed a few years later with a series of albums that drew heavily from the ranks of the Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and Art Blakey groups. The Young Lions, Wayning Moments, and Expoobident were instant jazz classics, destined to become unobtainable collectors' items all too soon.

The greatest losses to jazz fans when the original Vee-Jay empire collapsed under its own weight were the LPs that presented important artists who had little exposure on other labels. In addition to Eddie Harris, these included drummer Walter Perkins and his tight little MJT+3 band, superlative vocalist Bill Henderson, and extraordinary alto sax player Frank Strozier. The label's demise also left a good quantity of masters unreleased. We're only beginning to find out about those as the current Vee-Jay releases previously unknown sessions.

The original Vee-Jay was literally a "mom and pop" record company. Vivian Carter (the "Vee") and James C. Bracken (the "Jay") borrowed $500 at a pawn shop bankroll their first recording. The husband and wife team signed a group of high school students that they encountered vocalizing in a record store. The group was called The Spaniels and that first Vee-Jay recording made it to the top ten in national R&B charts.

The couple managed the company in the informal manner of many family businesses. That approach can work only as long as the principals are all on the same wave-length and the company's operations remain small enough. Vee-Jay simply outgrew itself and that old relaxed management style now complicates the task as the Vee-Jay of today tries to reconstruct and re-release the back catalog.

The difficulty of the reissue task has in a few cases surpassed the capacity of supervising producer Billy Vera. But Vera deserves credit for grappling as well as he has with a catalog that has languished largely unattended to over the past two decades.

The company has no plans to make new recordings for the revived Vee-Jay label. Its goal is to get the whole Vee-Jay back catalog on the market in an orderly, and profitable, fashion. Currently that means including three CDs from the Vee-Jay jazz archives in every quarterly batch of reissues. At this writing, twelve Vee-Jay jazz CDs are available. Here's how they stack up.

ARTIST: Wayne Shorter
TITLE: Wayning Moments Plus
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-900
YEAR: 1962
TIME: 62:47

Wayne Shorter and Jazz Messenger colleagues Freddie Hubbard and Jymie Merritt went into Vee-Jay's studios along with drummer Marshall Thompson and pianist Eddie Higgins. There they turned out a set of performances that outshines anything they did with boss Art Blakey. Heresy? You won't think so after you've experienced Wayning Moments.

Shorter's originals, four of them, exhibit the complex charm that characterizes his best work. Even the most blisteringly intense, "Powder Keg," is as impressive for its melodic invention as for its explosive energy. Higgins penned the gently hip waltz that gives the disc its title.

"Black Orpheus" (usually called "Manha de Carnaval") and "Moon of Manakoora" are swinging surprises. Shorter turns them away from exotica and into straight jazz. "All or Nothing at All" gets a standard ballad treatment as a solo feature for Shorter.

Much of the credit for the success of the session goes to ringers Thompson and Higgins. Thompson's relaxed timekeeping - he was a dancer as well as a drummer - and Higgins' equally amiable keyboard work encourage the two front line horns to evoke their own energetic swing without resorting to undue pressure.

By the way, this expanded presentation - that's the "Plus" in the CD title -includes seven bonus tracks. There's a previously unissued alternate take of each tune except "All or Nothing at All" and each one is as fine as the original.

ARTIST: Lee Morgan
TITLE: Here's Lee Morgan
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-910
YEAR: 1960
TIME: 52:51

ARTIST: Lee Morgan
TITLE: Expoobident
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-901
YEAR: 1960
TIME: 52:51

Many jazz LPs were finished up with just one take of each tune. That wasn't the case with Lee Morgan's Expoobident. Some two-digit take numbers in the listing of titles suggest that this was a difficult session to get in the can.

For instance, take 11 of "Just In Time" and take 16 of "Triple Track" appear here as bonus tracks. Since bonuses are usually takes made on the way to the ultimately successful ones released as the official masters, one can only wonder how many more tries it took for these two tracks to be wrapped up.

It's likely that the problems that led to so many takes were technical rather than musical. Even on the originally released versions, there are occasional taped break-ups of Morgan's fiery trumpet and a rather clanky piano sound throughout.

But the music is as strong as the sound is shaky. Morgan's boss of the time, Art Blakey, is playing drums and Clifford Jordan joins Morgan in the front line on tenor sax. Jordan's playing here is a revelation. He's usually laid back to the point of torpor, but on this occasion he plays with unusual vigor, perhaps in response to the examples set by Morgan and Blakey.

Here's Lee Morgan was the trumpeter's Vee-Jay debut, recorded in 1960, also with Jordan and Blakey on board. It, too, overflows with superb performances, often marred by technical problems. The first three tracks are the worst of the bunch. Each suffers from bouncy tape speed irregularities, particularly at the beginnings. Apparently the recorder needed more time to settle down before the musicians were cued. Fortunately there are clean, well-played alternate versions of all three included as bonus tracks.

By the way, Morgan was all of twenty-one years old when he made this recording. He'd already done seven others, starting at age eighteen. Young jazz trumpet stars are not just a recent phenomenon.

ARTIST: Wynton Kelly
TITLE: Someday My Prince Will Come
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-902
YEAR: 1960, 1961
TIME: 76:36

ARTIST: Wynton Kelly
TITLE: Kelly Great
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-907
YEAR: 1960
TIME: 35:22
Sound: 2

Here are a couple more musical successes marred by production flaws. Kelly Great was Wynton Kelly's first Vee-Jay outing, a quintet date with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter on trumpet and tenor and Kelly's colleagues from the Miles Davis group, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers, on drums and bass. Everybody cooks along in the hard-edged, post-bop style that energized jazz in the '60s - everybody except Shorter, that is.

Shorter's strange solos occasionally sound like a rude mock of Benny Golson (his predecessor in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers), occasionally like a feeble attempt to emulate Sonny Rollins's wry humor, but more often like Shorter was running on empty.

Morgan, however, had a full tank of fuel and was hitting on all eight cylinders. As on his own Vee-Jay albums, his playing reaches inspired heights. Lee Morgan's musical ideas often exploded with fast and furious creative energy, but he was as stirring and provocative on a ballad or at a medium tempo as he was at breakneck speed. His facility never faltered, his inspiration never stalled.

Kelly Great seems to be over almost before it begins. This could have been remedied simply and logically in the reissue production process. The much longer Someday My Prince Will Come includes four trio tracks that were recorded during the Kelly Great recording session. Those should have been moved over where they belong and the duplicate "Wrinkles" on Someday should have been dropped.

The Someday set is a collection of leftovers originally slapped together during Vee-Jay's decline. It's mostly relaxed trio tracks with Sam Jones playing bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. These 1961 performances are typical of Wynton Kelly efforts: plenty of heat simmering under a cool surface.

There are standards ("Autumn Leaves," "Gone With the Wind," the title tune) and a couple of original blues lines ("Sassy," "Char's Blues"). In short, Someday veritably overflows with fine music, but also with hopelessly fouled sonics and production values. The reissue improves not a whit on the low level of the original LP's shabby fabrication.

Printed track lengths differ wildly from the actual times on the disc. The "bonus" version of "Someday My Prince Will Come" is identical to the take that opens the disc, except the channels are reversed. In fact, all five bonus tracks are flipped. But then the original stereo balance was lousy anyway. Tinny drums and insubstantial piano clatter in one channel, the bass is barely audible in the other.

The takes from the 1960 session are monaural (on both CDs). That eliminates the right-left balance problem and the instrument have more substance, but they're afflicted by distortion and tape speed irregularity.

Kelly's great touch, engaging melodic sense, and superior feeling for time and swing just barely save both albums. Morgan's work on Kelly Great is also extremely attractive, but there's plenty of equally rewarding Morgan on other Vee-Jay CDs. Come to think of it, there's plenty of "Great Kelly" there, too.

ARTIST: Bill Henderson
TITLE: His Complete Vee-Jay Recordings--Volume One
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-909
YEAR: 1959, 1960
TIME: 63:12

This reissue of vocalist Bill Henderson's first recordings is the most rewarding and most frustrating disc in the new Vee-Jay jazz catalog. Henderson is one of the great jazz vocalists of the post-bop era but few people are aware of that fact. When Vee-Jay collapsed, so did the foundation upon which Henderson's jazz singing career should have developed.

Now that these recordings are once again available, Henderson may begin to gain the recognition he has deserved for so long. (Presumably he'll reap the first financial rewards from this work, too.)

But while the reappearance of Bill Henderson on Vee-Jay is cause for celebration, it's not cause for rejoicing. Many of the takes on the CD are not the ones that appeared on the LP, and in every case where this occurs the LP version is significantly better. Fortunately for Henderson fans, the most striking differences are in the instrumental solos, not the vocals. But the overall effect is that the tremendous power of the LP is diluted by the substitutions.

It's also diluted by the order of the performances. The CD groups the songs in the order in which they were recorded, even if that means putting three ballads in a row. It also means that all the performances with trio accompaniment (by the Ramsey Lewis Trio) are grouped together and all the tracks with the small band and Benny Golson arrangements come next. The LP shuffled things up a bit and achieved a program with much better flow and balance.

Make no mistake, this disc will reward you with some of the best jazz singing ever committed to record. Any weaknesses may only be fully apparent to someone who is familiar with the overwhelming wonder of the same music as it appeared on the LP. But after all these years, it's a shame that Bill Henderson's preeminent work should be even slightly compromised when it finally reappears in print.

ARTIST: Frank Strozier
TITLE: Fantastic Frank Strozier--Plus
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-903
YEAR: 1959, 1960
TIME: 72:19

ARTIST: Frank Strozier
TITLE: Cool, Calm, and Collected
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-911
YEAR: 1960
TIME: 70:08

Frank Strozier hails from Memphis. He recorded for Vee-Jay as part of Walter Perkins's MJT+3 group, on the cooperative The Young Lions session, and on two LPs under his own name.

The Fantastic Frank Strozier was the first of those and an auspicious debut. Joining Strozier was his high school colleague Booker Little and Miles Davis' stellar rhythm section--Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb.

Once again, the sound is a little thin, but the music more than makes up for it. Little's playing is his most composed and communicative on record. Strozier's alto work reaches back through Charlie Parker to jazz's deepest blues roots.

Strozier's Cool, Calm, and Collected is not a reissue. It's the initial release of a 1960 session that never made it to LP. Here Strozier works with an interesting Chicago rhythm team including pianist Billy Wallace, bassist Bill Lee,and drummer Vernell Fournier. Wallace's credits include participating in Max Roach's ground-breaking Jazz in 3/4 Time LP, Bill Lee is filmmaker Spike's dad, and Fournier was part of the classic Ahmad Jamal trio.

It's a strong session although the mishmash of extra takes and short versions on the CD slightly disrupts the musical continuity. Ingratiating originals, probably Strozier compositions, vie with hip readings of standards for the listener's attention, which is invariably well-rewarded.

ARTIST: Eddie Harris
TITLE: Exodus to Jazz
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-904
YEAR: 1961
TIME: 39:44

This is the reissue of Vee-Jay's surprise jazz hit. Here the original LP is delivered intact with the shortened jukebox versions of "Exodus" and "Alicia" discreetly tacked on the end. It's a kick to think of pop fans grabbing the album for the title tune and then taking a wild jazz ride through hot originals like Harris' "A.T.C" (a variation on Jimmy Heath's "C.T.A"), "Velocity," and pianist Willie Pickens' "A.M. Blues" and "W.P."

There's no watered-down pop jazz here. "Exodus" was Harris's risky experiment that paid off musically and popularly. The rest of the tunes were along for the ride for pop listeners but were the meat and potatoes of the LP for the jazz fans.

ARTIST: Louis Hayes
TITLE: Louis Hayes Featuring Yusef Lateef and Nat Adderley
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-906
YEAR: 1960
TIME: 63:55

The lineup here was the 1960 Cannonball Adderley quintet with the mighty tenor sax of Yusef Lateef substituting for Cannonball. Perhaps it was a preparation for a few years later when Lateef joined Adderley's group. The best thing about this disc is the heavy helping of Lateef it provides.

The session is solid modern jazz in the style that often has to bear the somewhat limiting hard bop label. These days you might hear it called classic jazz. Whatever the term, this style has survived fads and fancies and discs like this will still inspire and challenge young musicians. They'll still enchant fans of straight ahead, take no prisoners jazz.

Once again, the sound is no match for the music. Hayes's prominent drums and Lateef's tenor sax have some solidity. The other instruments are (again) thin and wiry.

ARTIST: Bennie Green, Gene Ammons
TITLE: The Swingin'est
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-905
YEAR: 1958
TIME: 63:39

This was the first Vee-Jay jazz session and it holds up as one of the best. A few tight arrangements by Frank Foster and Frank Wess balance some loose jams for a rewarding blend of approaches to jazz-making. And the trombone, trumpet and three tenor sax lineup gives a punchy little big band feel to the happy proceedings.

When a pop-oriented company like Vee-Jay moves into the jazz realm, it needs instant credibility. The Swingin'est provided that for Vee-Jay and guaranteed a welcome for that label's subsequent jazz productions.

ARTISTS: Various Artists
TITLE: The Young Lions
LABEL: Vee-Jay NVJ2-908
YEAR: 1960
TIME: 52:37

The Young Lions was a cooperative album skimming the cream of the Vee-Jay jazz crop: Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, and Frank Strozier on horns, Bobby Timmons and Bob Cranshaw (another MJT+3 alumnus) on piano and bass, and Louis Hayes and Albert Heath switching off on drums. In the '60s, a copy of the The Young Lions LP significantly boosted the hipness quotient of any jazz collection. In today's similar jazz climate, there's no question that the CD will have the same salutary effect.

Although the session is was officially leaderless, Shorter wrote all the tunes and probably set the tasty tempos. The entire group must share credit for the buoyant good feelings and incontrovertible rightness that pervade all the performances. There are no prima donnas, no grandstanding, nothing but evocative arrangements and provocative solos.

Oh yeah. This one sounds good, too.