Monday, December 14, 2009

Robert Gordon - Jazz West Coast: The Los Angeles Jazz Scene of the 1950's -Chapter 8




“The Counce quintet is one of the great neglected jazz bands of the 1950s. The reasons for this neglect are difficult to pinpoint.”   Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz In California [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, p.318].

The French author, Alain Tercinet, in his West Coast Jazz [Marseille, Editions Parentheses, 1986] concurs with Ted as well as with Bob Gordon’s following evaluation of the “Hard Sound” of the Curtis Counce group as noted in this rough translation:

“The music of the quintet gains its worth by the quality of its interpreters more than its originality. A ‘pinch’ of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a ‘touch’ of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet and a ‘wink of the eye’ at experimentation best define its music. The group is comparable to Shelly Manne and His Men in that both bring ‘echoes’ of New York hard bop to ‘the edge of the Pacific’ [i.e.: the West Coast]. [pp. 252 -253]

Through Gioia, Tercinet and Bob Gordon’s appraisals, it’s great to be reminded once again of the exciting music produced by the Curtis Counce Group.

Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Carl Perkins on piano, Curtis Counce on bass and Frank Butler on drums made up the original powerhouse group whose aggressive and hard-hitting style of Jazz certainly belied Grover Sales wrap that West Coast Jazz  “… recordings … today strike us as bloodless museum pieces ….” 

As was the case in his earlier Chapter 6 on the subject, it is this point in contention that Bob takes on directly and discredits in California Hard II.”

© -Robert Gordon, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

CALIFORNIA HARD - II

It is hard to understand why the Curtis Counce Group failed to achieve the recognition ‑ either popular or critical ‑ it deserved. Perhaps it's because the group was so difficult to pigeonhole. As a Los Angeles‑based group it couldn't remotely be identified with the West Coast school. Stylistically, the Curtis Counce Group fit quite naturally with such groups as the Jazz Messen­gers or the Horace Silver Quintet, but such a comparison tended to upset the East Coast‑West Coast dichotomy that then figured so prominently in jazz criticism. So, stuck as they were thousands of miles from the centre of editorial power, the musicians in the group turned out their own brand of hard­-swinging jazz in relative obscurity. It wouldn't be fair to say they were totally ignored by the influential critics, but they were seldom evaluated at their true worth.



We've already discussed most of the band's principals. Bassist Curtis Counce had played with Shorty Rogers and numerous West Coast groups, and was one of the few black musicians to have gained acceptance in the Hollywood studios; he had just returned from a European tour with the Stan Kenton orchestra when he set about forming a band in August of 1956. Tenor saxophonist Harold Land had of course been a mainstay of the Max Roach‑Clifford Brown quintet. Trumpeter Jack Sheldon, shared the front line with Land, was born 30 November 1931 in Jacksonville, Florida and moved to LA in 1947, where he studied music for two years at LA City College. Following a two-year stint in the air force, he gigged around town with Jack Montrose, Art Pepper, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon and Herb Geller; he was also a charter member of the group centered around Joe Maini and Lenny Bruce.

The rhythm section of the Curtis Counce Group was anchored by two exceptional musicians, pianist Carl Perkins and drummer Frank Butler. Carl Perkins (no relation to the rock‑and‑roll singer) had been born in Indianapolis, Indiana, 16 August 1928. A self‑taught pianist, Perkins had come up through the rhythm‑and‑blues bands of Tiny Bradshaw and Big Jay McNeely, and had forged a blues‑drenched modern style for himself. He had developed an unorthodox style and often played with his left arm parallel to the keyboard. Frank Butler was born on 18 February 1928 in Wichita, Kansas and had made jazz time with Dave Brubeck, Edgar Hayes and Duke Ellington, among others.

None of the musicians in the band was a household name, although Harold Land had gained some fame during his stay with the Clifford Brown‑Max Roach band. But this was, above all, a group, and it was as a co‑operative unit that the band excelled. Everyone is familiar with all‑star bands that somehow or other don't quite make it ‑ the chemistry between the players is somehow wrong; perhaps an ego or two gets in the way. The Curtis Counce Group was that sort of band's antithesis; a living, working example of a unit wherein the whole is much greater than the sum of its components. Although the original idea to form the group was Curtis Counce's, the band functioned as a collaborative affair. 'We were all close friends within the group,' Harold Land remembers, 'so it was a good idea for all of us, because we all liked each other personally as well as musically.'
The Curtis Counce Group was formed in August 1956, played its first gig at The Haig in September, and entered the recording studios a month later. Lester Koenig always had an ear for promising musicians, and in the latter part of the 1950s he recorded a fascinating assortment of exciting and forward­-looking groups and musicians, including Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, for his Contemporary label. The Curtis Counce Group was one of his happiest finds. The musicians entered the studio on 8 October for their first session, and the band's chemistry was evident from the start. The first tune recorded was Harold Land's 'Landslide', a dark yet forceful hard‑bop theme. Harold leads off with some big‑toned tenor work and is followed by some thoughtful Sheldon and grooving Carl Perkins. Two other originals were contributed by members of the band: 'Mia' by Carl Perkins, and Jack Sheldon's blues line 'Sarah'.
'Mia' sports a bright, bouncy tune with unexpected chord progressions and sparks swinging solos by all hands. Everybody digs deeply into the blues on 'Sarah', but Carl Perkins is especially impressive in his solo; throughout his all too short career Perkins displayed a close affinity for the blues. 'Time after Time' serves as a vehicle for Harold Land's tender yet muscular ballad style. 'A Fifth for Frank', as the title suggests, is a showcase for Frank Butler. Frank's driving support for the band throughout the session belies his relative inexperience ‑ this was in fact his first recording. A sixth tune, Charlie Parker's 'Big Foot' (recorded by Parker as both 'Air Conditioning' and 'Drifting on a Reed' for Dial), was also recorded at this original session, but was not issued until later. To round out the initial album, a tune recorded at the group's second session ‑ held a week later on 18 October ‑ was used. 'Sonar' (written by Gerald Wiggins and Kenny Clarke), is taken at a bright tempo and has plenty of room for stretching out by all of the musicians.


The first album, titled simply The Curtis Counce Group [Contemporary S-7526; OJCCD-606-2], was released early in 1957 and immediately gained favourable attention. Nat Hentoff awarded the album four stars in an admiring review in Down Beat magazine. Yet somehow national stature seemed to elude the band. Undoubtedly the main reason for this was that the Curtis Counce Group was not a traveling band. Harold Land does remember that the group 'went to Denver one time, but as far as getting back east, it never did happen'. In Los Angeles the band enjoyed an in‑group reputa­tion ‑ they were especially well‑liked by fellow musicians ‑ but they never achieved the popularity of, say, the Chico Hamilton Quintet. They did play regularly around Los Angeles. 'There was another spot down on Sunset: the Sanborn House,' Harold remembers. 'We played there quite a while, longer than we did at The Haig, and the group built up quite a following. The Haig was very small, but this was a larger club.'

In the meantime, the band continued to record prolifically for Contemporary. The group's second album contained tunes cut at various sessions held in 1956 and throughout 1957. In addition to 'Sonar', the band recorded a swinging version of 'Stranger in Paradise' at the second session of 15 October 1956; this tune and the aforementioned 'Big Foot' were on the second album, which was originally entitled You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce [Contemporary C-7539; OJJCD-159-2].
Two more tunes were recorded 22 April 1957 ‑ 'Too Close for Comfort' and 'Counceltation'. The latter is an original by the leader. Curtis was studying composition with Lyle 'Spud' Murphy at the time, and 'Counceltation' is an experimental piece based on Murphy's twelve‑tone system. The tune is interesting, but smacks a little too much of the classroom. As if to balance this, another tune of Counce's, a bright blues named 'Complete', was recorded at a session in May. Everybody gets to let down his hair on 'Complete', and Jack Sheldon contributes a funky Miles Davis‑influenced solo in Harmon mute. A ballad version of 'How Deep is the Ocean', also recorded at the May session, and an up‑tempo 'Mean to Me', recorded in September, complete the album. When the album was released late in 1957, the Curtis Counce Group was riding high, but unfortunately several unforeseen events would soon contribute to the band's early demise. Chief among these was the tragic death of pianist Carl Perkins in March of 1958; an additional strong factor was the rapid decline of jazz, clubs in LA in the closing years of the decade. But before we examine the final recordings of the Curtis Counce band, let's look at a couple of other hard-swinging groups that were playing around southern California during this same period.
Perhaps the most famous neo-bop group to be formed in LA in the mid-fifties was that of Chet Baker. As you'll remember, Chet formed his own quartet following the break-up of the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1953, and worked mostly in a quartet format for the next several years. He spent the autumn of 1955 and the winter and spring of 1956 in Europe, headquartered in Paris, recording in a variety of contexts with groups composed of American and European musicians. The most interesting of these recordings were made with the quartet he accompanied to France, which featured the highly original pianist Richard Twardzik. Unfortunately Twardzik died suddenly in Paris in October 1955, another young victim of drugs. When Baker finally returned to the US in the spring of 1956, he went about forming a quintet that would change his image among jazz fans and which would temporarily slow the decline in his fortunes.
For his front-line companion Baker chose Phil Urso, a tenor saxophonist in the Zoot Sims, Al Cohn tradition. Born 2 October 1925 in Jersey City, New Jersey, Urso had played with the bands of Elliot Lawrence, Woody Herman, Terry Gibbs and Oscar Pettiford, among others. Chet's rhythm section featured three young lions. Pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jimmy Bo were both born in Philadelphia; Bond on 27 January 1933 and Timmons on 19 December 1935. Both had played with name jazzmen while still in their teens, and Bond was in addition a graduate of Juilliard. Drummer Peter Littman was born in Medford, Massachusetts 8 May 1935 and had worked with Boston musicians Herb Pomeroy and Charlie Mariano before joining Chet Baker's quartet prior to the European tour. The quintet this formed, while not as powerful or exciting as the Curtis Counce Group, was a solid, swinging modern unit, and definitely more extroverted than the trumpeter's previous groups had been.
The new Chet Baker Quintet soon got a chance to record for Pacific jazz. In a series of sessions held in late July 1956, the quintet taped sixteen numbers, and eight of these found their way on to an album entitled Chet Baker & Crew. (Some of the remaining tunes were eventually released on a Crown LP, and several more were issued on various Pacific jazz anthologies.) The album's opener - and hardest-swinging number - is a piece entitled 'To Mickey's Memory', an original by Harvey Leonard based on 'I'll Remember April' changes. For this one number the quintet is augmented by percussionist Bill Loughbrough, playing an invention of his called 'chromatic timpani'. The experimental percussion set is interesting, but doesn't add anything to jazz drumming that Max Roach hadn't introduced years before. Worse, the extra drum set exacerbates Peter Littman's tendency to rush the beat. Still, it is a swinging performance, and Chet Baker's forceful new personality on trumpet comes through marvelously.

None of the album's remaining performances exceeds that of 'Mickey's Memory', but there is no serious let-down either. Bob Zieff’s 'Slightly above Moderate' features some unusual progressions and elicits thoughtful solos by Baker, Urso and Timmons. Another number by Zieff, 'Medium Rock', also has unexpected changes, but in this case the solos are rather pedestrian. Phil Urso contributes two originals to the proceedings: 'Halema', a ballad, and 'Lucius Lu', a funky number in the 'Doxy' mould. 'Revelation', by Chet's former boss Gerry Mulligan, is given a driving performance, but once again the tempo picks up slightly. Al Cohn's 'Something for Lisa' is taken at a brisk but comfortable pace that sparks especially happy solos by Urso and Baker. The album's most unexpected number is Miff Mole's tender 'Worrying the Life out of Me', which features a sensitive solo by Chet. Strangely enough, a stronger performance than any of those on the album was relegated to a Pacific jazz anthology.  A version of Al Haig's  'Jumpin' Off a Clef' features hard-driving solos by Baker, Urso and Timmons, and an especially tight rhythm section. The performance was later released on an album entitled The Hard Swing.
Perhaps because Chet Baker's contract with Pacific Jazz was soon to be up, Dick Bock recorded his star trumpet player often in a variety of contexts during the latter part of 1956. There were no further recordings by his working quintet, but different sessions saw Chet backed by a quartet, a sextet and even a (small) big band. We'll examine the sextet recordings in a later chapter but one of the two quartet sessions from this period deserve special attention here. On 6 November Chet was reunited with his former pianist Russ Freeman. Actually it was Freeman' session, but the band was billed as the Chet Baker-Russ Freeman Quartet on the album. The rhythm section included Freeman's fellow members of the Shelly Manne Quintet of the time - Shelly and Leroy Vinnegar. The three had been working together for well over a year and it showed. Few rhythm sections of the day were tighter, or exhibited more strength. Certainly their playing goaded Chet Baker into a superior performance. Shelly Manne remembers the date as an especially happy occasion:

Sometimes you go into a studio, and for some strange reason - the set-up is right, everything feels right, you can he clearly, all your creative juices are flowing, and everything perfect  -  it's kinda like magic almost. And those are the times when you really make some great records .... Russ and I had found almost a new way of playing in the rhythm section together: a kind of looser, freer way, where we were integral part of melody lines and what was happening rhythmically, without just being stuck in the background ....  Leroy was such a strong walker; he gave us a foundation to lean on ....  And Chet was such a loose, free player that it work perfectly with him.

Certainly Chet Baker never played with more fire than he on this date. The album opens with a blistering 'Love Nest.'  Woody Woodward, Bock's right-hand man at Pacific Jazz remembers that a couple of earlier attempts at the piece had produced unsatisfying takes. Woodward then suggested that trumpeter use a Harmon mute on the next take. Baker – who suffering from some bad teeth - was reluctant, due to the increased pressure needed to blow through the mute, but agreed to try anyway. The resulting performance proved Woodward right; Chet seems to pull out all the stops in his driving solo. The next piece, Billy Strayhorn's 'Lush Life', is given an exquisite ballad performance; neither Freeman nor Baker strays far from the written tune. The rest of the album's numbers are all Russ Freeman originals. 'Say When', based on the time-tested 'I Got Rhythm' changes, is the most conventional. 'Amblin,’ a slow blues, shows off Freeman's sparse, sinewy style to great advantage. Never one to waste resources, Freeman places each note with care in exactly the right spot. 'Fan Tan' starts out in a remote key, then bounces blithely along to its tonic. Perhaps Freeman's finest composition on the album is the beautiful mood piece 'Summer Sketch', a languid ballad that evokes sultry afternoons. 'An Afternoon at Home' is taken at an engaging middle tempo, while 'Hugo Hurwhey' is pushed along at a rapid, but not breakneck, pace. In the fascinating fours on the latter piece each musician truly takes a solo, unsupported by the other instruments. All four musicians acquit themselves admirably on this album; it remains one of the high points of the Pacific Jazz catalogue.

Two other short-lived groups in the hard-bop mould had a brief moment on the LA stage around this time, and strangely enough, one of these bands had its genesis in the Stan Kenton orchestra. The first of these groups was the Red Mitchell Quartet, which was formed early in 1957. This was definitely a young and forward-looking band. Tenor saxophonist James Clay had been born in Dallas, Texas on 8 September 1935. A proponent of the big-toned tenor style favored in the south west, Clay also played a singularly muscular flute. Lorraine Geller was the group's pianist. The youngest member of the quartet was Billy Higgins. Higgins was born in Los Angeles on 11 October 1936 and took up drums at the age of twelve, serving his apprenticeship in rhythm-and-blues bands around the area.
Once again Lester Koenig recognized the potential of the young musicians and invited them to record. A session was held the night of 26 March 1957, and enough tunes for a complete album were taped in one sitting. The direction favored by the musicians can be charted by listing the tunes chosen for recording. These include Charlie Parker's 'Scrapple from the Apple', Miles Davis's 'Out of the Blue', Sonny Rollins's 'Paul's Pal' and Clifford Brown's 'Sandu'. There are also two originals by Red Mitchell, 'Rainy Night' and 'I Thought of You', as well as a burning version of the Irving Berlin standard 'Cheek to Cheek'. The leader's mastery of the bass is exhibited throughout. On 'Scrapple from the Apple', taken at the expected rapid pace, Mitchell doubles the lead line with James Clay on the head. And on his own ballad 'I Thought of You', Red states the theme on his very melodic bass. James Clay plays flute on both 'I Thought of You' and 'Rainy Night', as well as on 'Paul's Pal'. The quixotic Sonny Rollins fine on the latter tune lends itself admirably to Clay's approach on the flute. Still, the most satisfying performances are those which feature straight-ahead blowing by all hands: 'Scrapple', 'Sandu' and 'Cheek to Cheek'.

This was an auspicious debut for the quartet (it was, incidentally, the first appearance on record for Billy Higgins) but unfortunately it didn't lead to any further albums. The Red Mitchell Quartet was an early victim of the deteriorating Los Angeles club scene that took place in the waning years of the decade. A short time after recording this album, the group disbanded. For Lorraine Geller, whose sympathetic piano work contributed so much to the quartet's sound, it would be a maternity leave: she became a mother before the year's end. Tragically, she died of an apparent heart attack the following year, on 10 October 1958. James Clay, discouraged by the lack of job opportunities, returned to Dallas, although he later recorded heavily with both Ray Charles and Hank Crawford. Billy Higgins, of course, went on to become one of the most influential drummers of the 1960s. We'll return to both Higgins and Red Mitchell later in this narrative.
In the summer of 1957 LA also had a brief taste of another group with an even harder edge than the Red Mitchell Quartet. This was the Pepper Adams-Mel Lewis group. Baritone saxophonist Park Adams was born in Rochester, New York, on 8 October 1930, but spent his formative jazz years in Detroit. He began on tenor sax but switched to the larger horn when he got the chance to buy one at a discount while working in a music shop. While in Detroit from 1946 to 1951 he grew close to a group of local musicians who would loom large in the New York jazz scene of the fifties: Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Tommy Flanagan, Frank Foster, Bill Evans (later Yusef Lateef), Elvin and Thad Jones, Donald Byrd and Doug Watkins. These and other Motor City jazzmen, under the tutelage of pianist Barry Harris, forged an exciting musical environment in Detroit in the post-war years. When Adams was hired by Stan Kenton in 1956, brusque, aggressive baritone style was a revelation for the Kentonians. Drummer Mel Lewis would later recall, 'We called him the Knife because when he'd get up to blow, his playing had almost a slashing effect on the rest of us. He'd slash, chop, and before he was through cut everybody down to size.” [Quoted by John Tynan in notes to Pacific Jazz PJM-407]
Following a brief stint with Kenton, Pepper Adams moved on to the Maynard Ferguson big band, then to Chet Baker's quintet. (Unfortunately, this particular Baker group was never recorded.)  Then, in 1957, he moved to LA to freelance, and renewed his friendship with Mel Lewis. Undaunted by the sparseness of clubs in the area, the two decided to form a band. The group worked only two paid engagements, at Zucca's Cottage in Pasadena, before they were forced to disband due to lack of jobs. Fortunately, Adams and Lewis were able to record two albums he summer of 1957, leaving posterity at least a taste of what might have been.

The first session, for the Mode label, was held on 12 July. Lewis and Adams were joined by trumpeter Stu Williamson, pianist Carl Perkins and bassist Leroy Vinnegar for the date. The album opens with a relaxed 'Unforgettable', on which Stu Williamson's fluid trumpet balances Pepper Adams's horn nicely. A burning, searing 'Baubles, Bangles and Beads' shows how Adams gained his nickname of the Knife: he indeed cuts the others down to size. Adams also provided two original compositions for the date. 'Freddie Froo' has an up-tempo hard-bop theme, and Stu Williamson and Carl Perkins both take solos that show them to be more than comfortable in the genre. 'Muezzin,' taken at a slightly slower tempo, sports a Latin-tinged theme. 'My One and Only Love', the album's ballad, showcases Pepper Adams's tender side. Mel Lewis and Leroy Vinnegar provide propulsive support to the soloist throughout the proceedings.
The second album was recorded for Pacific Jazz (which by now had adopted the World Pacific label) a month later, on 22 August. For this date the co-leaders were joined by Lee Katzman, who had played trumpet with the two in Kenton's band, as well as pianist Jimmy Rowles and an old friend of Pepper's from Detroit, bassist Doug Watkins. The album was released under the title Critics' Choice, in honor of Pepper Adams having recently been chosen New Star on baritone sax in Down Beat critics' poll. It is, on the whole, a more satisfying album than the previous one, exhibiting a larger range of moods. Four of the album's six tunes are originals by Adams's youthful companions from Detroit. Tommy Flanagan's 'Minor Mishap' has a rhythmically propulsive theme that spurs both Adams and Katzman into strong solos. 'High Step', by Barry Harris, has a very relaxed feel, although Mel Lewis does prod Adams into some exciting double time. Thad Jones supplied two of the album's tunes: the storming 'Zec' and the laid back '5021'. On '5021' the theme breaks in and out of 3/4 time, although the solos are all in straight four. Bassist Doug Watkins states the theme in the ballad 'Alone Together', which is mostly a vehicle for Pepper Adams's baritone. The remaining number is 'Blackout Blues', wherein each musician contributes to a searching look into the heart of the blues.
Shortly after the two albums were recorded, Pepper Adams gave up on LA and moved back to the Apple. There he was featured on a series of exciting Blue Note and Riverside recordings, usually in the company of fellow Detroiter Donald Byrd. The Los Angeles recordings, and especially Critics' Choice, hold up well when compared with those cut later in NYC. It's a shame the Pepper Adams-Mel Lewis group couldn't make a go of it on the Coast, but they were by no means the only musicians to face hard times in those years

Perhaps the most poignant example of the break‑up of a working band was that of the Curtis Counce Group, if only because the group had shown so much promise from inception. They did manage to hold together through 1957 when so many bands fell by the wayside, but finally broke a early in 1958. But before the group disbanded they manage produce two more albums, both enduring legacies of jazz in fifties.

The group's final recording for the Contemporary label titled ‑ when it was finally released in 1960 ‑ Carl's Blues [Contemporary S-7574; OJCCD-423-2]. The title was, unfortunately, especially apt, both because 'C Blues' by pianist Carl Perkins is one of the album's highlights and because Perkins died shortly after the tune was recorded.  The album contains tunes cut at three sessions in all. J Sheldon's 'Pink Lady', a smoking work‑out on the standard ‘I Got Rhythm' changes, and a spirited version of 'Love Walked In’ are from the earliest date, held on 22 April 1957. There is also a grooving version of Horace Silver's Latin‑flavoured tune 'Nica’s Dream', recorded 29 August. The tempo here is slower and more deliberate than Horace Silver’s justly famous Blue Note recording, but the Curtis Counce performance is no less expressive.

The album’s remaining tunes were recorded at Carl Perkins's final session on 6 January 1958. For this date, Gerald Wilson replaced Jack Sheldon in the group's trumpet chair, although Wilson plays on only two tunes. One track, 'The Butler Did It', is an unaccompanied drum solo by Frank Butler. 'I Can't Get ' features Harold Land and the rhythm section, and the performance gives a strong indication of Land's growing powers improviser. The two tunes featuring the entire quintet are ‘Larue’ and the aforementioned 'Carl's Blues'. The ballad ‘Larue’ was written by Clifford Brown for his wife; Harold Land plays an especially tender solo on the tune. 'Carl's Blues', written by Perkins expressly for the session, is a leisurely examination of the blues and a fitting epitaph for the pianist.
Carl Perkins died on 17 March 1958, just five months short of his thirtieth birthday, another victim of drug abuse. He was the at of the Curtis Counce Group, and it is not surprising e quintet did not long outlive him. When Les Koenig issued his third album, several years after the selections en recorded, he had this to say about the band.


While it lasted, the Curtis Counce Group was one of the most exciting ever organized in Los Angeles. Counce picked four men who almost immediately achieved a togetherness only long‑established bands seem to have. Today, Carl Perkins is dead, and the members of the group have gone off in different directions ... It would be difficult under the best of conditions to recapture the feeling of the 1957 quintet. Without Perkins whose unique piano style was basic to the group's special sound, it is impossible.[Quoted in Nat Hentoff’s notes to Contemporary 7574]

It is tempting to wonder how the band would have been received had it been based in New York; certainly it would have give some of the more famous groups of the fifties a run for the money.

Carl's Blues was not, however, the final recording of the band.  A month after Perkins's death the restructured quintet recorded for Dootsie Williams's Dooto (Dootone) records. Counce, Land and Butler remained from the original group. The trumpeter the date was Rolf Ericsson. Ericsson, born in Stockholm, Sweden on 29 August 1927, had moved to the States in 1947 and had worked with various bands including those of Charlie Barnet, Elliot Lawrence and Woody Herman. He was a member of Lighthouse All‑Stars in 1953. The new pianist was Elmo Hope native New Yorker, whose brief tenure on the Coast in the late fifties sparked several outstanding recordings. Hope, born on June 1923, was a childhood friend of Bud Powell and an active participant of the New York jazz scene of the forties and early fifties, although he remained little known to the public at large.  Hope's piano was not as blues‑oriented as that of Carl Perkins but was instead sinewy and spare, the hard‑bop piano style pared to its very essence. In view of the band's restructuring, it is significant that the group was billed as the Curtis Counce Quintet rather than the Curtis Counce Group.

This set is unfortunately something of a let‑down after the three previous albums. Contemporary and Pacific jazz were the class of the West Coast independents, and however one may quibble over Les Koenig's or Dick Bock's choice of artists or material on any given record, their records were always superbly engineered and professionally produced. The Dootone album Exploring the Future [Dooto LP DTL 247; CDBOP 007], is noticeably inferior to the Contemporaries in recording quality, and there seems to have been a lack rehearsal time as well. Of course this was not the tight working band  of a year earlier ‑ Carl Perkins's death and Jack Sheldon's departure obviously disrupted the group's cohesiveness ‑ but a couple of the numbers could have benefited from an additional take or two.

There is also the matter of the album's 'theme'. The group was definitely not ‘Exploring the Future’, but was diligently laboring the well‑established vineyards of hard bop. The futuristic album cover, showing Curtis Counce floating through the void in a space suit, and the choice of titles, which include 'Into the Orbit', 'Race for Space', 'Exploring the Future', and 'The Countdown', promise things the album simply can't deliver. (It is possible that some of the names were tagged on to untitled numbers after they had been recorded, a common enough practice.) All of this is not to say, however, that the album is a lure: the record does deliver a satisfying amount of modern, hard‑driving jazz.

Four of the album's eight numbers were written by Elmo Hope; all are decidedly in the hard‑bop vein. 'So Nice', the record's opener, has a catchy tune and driving solos by Ericsson, Land and Hope. Rolf Ericsson's tone is brash, and fits well in the hard‑bop context, but his trumpet playing suffers in comparison with Jack Sheldon's fluid yet funky work. 'Into the Orbit' seems well-named, since each soloist is launched into his solo at a doubled‑up tempo. 'Race for Space' is a rapid minor‑key theme which has a burning solo by Harold Land. And 'The Count­down', the album's closing number, sounds very much as if it were used by Hope as a set‑closer; it features the rhythm section working as a trio. 'Exploring the Future' has a nice theme that is attributed to Dootsie Williams, but since he is also credited on the album for Denzil Best's classic 'Move', one wonders. 'Move' serves largely as a drum solo for Frank Butler. The album also has two ballads. 'Someone to Watch Over Me' is a solo vehicle for Curtis Counce's bass, while Ericsson, Land and Hope all contribute tender solos on 'Angel Eyes'.

Although this was the last recording of the band under Curtis Counce's leadership, two additional sessions featured largely the or same personnel. The first of these was under the leadership of Hope. On 31 October 1957 the Elmo Hope Quintet ‑ Stu Williamson, Harold Land, Hope, Leroy Vinnegar, Frank Butler -, recorded three tunes for Pacific Jazz: 'Vaun Ex', 'St Elmo's Fire’ and 'So Nice'. All three of course were the pianist's compositions. Whether Dick Bock had originally planned on an entire album for the group or not, these were the only tunes recorded (or at least ever released) by Pacific Jazz. Two of the numbers were released on anthologies the following year; all three eventually found their way on to an Art Blakey reissue in the early 1960s. The recording quality on these Pacific jazz sides is noticeably superior to that of the Curtis Counce Dootone album, but it's also true that the Dootone sides exhibit a bit more uninhibited fire.

Perhaps the definitive recordings from this period came under the leadership of Harold Land for Contemporary records. Harold in the Land of Jazz (reissued later as Grooveyard) is significant both as the first album released under Harold Land's name and as Carl Perkins's last recording. The sessions were held on 13 and 14 January 1958, and the musicians were Rolf Ericsson, Land, Carl Perkins, Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler. These Contemporary recordings combine the fire of the Dooto recordings and the recording quality of the Pacific Jazz session.

The album opens with a driving arrangement of Kurt Weill's 'Speak Low'. The interplay between Land and Frank Butler here ‑ as always ‑ seems nothing short of miraculous. The two had been playing together almost daily since the formation of the Curtis Counce Group, of course, but beyond that Land and Butler could communicate on a telepathic level that was sometimes almost frightening. 'We've always been close friends, Land would later remember, 'and we were born on the same day of the month in the same year [Butler on 18 February, Land or 18 December 1928] ... and even our wives get sick and tired of our talking about how "in tune" we are with each other [laughs]. At times during one of Land's solos, the saxophonist will begin a phrase and Butler will immediately jump in, the two finishing together. 'Delirium', Harold Land's tune, is composed of descending sixteen‑bar phrases following each other like an endless succession of waves. 'You Don't Know What Love is serves as a solo vehicle for Land, who names it as one of his favorite ballads. Elmo Hope's 'Nieta' features Latin rhythm and some unconventional chord progressions. Two of the remaining tunes were written by Land. 'Smack Up' is a boppish tune which is propelled by some strong rhythmic accents, while the ballad 'Lydia's Lament' is a tender tribute to Harold's wife

The remaining tune, and the album's high point, is the Carl Perkins composition 'Grooveyard'. It has a relaxed and timeless theme with roots in both gospel and the blues, and yet it has none of the self-conscious posturing of so many of the soul tunes of the day. Land, Ericsson and especially Perkins reach deep into the jazz tradition with their solos. The performance remains a fitting tribute to the composer.
Bassist Leroy Vinnegar, a childhood friend of Perkins from Indianapolis, described the pianist as:

the kind of musician who played with you; who played the things you heard. He not only played the chords, he played the beauty in the chords - his own way. And his time was perfect. In that respect he was what you'd call a rhythm section pianist. A man with time like Carl's was so important to a bassist, because you're supposed to play those changes together. [Notes to Contemporary 7550]

The album Grooveyard remains in print to this day, and like many of the Blue Note albums cut at the same time, it has survived the changing winds of fashion and still offers a moving listening experience.
Two other albums recorded around this same time also feature Harold Land, albeit as a sideman, and-round out the picture of his growing maturity on the tenor sax. The first, cut almost a year earlier (the same month as Way Out West) was Herb Geller's Fire in the West [Jubilee 1044] As was the case with the Way Out West album, this one featured some visiting musicians. Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown's replacement, was in town with the Max Roach Quintet and played trumpet on the date; Ray Brown, visiting with the Oscar Peterson Trio, sat in on bass. The rest of Geller's sidemen were all locals of the harder persuasion: Harold Land, pianist Lou Levy and drummer Lawrence Marable.

In a way, the album reflects its hybrid origins. Many of the arrangements - they are all by Geller - sound somewhat in the West Coast vein, but once  the soloing begins there is (as the album title suggests) plenty of fire. Four of the tunes are Geller originals: 'S' Pacific View', with its minor-key theme; 'Marable Eyes' and 'An Air for the Heir', both boppish up-tempo swingers; and 'Melrose and Sam', which features a contrapuntal head. As a ballad vehicle, Herb chose the Harold Arlen tune 'Here's what I'm Here for'. All of the soloists swing hard in three on Fats Waller's 'Jitterbug Waltz'. Probably the most satisfying performance of all comes on Bud Powell's 'The Fruit', which spurs all hands into driving solos. The album was recorded for the jubilee label, has long been out of print, and is somewhat scarce even on the second-hand market.

One year later (17 March 1958) Harold Land again recorded as a sideman, this time for Hampton Hawes. The album For Real! features a quartet composed of Land, Hawes, a fast-rising young bassist named Scott La Faro and drummer Frank Butler. Although this was a pick-up group, assembled only for the recording session, Butler, Land and Hawes had gigged with one another often enough to feel familiar with each other's styles. Moreover, the blowing-session format is one that held special appeal for Hawes and Land, both of whom favor straight-ahead swinging.
The album opens with 'Hip', a basic B flat blues of Hamp's that is given an interesting twist in the head, which consists of eleven-bar phrases. 'Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams', taken as a slow ballad, elicits tender yet soulful solos from both Hawes and Land. Everybody grooves on Little Benny Harris's bebop standard 'Crazeology'. Two pieces, 'Numbers Game' and 'For Real', are attributed jointly to Hawes and Land; they are based very loosely - on 'Has Anybody Seen My Gal' and 'Swanee River', respectively. The album is brought to a burning conclusion with a flying run-down of 'I Love You'. Throughout the album Scott La Faro exhibits the chops that would shortly thrust him into the front ranks of bassists, while Frank Butler provides his usual propulsive accompaniment on all tunes.

Unfortunately, this was Hampton Hawes's last album for quite some time. Shortly thereafter he was busted for a narcotics violation and spent several years removed from the scene. His playing was sorely missed by the Los Angeles musicians. Leonard Feather, in the liner notes for this album, recounts a conversation he had regarding Hampton Hawes with pianist Andre Previn. Previn told Feather, “Hamp has never been fully acknowledged for his influence. Half the people who are said to have been influenced by Horace Silver actually owe a lot to Hamp, who's more technical than Horace; that technique, combined with the feeling, has shaped the style of a lot of people.” [Notes to Contemporary 7589]

A similar argument might be made for Harold Land. At the time this album was recorded, Land was coming into his own as one of the finer tenor saxophonists in jazz, and certainly he was not - during this period, anyway - given his due. For the most part, this was directly related to his refusal to move from Los Angeles. New York City has long been recognized as the jazz capital of the world (dating at least from 1924, when Louis Armstrong moved east from Chicago to join Fletcher Henderson's band), and any serious musician who failed eventually to move there has been somewhat suspect in the eyes of both fellow musicians and the more influential critics. Moreover, Land just as steadfastly refused to involve himself in the Hollywood studio scene, which would have at least paid him handsomely. 'I never had any urge, despite the financial rewards, to be programmed to play anything and everything on any day at any hour,' he once told Leonard Feather. [“First Generation Still Generating,” Calendar Section, The Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1982, p. 61] Instead, Land devoted his energies totally to his music, and without fanfare slowly established himself as a major soloist. How well he succeeded will become apparent when we examine a series of albums he recorded around the turn of the decade.

In 1989, subsequent to the publication of Bob’s book, and thanks to the diligence of Ed Michel’s perusal of the Contemporary Records vault, a fifth album of the group’s music was released as Sonority [Contemporary CCD 7655].



Ed revels how his “creation” came about in the following insert notes to these recordings:

“I always feel like I’m being given a treat when I get to work on materials from the Contemporary vault (not only because one of the things I’d hoped for in my salad days was to grow up to turn out something like Les Koenig): but this batch of Curtis Counce previously‑unreleased takes strikes some sort at special nerve. They were all recorded around the time I was starting out in the record business (for Contemporary’s down‑the‑street rival Pacific Jazz, run by the estimable Richard Bock), and featured players I was hearing with great regularity at the time on the active and exciting L.A. scene. And "active" and "exciting" are appropriate words to describe things.

 In a recent set of Art Pepper notes, Gary Giddins refers to 'the cool posturing of those improvising beach boys who tried to recreate California jazz as fun in the midnight sun…,’ which pretty well reflects what was, at the time West Coast Jazz was getting lots of press, the Official New York Party Line on matters west of either Philly or, in the musings of particularly open­-minded writers, Chicago. It’s a little frightening to see this view coming around again as ‘the way it really was.’  Looking backward at art can certainly be an iffy business. There was certainly a great deal more going on along the Hollywood‑South Central‑East LA‑Beach Cities axes
(for the life of me, I can't recall anything at all happening in the San Fernando Valley, which might be just another regional blindness) than one would have expected after reading the (non-­local) critics.

One of LA’s many joys was the music made by Curtis Counce and his associates. In what was, certainly, an often largely caucasian‑complected bandstand scene, Curtis's was a black face you could see with regularity in many contexts, It's my recollection that I first became aware of him during a Shorty Rogers‑ Shelly Manne stint at Zardi's, when he was featured on an ear‑opening "Sophisticated Lady." Harold Land was everywhere, and playing in a way that hardly fit any descriptions of an effete West Coast style. Jack Sheldon always seemed to be in the company of the lamentably‑undervalued alto saxophonist Joe Maini (you could catch them in the band at, if memory serves, Strip City, just off Pico Boulevard's Record Distributor's Row, around the corner on Western, where, more likely than not, Lenny Bruce was working as M.C.). And Carl Perkins. who really did play with his left hand cocked around so his thumb was aimed toward the bottom of the keyboard, ‘fingering’ bass notes with his elbow, was always working at some joint on Pico or somewhere south, more often than not with Frank Butler (who Miles Davis managed to find interesting enough to use on a few early Columbia sides).

Pianist‑composer Elmo Hope was in town from New York, and for some reason part of my job involved my spending a good deal of time driving him around to various record companies where he was selling his compositions (actually, I know for certain that he sold "So Nice" and "Origin" to both Pacific Jazz and Contemporary because I took him to both offices and watched negotia­tions go down, record business practices are learned under apprenticeship/ observation condi­tions. and I assumed everybody did business that way; I may have been right). And in addition to his splendid trumpet work and arranging in all sorts of contexts, Gerald Wilson was establishing his reputation as the leader of a remarkable, talent‑fostering band….

So it was a sweet surprise to find these cuts waiting in the can a bit more than 30 years after they'd been recorded, a reminder that there was a good deal more going an along the Pacific Rim than made the popular magazine covers.  Or‑ more accurately than "surprise"‑ a reminder, and for some of us, lucky enough to have been mousing adolescently around the edge of the scene, no surprise at all.”
‑Ed Michel
In retrospect, we are fortunate that this music was recorded when it was as in 1963, just a few years after these splendid recordings were made, Curtis died of a heart attack while in an ambulance on its way to a hospital. He was thirty seven years old.