Quick Reviews, March 2024: Archival Jazz Releases

One of the many rewarding consequences of being a music journalist/critic is that I’m often among the first to hear about archival releases. Artists who have already created an extensive and revered body of work (and who have often passed on) are brought back into the spotlight thanks to the release of previously-unheard recordings finding their way to release. It’s through the dedicated and tireless efforts of key individuals that this happens, as there are myriad hoops which must be jumped through, as it were, to bring this material to the world. Today I’ll take a look at three such releases, each featuring a monumental artist.

Cal Tjader – Catch the Groove
Zev Feldman has earned the sobriquet “jazz detective” for good reason: he’s at the forefront of the coterie of archivists who unearth superb and rare recordings of jazz greats. His work appears on a number of different labels, depending on the project. And Jazz Detective is the name of one of those labels. A new 2CD set collects live recordings of vibraphonist Cal Tjader and his band at The Penthouse in Seattle. Drawing from no less than six dates – all recorded in flawless quality – this set finds Tjader at his peak, running through classics and originals with stellar ensembles. Some of the tunes are familiar: “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “On Green Dolphin Street” – but others are quite unexpected, like a superb bossa-nova-fied reading of The Association’s “Along Comes Mary.” Thrilling stuff from 1963-1967, and the sonic quality will make you feel as if you’re right there. As expected form any project involving Zev, the package is filled with excellent essays and photos, too.

Wes Montgomery Wynton Kelly Trio – Maximum Swing
This one might just take your breath away. Guitarist Wes Montgomery, pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Jimmy Cobb are presented here, joined by an assortment of bassists (including Ron Carter), from five separate dates in late 1965. The group had a regular gig at The Half Note in New York City. Hearing the ambient and unobtrusive crowd noise, one might get the impression that the crowd barely noticed the group playing. That surely wasn’t the case, and when each song ends, the applause makes it clear just how appreciated the ensemble was. Montgomery’s distinctive sound is the core of what you’ll hear, but the whole band cooks. There have been other Montgomery recordings from The Half Note, but be advised that everything here is previously unreleased. These stereo recordings capture the nuance and sophistication of the music as well as the excitement of the performances. And the book – calling it a booklet does a disservice – is astounding: 52 pages of essays and images. It’s no stretch to think that this release might be up for a Grammy award.

Les McCann – Never a Dull Moment!
I can testify that the title of this collection suits the artist perfectly: McCann was one of the funniest, most engaging interview subjects I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter. He passed away recently, right as this set was being released. One might think of Never a Dull Moment! as a kind of parting gift from the keyboardist-vocalist. This 3CD set documents dates at Seattle’s The Penthouse in 1966 and the Village Vanguard from ‘67. Up close and personal is the vibe here, with McCann’s nimble and soulful piano at the center of things. His biggest years were still ahead of him – the landmark Swiss Movement with Eddie Harris was recorded in 1969 – but McCann had long since begun his peak period by the time these dates were captured. Backed only by a bassist and drummer, McCann tears through thrilling sets, both ceding the spotlight to his fellow musicians and taking astoundingly tuneful leads himself. Highlights are nearly nonstop, but “The Shampoo” deserves special mention: if it doesn’t make you smile, then you’re dead, Jack. The packaging alone makes the set worthwhile – the sleeve, the booklet – but the music is the thing, and it’s simply and unrelentingly wonderful.