Graded on a Curve:
Les Paul and His Trio, After You’ve Gone, Dave Brubeck, Time In, Hank Jones, Arigato, Shirley Horn, Softly

If you’re in the market for jazz reissues on wax, ORG Music is a consistent resource, and the pickings are especially ripe right now, as they have a stylistically varied batch of material fresh out spanning the 1940s to the ’80s, specifically After You’ve Gone from Les Paul and His Trio, Time In from Dave Brubeck, Arigato from Hank Jones, and Softly from Shirley Horn. Listeners wanting to stretch out beyond the canonical rudiments will find much to love here, for the sounds are more than satisfactory, but novice ears shouldn’t feel intimidated, as the contents are highly approachable all around. The Jones is available now, the Brubeck is out November 2, and the Paul and Horn arrive the following Friday.

It’s nice that the folks at ORG are fortifying the jazz racks with material beyond the must-haves from the Blue Note, Prestige, Impulse, and Atlantic labels, although a glance at the noteworthy artists included in the roundup could lead to the conclusion that they aren’t digging all that deep. Take Les Paul, for instance; a read of the guy’s biography shapes him up as a recording industry giant, with a dominant early ’50s pop chart run in tandem with his wife, the vocalist Mary Ford, and an enduring rep as a guitar builder, studio innovator and a technical master on his instrument.

He’s also known for diversity of genre. Amongst his early credits, he backed blues singer Georgie White, recorded C&W as Rhubarb Red, and dished out Hawaiian songs, so his aptitude for jazz, while no secret, often doesn’t get the spotlight it deserves. To an extent this scenario is similar to that of Nat King Cole, whose stature as a pop singer continues to overshadow his killer ’40s piano trio; underlining this comparison is Paul’s early career highlight subbing for Oscar Moore with Cole and others as part of the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert.

That show went down on July 2, 1944 in Los Angeles, and the sessions for After You’ve Gone were made for the World Broadcasting Company across September, October, and December of the same year and into January and February of ’45. Like Cole’s group, Paul’s eschewed a drummer, instead featuring Clinton Nordquist on bass, Cal Goodin on rhythm guitar, and either Milt Raskin or Buddy Cole on piano; unlike Cole’s group, Paul’s was a trio plus one.

Right from the outset on his original composition “Feed Back,” the guitarist isn’t a bit shy over flaunting his skills, though as the 2LP unwinds it’s not like he throws nuance out the window. A couple more songs by Paul are included, but the vast majority are pop and jazz repertoire, from “I Ain’t Got Nobody” to “Blues Skies” to “Stompin’ at the Savoy” to “Honeysuckle Rose” to “Sleepy Time Gal,” and while the band gets their jazzy licks in (everybody’s sharp), they consistently stay focused on the tunes.

Although there’s an occasional string quaver hinting at Paul’s Hawaiian proclivities, overall, they stick to the jazz course, with the influence of Django Reinhardt tangible but far from overwhelming. It’s true that these recordings weren’t intended to be listened to in a 28-track lump (of course, the beauty of the wax is that they can be taken a side at a time), but they manage to keep repetitiveness largely at bay, with the whole going down as easy on the fifth spin as it does on the first. Bottom line is that it’s doubtful another Paul comp if this vintage, breadth, and stylistic cohesion will appear on vinyl any time soon.

Dave Brubeck is easily as well-known as Paul, and likely more so; indeed, there was a period when the pianist was one of the three or four most recognized names in jazz (after Louis Armstrong, he was the second jazzman to make the cover of Time). That kind of popularity could breed resentment, but it’s all a long time ago now. Time In, released in 1966 as the last entry in the Brubeck Quartet’s “Time” series, is maybe the least high-profile of the bunch (the first, Time Out from ’59, set things in motion with a smash). Out of print on vinyl for roughly a half-century, Time In is more than worthy of reissue.

One of sweetest curveballs in Brubeck’s career is his duet with bassist Charles Mingus in Basil Dearden’s 1962 film All Night Long, a seemingly odd pairing that turns out to be superb. Since soaking it up I’ve entertained the notion that Brubeck would’ve fit into Mingus’ band quite effectively. As good as Horace Parlan or Jaki Byard? Of course not, though please listen to his playing on the title-track to this LP before dismissing my theory as claptrap or heresy.

I guess my speculation is in part due to Brubeck’s distinctive block chord approach, which was sometimes derided as lacking the lightness, fleetness, and general finesse found in the work of many of his contemporaries. But particularly in rapport with the sturdiness of his longtime bassist Eugene Wright, Brubeck was consistently tied to jazz’s rudiments; check out Time In’s “Travellin’ Blues,” the Wright showcase “Rude Old Man,” and the sweetly bluesy “Who Said That?” for evidence.

Unusual meters and classical touches (e.g. Time In’s opener “Lost Waltz”) aside, Brubeck was often lumped into the West Coast Cool school. The sound of altoist Paul Desmond was a big part of why. Drummer Joe Morello, always on time but expressive, completes one of jazz’s most famous groups, and he gets a spotlight of his own with the splendid finale “Watusi Drums.” But perhaps the most remarking thing about Time In lies how everyone connects as completely engaged.

To riff a little on Mingus’ thoughts on Brubeck, the man’s music swings (and endures beyond what some will consider an antiquated term) because he sincerely loved what he was doing. There’s an abundance of that feeling on Time In, with the same joie de vivre suffused in the grooves of fellow pianist Hank Jones’ Arigato, originally issued in ’76 by the Progressive label.

Again, Jones is far from an underheard figure; indeed, anybody who knows Cannonball Adderley’s ’58 masterpiece Something Else has soaked up his considerable talents, though that LP’s stature shouldn’t overshadow a major batch of additional sideman dates (with such names as Lester Young, Donald Byrd, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Curtis Fuller, Paul Chambers, Art Farmer and more) from the same era or his run of leadership sessions for Savoy (which includes the excellent The Trio with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke, plus the rewarding solo date Have You Met Hank Jones).

Jones kinda dropped out of the main thrust of jazz happenings in the 1960s, which isn’t the same as not working; to the contrary, he was the house pianist for CBS studios. And he did record a fair amount, though as a leader the results were largely at cross purposes (Broadway musical interpretations, ragtime played on a cheap kitschy piano and electric harpsichord) to what makes his music so special.

A return to the jazz thick of things came in the mid-’70s via the Great Jazz Trio (the early version completed with drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter, though Buster Williams was the bassist on the group’s first recording), and it can seem at a casual glance like a comeback, but nah. Instead, it was just a case of Jones simply doing what he’d always done best, and Arigato, featuring drummer Ronnie Bedford and bass titan Richard Davis, is an often-terrific extension of Jones’ reemergence.

The CD reissue added extra tracks with Jay Leonhart subbing for Davis, plus a second cut with Ray Rivera on guitar; the LP’s “Majorca” offers him in rhythm support, a sound easily subsumed into the whole, which to my ears is for the best, as sustained trio goodness is what Arigato is really all about. Jones wasn’t an edgy pianist, but neither was he someone you’d ever accuse of cocktail party hackery (at least I hope not), with the title track (and sole Jones original) reinforcing his aptitude for fast tempos while avoiding the underwhelming aspects of “flying-fingers”-style piano.

Arigato’s song selections and the overall delivery also underscore Jones’ allegiance to swing-to-bop classicism; there’s even a medley of movie themes and standards. However, choosing Davis and giving him ample room to work out also makes clear this was no premediated exercise in conservatism; the pianist sounds fine, even during that medley, and especially so during “Majorca,” the sweet hat tip to Duke “What Am I Here For?” and a nifty closing take of Milt Jackson’s “Gerry’s Blues.”

To further emphasize Jones’ mainstream bona fides, he was proficient at accompanying singers. In my case, this isn’t high in what I value in his work, as to be blunt, part of my initial attraction to jazz was its substantial and varied avoidance of vocals. I don’t think Jones ever backed Shirley Horn, not out of any lack of compatibility, but rather because she was a pianist herself, and a very good one at that.

I’m not totally averse to jazz singing, but for me, Horn’s abilities at the keyboard really give her work some extra kick. Spurred in part through the advocacy of Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, she debuted on in 1960 with Embers and Ashes, but in a manner similar to Hank Jones’ ’60s work, her initial subsequent efforts didn’t foreground what makes her artistry so special, and by the second half of the decade she’d dropped out of the scene to raise a family.

A string of cool ’80s LPs for Steeplechase put her back on the map, but most know her through a string of all-star-studded releases made in the late ’80s and forward for Verve, who had a knack for doing right by jazz vocalists (see Betty Carter). Initially released on CD in ’88 by the Audiophile label, Softly falls between these career developments, and in part through the circumstances of its creation, is a total knockout.

Intimate is a descriptor that often accompanies recordings of jazz singers, but many of these examples are derived from nightclubs, which amongst other things are predominantly places of business. Softly was cut late at night at Mapleshade Studio, the rural Maryland home recording facility of Peirre Sprey, and in tandem with familiar associates Charles Ables on electric bass and Steve Williams on drums (who’d replaced Billy Hart in the midst of her Steeplechase run), Horn is in magnificent form as she never falters at doing two difficult things at once, her singing and playing sublime throughout.

Even without the background info, the late-night aura is thick and sweet, and unlike a significant percentage of late-period jazz vocal recordings which offer exercises in “holding court,” as it were, Softly is instead Horn and associates diving deep into the chosen material and magnifying the essence; overall, it’s not an LP of highlights but an immersive experience, and a unique one in how it sidesteps cliché and deeply explores melancholy without ever succumbing to the maudlin.

Never before on vinyl, Softly’s early-’50s Blue Note retro-esque cover might give the impression of a throwback, but it’s nothing of the sort. In elevating the norms of her chosen style, it’s a beautiful rarity, and it’s the best of this strong bunch.

Les Paul and His Trio, After You’ve Gone
A-

Dave Brubeck, Time In
A

Hank Jones, Arigato
A-

Shirley Horn, Softly
A+

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