Boxed set captures essence of '50s West Coast jazz

CD REVIEWS

January 21, 1999

Various artists

The West Coast Jazz Box (Contemporary 4CCD-4425)

See if this scenario doesn't sound familiar: A radical new form of popular music develops in New York and, within a few years, establishes a strong underground in Los Angeles.

Eventually, a second wave rolls out of the New York scene and is picked up in L.A., where it takes on a distinctly local feel. Suddenly, the style now has a "West Coast" and "East Coast" sound, which stirs some resentment. Fueled by the music press, a rivalry develops between the two coasts, with fans lining up on one side or the other.

That may sound like the rap world of the '90s, but in fact describes jazz in the '50s, when the post-bop sound of cool jazz became the stylistic signature for West Coast jazz musicians -- despite the fact that the style originated in Manhattan, not Los Angeles.

Of course, jazz's East/West rivalry was never as violent or contentious as the one in hip-hop, in part because the stakes were lower and the players more collegial. But the media definitely adored the idea of a "West Coast Jazz" sound, particularly when it could be represented by musicians as charismatic as Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck and Art Pepper.

"The West Coast Jazz Box" does an admirable job of explicating that sound, tracing its origins and evolution from the hot, bop-schooled work of Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray to the tuneful elegance of Joe Pass and Vince Guaraldi. With 61 selections spread across four CDs, it offers the best sampling to date of this coastal cool.

The selections themselves don't always make it obvious why critics claimed East was East and West was West, but as critic Robert Gordon points out in his liner notes, that may have been because so many of the West Coasters were actually transplanted New Yorkers.

Even so, it is easy to grasp the broad outlines of the West Coast sound. There was the dry tone and mellow lyricism of saxophonists like Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper and Paul Desmond; the intricate, harmonically daring ensemble writing favored by Stan Kenton, Bill Holman and Terry Gibbs; and the unconventional instrumentation of groups led by Jimmy Giuffre, Chico Hamilton and Paul Horn.

If the set has a failing, it's that it could easily be twice as large, so as to offer more selections from the major artists (Mulligan, Baker, Pepper) and undo some major omissions (particularly Gray's "Twisted"). But what it does, it definitely does well. ***

-- J.D. Considine

COUNTRY

'The Civil War'

The Nashville Sessions (Atlantic 83090)

Executive producer Frank Wildhorn and company are developing "The Civil War" project into a Broadway musical, as they did with "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Jekyll and Hyde." They will have good success if their stage cast can deliver the way the country heavyweights do on this record. The performances of John Berry, Deanna Carter, Travis Tritt, Trisha Yearwood et al. are real and often staggering. Yearwood's "The Honor of Your Name" and Berry's "Last Waltz for Dixie" are particularly piercing in bringing home the pain of a conflict that left some 620,000 dead. The show is due to hit New York this spring. ***1/2

-- Steve Andrulonis

POP/ROCK

Barry Manilow

Manilow Sings Sinatra (Arista 19033)

There's nothing unusual about a musician trying to refine his craft by turning to the classics; it's just that, for some folks, the "classics" aren't necessarily Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. Barry Manilow's version of the three B's are Broadway, the Big Bands and Ol' Blue Eyes, and having already paid tribute to the first two, he turns his attention to the third with "Manilow Sings Sinatra." Given his taste in arrangers -- Johnny Mandel, Patrick Williams, Don Sebesky -- it's no surprise he gets the instrumental sound right. What makes this album so impressive is that tracks like "You Make Me Feel So Young" capture the jazzy idiosyncrasies of Sinatra's phrasing without seeming imitative. Apart from a corny "Strangers In the Night," it makes a fitting tribute. **1/2

-- J.D. Considine

Emilia

Big Big World (Universal 32382)

If you think Swedish pop is all blond hair and sweet, Euro-pop melodies, it's time you met Emilia. With her dark hair and olive complexion, she hardly fits the Scandinavian stereotype, while her voice -- a captivating cross between singer/songwriter introspection and soulful abandon -- keeps the music from ever becoming cloying. But what ultimately keeps "Big Big World" from seeming like just another piece of Europop ear-candy is the way producers Hurb & Yogi emphasize the humanity in Emilia's music. So instead of pumping up the dance beat on "Come Into My Life," they emphasize the emotion in Emilia's voice, while maintaining enough of an edge in "What About Me?" to prevent its melancholy melody from becoming predictable. **1/2

-- J.D. Considine

Natural Calamity

Peach Head (Ideal 0007)

On their own, Shunji Mori and Kuni Sugimoto -- the guitarist and bassist who make up the Japanese duo Natural Calamity -- are low-key to the point of self-effacement, emphasizing the ambient warmth of low-watt blues and whispered surf licks. Fortunately, the two have plenty of help in the studio on "Peach Head," enough to keep their quiet hush from becoming soporific. Singer Stephanie Heasley is the most obvious asset, bringing enough throaty charm to "So Good" to evoke the dreamy soul of the Cowboy Junkies. But Heasley's hardly the only helper of note; K-U-D-O spikes "Dark Water & Stars" with dash of synth abstractions, while the Chemical Brothers' drum machines make "As You Know" percolate nicely. ***

-- J.D. Considine

Pub Date: 01/21/99

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