Crate Digging: Our Favorite West Coast Jazz Albums

Remember record stores? Remember the thrill of turning your friends on to new music by swapping vinyl and CDs? Yeah, we do too. That’s why we’re rebooting that tradition for the digital age with our “Crate Digging” video series, in which we’ll search through crates of our memories to bring you a handful of album recommendations on a given theme. It’s social media in the truest sense of the term: no algorithms, no computer-generated playlist. Just jazz fans sharing records with other jazz fans. 

You can watch a full-length discussion of the albums via the video player below. Write-ups of individual albums and sample tracks follow. Welcome to the party. This week’s theme is West Coast jazz, from its celebrated cool school to the present day. 

 

Chet Baker, Chet Baker Sings (Pacific, 1954)

The West Coast Jazz cool school of the ’50s was more melodic, contrapuntal and generally prettier than its East Coast counterpart. Chet Baker was its definitive embodiment, both musically and physically. At the time, he was beautiful and his audience was largely female. Musically, he was all about the melody. What makes Chet Baker Sings essential is that it marked his vocal debut. In his seemingly effortless cool vocal ways, he revived old standards and redefined romanticism in music at large. Baker would always see himself as a trumpeter first. However, it was his singing that turned him into a mainstream superstar.

 

Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015)

The West Coast Get Down is a collaborative group of musicians, including such artists as Kamasi Washington, Shabaka Hutchings and Miles Mosley, among others. They were all born and raised in Los Angeles, grew up together and are credited for reviving the West Coast jazz scene with their fusion of traditional and modern music styles. Sometime between 2013 and 2014, they got together and recorded different albums of their own original compositions, some of which are still being released today. Of these, Washington’s The Epic, released in 2015, really put the group on the map, establishing them as the face of L.A. jazz right now and turning the saxophonist/bandleader into an international superstar in the process.

 

Art Pepper, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (Contemporary, 1957)

Art Pepper recalled waking up on the day of this album’s recording, not knowing that he had been booked in the studio. Furthermore, he hadn’t done anything but get high and had not touched his saxophone in weeks. Some of this tale is downright folklore, enhancing the legendary status of this legendary recording, which showcased Pepper’s distinctive suave yet rugged tone, which set him aside from contemporaries. The Rhythm Section is that of Miles Davis, with Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. As such, this album could just as easily have been called “The West Coast Meets the East Coast.”

 

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, The Lonely Bull (A&M Records)

When talking of the history of Los Angeles music and Los Angeles jazz, you’d be remiss not to mention the great Herb Alpert. His 1962 album, The Lonely Bull, described by Questlove of The Roots as “the happiest music in the world,” marked the birth of his Tijuana Brass and its unique sound. This sound originated from Alpert’s trip to Tijuana to watch a bullfight and the Mariachi music he heard there. What you hear on The Lonely Bull is, essentially, the birth of a sound that would define instrumental pop throughout the sixties. In fact, it is a sound that became hugely successful as that decade, Alpert and his Tijuana Brass’ records would outsell The Beatles in the United States.

 

Stan Getz, West Coast Jazz (Norgran, 1955)

West Coast Jazz cool placed greater emphasis on arrangements and compositions than improvisations. So, it is ironic that Stan Getz’s West Coast Jazz album, despite its title, should oppose such a trend and feature some of his most muscular music ever. For instance, the LP’s take on “A Night in Tunisia” is fast and wild, revealing more links with bebop and hard bop than cool. Getz wasn’t from the West Coast but his warm, lyrical saxophone playing fit in well with the period’s scene. Yet, his West Coast Jazz, rather than being the title’s movement manifesto, testifies much more to his visionary defiance of conventions at large.

 

Ornette Coleman, Something Else!!!!: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Contemporary, 1958)

Trailblazing saxophonist Ornette Coleman moved from his native Texas to California and, at first, worked a number of odd jobs to make ends meet, including as an elevator operator. All the while, he envisioned a sound that defied jazz conventions, such as chord structures and standard time. The first studio manifestation of this music came in 1958 with the release of Something Else!!!! on L.A. based label Contemporary, for which Coleman put together a quintet of like-minded musicians, including Billy Higgins and Don Cherry. The follow-up, The Shape of Jazz to Come, would be recorded on Atlantic in 1959 and further exposed the world to what would become known as free jazz.

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