Photo: ©Ray Avery/CTSIMAGES. Used with permission.
Craft Recordings has begun commemorating the Contemporary label’s 70th anniversary with their December release of six digital compilations of the imprint’s principal artists: drummer Shelly Manne, pianists Hampton Hawes and André Previn, guitarist Barney Kessel, saxophonist Art Pepper, and one titled The Saxophonists
, featuring eight exemplary horn players (Harold Land, Bob Cooper, Art Pepper, Lennie Niehaus, Ornette Coleman, Ben Webster and Sonny Rollins). Also planned for streaming services: a 70-track curated playlist featuring cuts from Contemporary’s 200-plus LP back catalog. In 2022, listeners can expect an array of remastered audiophile-quality reissues in single CD, SACD, vinyl and digital formats.
The story of Los Angeles-based Contemporary Records begins with founder and producer Lester Koenig (1918-77), whose love affair with jazz documentation was solidified early on while attending recording sessions with John Hammond and Albert Marx. In 1941, Koenig began freelance producing Dixieland jazz in San Francisco. His tastes were discriminating and expansive. He loved good music without distinction, leaving a vast jazz and contemporary-classical legacy that included the first recordings of Ornette Coleman.
Formed in 1951, Contemporary proceeded to set industry standards with bold graphics, informative liner notes, outstanding audio and quiet pressings. After an inaugural live release of Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, studio sessions took place at Capitol’s Melrose studio, then, in 1956, transferred to Contemporary’s converted shipping room. That same year, Koenig scored a major coup by luring engineer extraordinaire Roy DeNann from Capitol Records, who, along with cohort Howard Holzer, should be mentioned with the same superlatives reserved for the more famous Rudy Van Gelder.
Compared with rival Blue Note, Koenig’s endeavors were even more comprehensive, encompassing the structured, chart-driven, oft-contrapuntal music that came to be called “West Coast jazz” — a term generally acknowledged as a misnomer. Consisting of mainly white musicians who were from all points east of California, West Coast jazz literally fell into Koenig’s lap mid-stream after Stan Kenton’s locally based big band temporarily disbanded. Many of Kenton’s most talented musicians remained in L.A. seeking gigs and a more stable lifestyle, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill for formal musical study (hence the charts). Hollywood movie studios soon began tapping their performance and compositional expertise.
Once the novelty of West Coast jazz wore off, panning it became just as fashionable. Pianist Horace Silver told me in an interview, “I’m tempted to say [West Coast jazz] was more sophisticated, but Duke Ellington was sophisticated. They just weren’t bashin’ like the cats in New York.” To his credit, Koenig refused to have his label pigeonholed, producing numerous recording sessions that readily fall under the category of “bashin’.”
To wit, this March, Craft will release a boxed set (two LPs or two CDs) containing both of Coleman’s very first LPs on Contemporary: 1958’s Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman
and 1959’s Tomorrow Is the Question! The New Music of Ornette Coleman
. Revered as classics, the albums showcase the iconic alto saxophonist with trumpeter Don Cherry and two distinct rhythm sections as they traverse new and unsettled musical terrain.
Three of Craft’s upcoming Contemporary releases are all-star rhythm section affairs. Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne and bassist Ray Brown show why they were The Poll Winners
; Manne and friends (featuring pianist Previn) lend jazz flair to the score of My Fair Lady
; and pianist Hawes, Kessel, Manne and bassist Red Mitchell combine forces on Four!
Native Angeleno saxophonist Pepper was perhaps Contemporary’s brightest star, represented twice on Craft’s early release schedule. Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section
features Pepper with Miles Davis’ stellar 1957 rhythm section; Art Pepper Plus 11: Modern Jazz Classics
covers a classic bebop repertoire courtesy of Marty Paich’s beautifully crafted charts for little big band. And influential swing-era saxophonist, trumpeter and arranger Benny Carter dips into L.A.’s talent pool for Jazz Giant
, expertly orchestrated small-group takes on standards.
Koenig was remembered as earnest and fastidious. In an industry plagued by underhanded wheeler-dealers, his honesty and fairness shone brightly. “Lester was the kind of cat who took as much time as was needed,” tenor saxophonist Harold Land told me during a 1990s interview. “He was so kind and considerate and would never get in your way. He really wanted freedom of artistic expression. That was his thing.” Likewise, from saxophonist Bob Cooper: “Lester Koenig was wonderful. He gave us a lot of freedom and tried to understand what we were attempting to do and help us with it — a real gentleman.”
As the public’s tastes changed during the early 1960s, Koenig spent less time recording than he did cutting masters for other labels. The coinciding soul jazz and bossa nova craze, which held monetary potential, held no interest for him. The 1970s were even slower but produced some outstanding LPs, including trumpeter Woody Shaw’s first session as a leader and Pepper’s legendary comeback at New York’s Village Vanguard.
When Koenig died in 1977, his son John, a cellist working with the Swedish Radio Symphony, moved back home to take the reins. Several solid LPs and numerous reissues followed, but the writing was on the wall. Fantasy purchased Contemporary in 1984, reissuing the bulk of the catalog through their Original Jazz Classics series. Concord bought Fantasy’s catalog in 2004, releasing several Contemporary titles through the OJC Remasters series beginning in 2010. By way of Concord’s subsidiary Craft label, 70 Years of Contemporary Records is their first serious endeavor to promote an important slice of jazz history. — James Rozzi