During the golden era of independent jazz record companies, from the early 1950s to the late '60s, Contemporary Records' sunny label was instantly recognizable to serious jazz fans. More important, Contemporary's roster of top‑flight jazz players and singers would yield a catalog that is, to this day, pure gold.
Founded by New York‑born, Dartmouth College and Yale Law School‑educated Lester Koenig, a one‑time assistant to director William Wyler, Contemporary Records began operations in Los Angeles in 1951. Koenig (1917‑1977) had not long before refused to testify before the House Un‑American Activities Committee (HUAC) and, as such, found himself blacklisted in Hollywood. (He already had previous experience as a record industry entrepreneur, having formed Good Time Jazz, devoted entirely to trad and Dixieland, in 1949.)
Along with Pacific Jazz, also based in Los Angeles, and San Francisco's Fantasy Records, Contemporary was one of the three pace‑setters among West Coast jazz indies, in much the way that Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside concurrently ruled the indie‑jazz roost on the East Coast. However, while Contemporary sprang to life during the heyday of so‑called "West Coast" jazz, the early‑to‑mid 1950s, its eventual roster was hardly limited to the "cool sounds" eschewed by some East Coast jazz buffs.
True, Disc One of this judiciously‑selected 4‑CD set, which covers the years 1952 to 1977, is a veritable Who's Who of West Coast Jazz, with key contributions from, among others, Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All‑Stars (the first jazz group to grace the Contemporary label), Shelly Manne and his Men, and small bands led by Barney Kessel, Lennie Niehaus, Hampton Hawes, and Buddy Collette. The sidemen include Shorty Rogers, Maynard Ferguson, Art Pepper, Jimmy Giuffre, Bud Shank, Bill Holman, Bob Cooper, Andre Previn, Red Mitchell, Leroy Vinnegar, and many more who put the West Coast on the jazz map. But by the very end of the first disc‑‑when the hard‑bopping Curtis Counce Group checks in‑‑the proceedings become increasingly eclectic, and the participants cross both geographical and generational borderlines.
There are the mainstream stylings of giants like Benny Carter and Ben Webster, the more chamber‑oriented approach of fellow Swing Era veteran Red Norvo, the wickedly witty tenor saxophone of Sonny Rollins, and the bracing takes of show tunes by the Andre Previn trio. The set also contains the burning hard bop of Curtis Counce and Harold Land, the tuneful post‑bop of Benny Golson's nonet, Helen Humes's open‑hearted singing, Teddy Edwards's soul‑jazz, and Shelly Manne's crisp, later editions of his Men. The stunning, early avant‑garde work of Ornette Coleman (who made his first two albums for Contemporary) and Cecil Taylor is also represented, as is the post‑modernist approach of Woody Shaw and Chico Freeman, and some of Art Pepper's most profoundly moving performances, with various brilliant rhythm sections, from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.
A true audiophile (and an early convert to stereo), Lester Koenig insisted that his recordings achieve the highest of standards in sound reproduction. As such, the sound of "The Contemporary Story" is commensurate with the level of performances throughout. That story is further amplified by Richard S. Ginell, whose liner notes are as informative as they are eloquent.