In keeping with high standards set by the U.K.'s Proper label, Proper Box 55 easily qualifies as the finest single-package anthology ever devoted to the works of tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray (1921-1955). His best recordings, which are well represented throughout this four-CD set, reveal the combined influences of Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Born in Oklahoma City, he was raised and schooled in Detroit, where he played his first professional engagements in the company of trumpeter Howard McGhee and saxophonist Big Nick Nicholas. In 1943, Gray was hired by Budd Johnson to play in the Earl Hines Orchestra. The first five tracks represent Gray's adventures with this exciting big band during 1945 and 1946. A more thorough sampling that reaches back to his first appearances on record in October of 1944 was released under Gray's name on the French import Masters of Jazz label in 1999, while two volumes in the Earl Hines portion of the Classics chronological series covered similar ground with comparable precision. After touring with the Hines band, Gray moved to Los Angeles and spent the years 1946-1947 recording for multiple labels as a rising star of the West Coast bop scene. This segment of Gray's career is invoked by his interactions with Howard McGhee, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Criss.
A cross section of recordings made in New York and L.A. during 1948 and 1949 include several collaborations with pianist Al Haig, a Blue Note date with the Tadd Dameron Sextet, and records made with assorted bands both big and small under the leadership of Benny Goodman. The next phase of Gray's bebop odyssey is evidenced by material from two Prestige studio sessions and a nine-minute live jam on "Scrapple from the Apple," followed by some breathtaking examples of what he sounded like with bands led by Count Basie. Rather than pursuing Gray through his final sessions in 1953 and 1955, Proper devotes the entire fourth disc to choice cuts from the year 1952. These include the widely admired date with Art Farmer and Hampton Hawes, three hot numbers credited to Louis Bellson's Just Jazz All Stars, and a reunion of sorts with Dexter Gordon. This session features a rocking version of Dave Bartholomew's "I Hear You Knockin'," which is a very enjoyable example of how well this saxophonist fit into the rhythm & blues bag.
Gladys Bentley sings "Jingle, Jangle Jump," a rather conventional Christmas song stretched over the prerequisite bop framework. It's interesting to note that Bentley made her first recordings back in the '20s as a vaudevillian male impersonator. Additional vocalists who pop up here and there amongst the instrumentals in this set are Billy Eckstine, Buddy Stewart, Buddy Greco, and Terry Swope. Proper's Wardell Gray Story closes with four tunes recorded live in Hollywood in September 1952 at a modified bungalow on Wiltshire Boulevard known as The Haig. Carrying 77 vintage swing and bop tracks and upholstered with exacting session data and insightful notes by Dutch jazz singer Joop Visser, Proper Box 55 is strongly recommended as a portrait of a gifted improviser and an action-packed survey of mid-20th century jazz.