Wardell Gray

Vol. 1: 1944-1946

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During the 1940s, increasing numbers of young and impressionable saxophonists adopted the sonic and stylistic characteristics of Lester Young. With all due respect to Dexter Gordon, Charlie Ventura, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, Young's immediate descendant was Wardell Gray (1921-1955). His other main influence was Charlie Parker; tragically, neither individual lived past the age of thirty-five. There are several excellent Gray retrospectives in existence, most notably those prepared by the Prestige and Proper labels. Masters of Jazz beats them all by compiling every single record from all of the sessions that Wardell Gray ever participated in. The admirable dedication that made this feat possible is most dramatically demonstrated by Vol. 1 in the series, which picks up the trail of the aspiring sideman in 1944 when he made his first recordings with Earl "Fatha" Hines & His Orchestra. Tracks one through thirteen on this collection provide the listener with an unusually thorough audio survey of the Hines band of 1944 and 1945; Gray sounds a lot like Lester Young did in his early years with Count Basie -- brilliant, inspired and innately cool. The inclusion of two rare alternate takes ("Straight Life" and the joyous "Scoops Carry's Merry," named for Gray's reed section mate altoist George "Scoops" Carry) is a real treat for which authentically smitten jazz lovers will most certainly be grateful. The remaining six tracks, dating from the summer and early autumn of 1946, form an exciting prologue to Gray's first sessions as a leader. The West Coast bop scene is powerfully embodied in these marvelously modern performances by the Los Angeles based Joe Swanson Orchestra and a dynamic ensemble led by San Francisco bassist Vernon Alley. The background for the title "T Zone" merits brief discussion here. Beginning in 1945, Camel cigarettes were marketed using commercial rhetoric that included references to the "T Zone," the mouth-and-throat region supposedly subject to less abuse by smokers of Camels (according to a Camel-sponsored survey of chain-smoking physicians). Part of the copy ran like this: "T for Taste, T for throat. The taste of a cigarette on your tongue, the feel of its smoke in your throat, only your T Zone can judge." Note also that in standard jazz musician vernacular "T" translates as "tea," which seems to imply the presence of a more esoteric brand of cigarettes.

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