Although not the first compilation to chronicle the Mainstream label, this is actually one of the best and features some of the top jazz singers and instrumentalists to have graced the company. It covers that early to mid-1970s period when jazz was in a state of flux with jazz-rock in the ascendancy and jazz-funk and smoother hues just around the corner.
Producer Shad was at the forefront of the 1960s rock generation, signing a San Francisco band with a then unknown singer by the name of Janis Joplin. By 1971, he returned to his first love of jazz and launched a new label, Mainstream Red Lion, devoted to jazz in its myriad forms and invited some of his best friends, and as it happens, some of the all-time greats who were struggling with the onset of rock music, These included trumpeter Art Farmer, drummer Shelly Manne and singer Sarah Vaughan. The sound has an earthy independent feel devoid of ‘mainstream’ (no pun intended) majors and in this respect alone can be compared with the Flying Dutchman and Strata East labels, even if the latter featured more heavyweight instrumentalists and avant-garde experimentation.
Where this compilation scores highly, however, is in unearthing alternative versions of jazz classics, with Jack Wilkins superb guitar-driven take on Freddie Hubbard’s, ‘Red Clay’, a fine and refreshing change from the original, and a version that has been subsequently sampled by rappers. While Mark Murphy laid down a lovely vocal version in the mid-1970s as did the sweet harmonies of Rare Silk in the early 1980s, this is nonetheless a strong candidate. Likewise, the alternative reading of Walter Bishop Junior’s, ‘Soul Village’, which has surfaced previously both on the Black Jazz and Muse labels. Blue Mitchell is in charge this time round and is in top form with a second contribution on the near ten minute, ‘Granite and Concrete’. His Blue Note recordings remain his definitive statements, but those recordings on Mainstream compare most favourably with the rest of his output and are superior to his earlier Riverside albums for example.
Staple musicians on the Mainstream label included instrumentalist who are better known for their sidemen work and this proves to be the case of multi-reedist Hadley Caliman, better known for his work on Santana’s ‘Caravanserai’, but here who operates on flute and his sole offering, ‘Quadrivium’, is a scintillating slice of spiritual oriented jazz. Although all too brief, Clark Terry offers up a perennial favourite in, ‘Rum and Mumbles’, and this joins the Afro-flavoured ‘Swahili’ as another club classic.
There is a lovely balance of styles on this compilation and for the singers, Alice Clark crossed over to the Northern Soul fraternity and the ACE compilation of her recordings is a first port of call. Here, the lovely, ‘Never Did I Stop Loving You’, is a fine illustration of her work. From a strictly jazz perspective, it would be difficult to argue with collective talents of Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan, and the latter offers up a delicious, ‘Magical Connection’ which ACE had the foresight to re-issue the album of, while the former finishes off the compilation on a high with, ‘Feelin’ Good’. In between the lesser known Maxine Weldon contributes a soulful, ‘Right On’ while the newcomer Ellerine Harding makes a convincing case on, ‘I Ain’t Got Much (But Whatever I Got It’s Yours Baby)’. A fine overview, then, of a label that was given cursory attention at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, made a significant contribution to underground jazz in the 1970s.