Harold Land ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 5/5

Texan tenor saxophonist Harold Land is primarily associated with the East Coast jazz sound of the late 1950s, but was in fact a highly versatile musician who could easily adapt to changing times, and by the late 1960s was performing on some of the modern Blue Note albums of fellow East Coast musician and personal friend, vibraphonist, Bobby Hutcherson. However, this outstanding double CD covers the greatest sides that Land cut in Los Angeles, and then expands to the wonderful and yet underrated, ‘West Coast Blues’ and a one-off New York recording along with trumpeter, Kenny Dorham.

On the first CD, Land is heard as he is just about to hit the age of thirty, which is generally regarded as the age at which many jazz musicians become fully mature as composers and individual soloists. In the case of Harold Land, he passes with flying colours on both accounts. For the first of these albums, the 1958 ‘Harold in the Land of Jazz’, Land co-arranges the album with pianist Elmo Hope and two separate sets of musicians deliver an essentially solid side of standards, with ‘Speak Low’ and ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, the pick of the bunch and with three Land originals. Fast forward a year, though, and on the excellent ‘The Fox’, Hope is now the featured pianist and co-composer (Hope delivers four pieces to Land’s two originals) and the warmness of tone is almost Getz-like, with a quintet comprising Dupree Bolton on trumpet, Herbie Lewis on bass and Frank Butler on drums. The tile track has become something of a modern classic, but the rest is of a consistently high standard.

If anything, ‘West Coast Blues’, maintains and indeed improves upon that high standard, but with a cast that includes some of the finest practitioners of their individual instruments and leaders in their own right. Thus, Joe Gordon features on trumpet while no less than Wes Montgomery is on guitar, with Barry Harris on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums. The overall relaxed feel of this album is typified by the opener, the melodic, ‘Ursula’, with an instrumental take on Billie Holiday’s composed opus, ‘Don’t Explain’, a delicious Wes Montgomery original in the title track and two further lengthy Land pieces to finish the album off in, ‘Terrain’ and ‘Compulsion’. Only a lesser known Parker tune, ‘Klactoveedesedstene’, veers into bop territory. In fact, Land the composer was coming to the fore and the final album finds him as co-partner with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, better known as an East Coast musician, even if he hailed from the West, and a 1960 Jazzland New York date with a largely obscure quintet of musicians. This is the real surprise and a treat for the listener. The gentle waltz, ‘Triple Trouble’, a melodic original by pianist Amos Trice features some lovely brass ensemble work while fans on pop music in the 1970s will recognise the main motif to, ‘On A Little Street in Singapore’. Some fifteen or so years later, vocalese group, Manhattan Transfer, made a retro hit out of it, but this rendition takes the song at a significantly faster pace, with the warm tenor of Harold Land centre stage, and a delicious Eastern tinge weaved in on the brass.

Harold Land was that most collaborative of musicians and would go on to play on several recordings with Bobby Hutcherson in the late 1960s before returning as a leader in the 1970s on Mainstream and some of these harder to find albums are enjoying a resurgence of interest via re-issues in both the UK and Japan. However, for anyone requiring the essential Harold Land from his West Coast prime, this double CD could hardly be bettered and is definitive Land.

Tim Stenhouse