Various ‘West Side Story Jazz. Impressions: Unique Perspectives’ 2CD (ÉL) 5/5

west-side-storyThanks to the collaborative genius of composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, ‘West Side’ has quite simply become one of the towering achievements of twentieth century music and as such has long served as the inspiration to countless musicians of all genres. El/Cherry Red have had the ingenious idea to bring together some of the truly classic jazz instrumental interpretations onto one double CD anthology and this enables the listener to both compare and contrast cool jazz, piano trio, Afro-Cuban jazz and myriad other forms of some of their most beloved tunes from the musical and this significantly enhances the listening experience. The only surprise is that it has taken so long for an enterprising record company to contemplate such a project. The first CD starts off in sedate fashion with the famous André Previn piano trio version that was a huge commercial hit back in the 1959 and though this was on the West coast Contemporary label known for its somewhat laid back approach, the music is in fact quite avant garde in approach in places with a definite touch of Monk in Previn’s phrasing and some tasty blues inflections. The pick of the bunch is a delicious take on ‘Tonight’ which begins with a trompe-l’oeil cocktail feel, but then gently shifts up a gear and morphs into a swinging blues. Of course the subject matter of the musical focused on Hispanics in New York and while the accuracy of the depiction can certainly be disputed, musicians picked up on this new component in American society and delivered some authentic and thrilling Latin jazz. Pride of place here belongs to Cal Tjader and the dream-like orchestral feel to ‘Prologue’ gives way to the big band plus vibes of ‘The Jet Song’ where the then recent influence of the Gil Evans and Miles Davis big band of ‘Miles Ahead’ and ‘Sketches of Spain’ orchestrations are all too apparent. In comparison the orchestrations of Stan Kenton are somewhat underwhelming and conventional in format, but there is some consolation for listeners on the understated brass of ‘Cool’ and the mid-tempo Afro-Cuban percussion that accompanies the intro to ‘America’. For fans of cool jazz, the stunning tribute from the Dave Brubeck Quartet is definitely worthy of mention they mange to capture the mood to perfection with a mournful take on ‘Maria’ and a rousing rendition of ‘I feel pretty’ with Paul Desmond soaring on alto. The second CD is marginally less cohesive, but on the other hand offers a wide range of styles as well as musicians. Arguably the best interpretations are the trio of Oscar Peterson offerings and one would have liked to hear more of these. Perhaps the only truly definitive version of the soundtrack missing here from a jazz perspective is possibly Sarah Vaughan’s ‘I feel pretty’, though it is readily available elsewhere and the singer also recorded a wonderful ‘Maria’ and regularly performed both songs live. The project is rounded off with a beautifully illustrated inner sleeve complete with original album covers, photos of the original film cast and a plethora of informative notes on the recordings.

Tim Stenhouse