Barney Kessel: Small Groups On Contemporary

One of the first releases in Contemporary's 70th anniversary reissue series has the guitarist with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown and others


Barney Kessel was one of the West Coast’s busiest jazz musicians, having started out professionally before he was 20 and in the 1940s and 1950s and beyond proceeding to guitar-picker stardom via innumerable gigs with Los Angeles bands, for which he was often first call.

This compilation of 15 tracks in the reissue series of 1950s recordings on the Contemporary label is trawled from three albums: To Swing Or Not To Swing (Vol. 3) from 1955; Kessel Plays Standards (Barney Kessel Vol. 2) from 1954-55; and The Poll Winners, from 1957, the first of five albums Kessel made with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne.

For further detail, and as with the companion reissue of music by pianist Hampton Hawes, listeners have to do their own research beyond the information given on the digital-play track listings. The first two albums were band dates of mixed personnel, the third a straightforward trio affair. So, for example, the opening number, given as “Barney Kessel: Indiana” is a chart featuring, inter alia, George Auld on tenor sax, Harry Edison, and pianist Jimmy Rowles, and taken from the first album. But we have to find that out for ourselves.

It’s useful to check, because tenorist Bill Perkins also featured on the album, as did drummers Irv Cottler and Manne; Cottler’s on duty here. The personnel on A Foggy Day (In London Town) is given as Kessel, Brown and Manne, but there’s a pianist in attendance. Just In Time features a vibraphonist, who’s not even credited on the three source albums.

But it’s good to have Kessel back. All those early journeyman gigs served him well. He could be as crisp as a bopper (Indiana), and as mellow as a satin-smooth serenader (A Foggy Day), and a creative presence behind other soloists. But above all, he could swing. The trio recordings, with master-swinger Brown in capacious occupation of my left stereo channel (remember stereo?) and Manne giving a brushes masterclass in the right, have Kessel sitting nicely at home in the middle. Manne’s a gas on The Merry Go Round Broke Down, which also shows that Kessel was unfazed at rapid tempo and that all three often played with wit but without suppressing big personalities.

Indiana; On Green Dolphin Street; A Foggy Day (In London Town); Volare; Down Among The Sheltering Palms; On A Slow Boat To China; Just In Time; Satin Doll; Mack The Knife; The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down; Lullaby Of Birdland; Embraceable You; Little Susie; Caravan; Twelfth Street Rag (56.67)
Kessel (g); with others including, Shelly Manne (d); Ray Brown, Monty Budwig (b); Harry Edison (t); Jimmy Rowles, Claude Williamson (p). Los Angeles, 1954-5-7.
Contemporary/Craft Recordings – digital only