Usually, jazz label retrospectives -- particularly those issued as multiple-disc boxes -- are very mixed affairs. At least with one disc the listener knows upfront that there is a boatload of stuff missing. But these affairs can be wrenching exercises for jazz fans because of idiosyncratic, subjective selection by producers. The four-disc Contemporary Records Story issued by Fantasy is, happily, one of the exceptions. The ultrafastidious jazz fanatic Les Koenig (pronounced KAY-NIG) founded and operated the Contemporary label from 1952 until his death in 1977. A Dartmouth and Yale law graduate, he had been working as a screenwriter and as an assistant and co-producer to William Wyler in Hollywood. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era because he was unwilling to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He began producing sessions for the JazzMan label before founding his own Good Time Jazz imprint. Contemporary was an offshoot of the classic jazz-centric Good Time trademark, but it quickly took over. The four CDs contained here follow, essentially, a chronological unfolding of Contemporary's offerings. And while the label continues to issue recordings, the set is concerned with the catalog as it was created and left by Koenig. Disc One is an amazing testament to West Coast jazz beginning with the two cuts "Big Girl," from Volume Three, and "Viva Zapata," from Sunday Jazz à la Lighthouse, from Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, which showcases, among its ranks, Maynard Ferguson, Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Barney Kessel, and Bob Cooper. There is another Lighthouse All-Stars track here, a radical yet legendary read of Milt Jackson's "Bag's Groove" from 1954, which features Max Roach sitting in on drums, and a frontline consisting of Bud Shank on flutes, and Bob Cooper playing flute and oboe. Other artists on the disc are a who's who of jazz greats: Shelly Manne (who had a young saxophonist in his band named Art Pepper), Hampton Hawes, Lennie Niehaus, Buddy Collette, and even Duane Tatro and Lyle Murphy. But the disc ends with a burning new direction for West Coast jazz as the Curtis Counce group burns down the house with "A Fifth for Frank," with Carl Perkins, Jack Sheldon, Harold Land, and Frank Butler hard bopping the hell out of the blues.
Disc Two begins to show the outlying directions Koenig was interested in with the music, from trio dates by Gerald Wiggins to early solo sides by Pepper and Red Norvo to Sonny Rollins (from his Way Out West LP). Leroy Vinnegar and Benny Golson make appearances, but so do André Previn and Ornette Coleman (whose first recordings were for Contemporary). This is the kind of vision Koenig had, to be able to put all these talents on one label and nurture them all. The sequencing is astonishingly tight and seamless on all four discs, but discs two and three, in particular, play like a dream. And speaking of Disc Three, the Hampton Hawes Quartet's amazing For Real! session from 1958 with Harold Land -- another hard bopper in his own right featured on the label -- Scott LaFaro and Butler are referenced as the disc opener. This has to be the only place on earth where Benny Carter, Shelly Manne, Cecil Taylor, Teddy Edwards, Elmo Hope, Pepper, André Previn, and Helen Humes would appear in the same collection. Disc Four begins in 1969 and follows albums by Ben Webster, Phineas Newborn Jr., Woody Shaw, Art Farmer, Chico Freeman, and Ray Brown, as well as Manne, Art Farmer, and Pepper, whose solo rendition of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow," from the complete Live at the Village Vanguard, closes this collection. When one tolls the leaders and sidemen here, and takes into account the multi-dimensional and directional music here, all on one label, produced by one man, and articulated over 25 years, one has a portrait of a well-known but undercelebrated American institution and jazz monolith. Combine the selection with the design, featuring complete session notes, rare photographs, and a very fine historical essay by Richard S. Ginell, and one has one of most beautifully assembled and historically essential label box sets ever.