Chet Baker Quartet • Volume 1

Barclay/Sam Records 84017
Single 180-gram LP
1955/2012

Music

Sound

The Ronnell Bright Trio

Polydor/Sam Records 46 106
Single 180-gram LP
1958/2012

Music

Sound

by Marc Mickelson | March 21, 2013

am Records is the sort of reissue label that every jazz hound dreams of launching. It is the unusual hobby of Fred Thomas, a Parisian whose two great interests are photography and classic jazz. After meeting Nathan Davis, an American-born saxophonist who spent most of his professional life in Europe, Thomas decided to reissue Davis's Peace Treaty on LP. Five years later, he founded Sam Records. "I don't know the music industry," Thomas admits, "but it was clear for me to try to do the best reissues possible -- find the master tapes and the [original] photography." Four Sam Records titles have been released so far, all in mono: the two covered here, along with another Chet Baker session and Lester Young's Le Dernier Message de Lester Young. As Thomas put it, each was chosen because "I particularly like these musicians, and these records are very rare."

Many of jazz's greatest acts toured Europe in the '50s and '60s, making records in between gigs, mostly for little-known labels. Because of their obscurity, those records are now sought-after collector's items that command high prices. Chet Baker left for Europe on a four-month tour in September 1955, playing in Amsterdam, Geneva, London, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Milan. His group stopped long enough in Paris to record this set. Baker is relaxed and mellifluous throughout, but the significance of the session comes from the bold playing of Richard Twardzik, a classically trained 24-year-old pianist who gained a reputation for innovation and daring. However, like Baker himself, Twardzik had a dependency to heroin. He died of an overdose shortly after this recording was made, drummer Peter Littman finding him in his hotel room, the needle still in his arm. This is one of only a handful of sessions Twardzik recorded, the most expressive being a Pacific Jazz title he shares with Russ Freeman, and it is a grievous reminder of what the jazz world lost when he died.

Pianist Ronnell Bright, a Juilliard graduate, was in Europe with Sarah Vaughan, taking the time to record this session in Paris during that short tour. A technician in the vein of Oscar Peterson, Bright swings hard while demonstrating unfailing timing and tight interplay with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Art Morgan, especially on a pair of his compositions that begin and end this set, "Sail 'Em" and "Doxology." In the '60s, Bright built a career as a conductor and accompanist for Vaughan, Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson, joining the group Supersax in the early 1970s.

Fred Thomas didn't want simply to produce modern reissues of these vintage albums, so he did what Chad Kassem has done with Analogue Productions' current Prestige series: create replicas of the original albums using the best of today's methods. As physical objects, the Sam Records LPs are gorgeous. The sleeves are authentic copies of the originals, with European-style fold-over seams and crisp, vibrant graphics, and the Pallas-pressed, flat-edge records are gleaming slabs that play with essentially no noise. The mono sound is fleet and light, more about precision than palpability and bloom. Thomas calls his releases "facsimile reissues," and the label fits, although the vinyl is surely a cut above what was used in the day.

More titles are coming, some for release this year, all recorded in Paris. Next up is the Barney Wilen Quintet's 1957 La Guilde du Jazz originally on the Jazztone label. Also in the works are the third Chet Baker session recorded for Barclay, a pair of 1958 Donald Byrd sessions on the Brunswick label, and the Bobby Jaspar Quintet's Modern Jazz Au Club Saint Germain, also recorded for Barclay.

Even with all of these new titles, the Sam Records catalogue will remain small and select, but the label is definitely one to follow -- and support for the fresh trail it's blazing.

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