Three Offerings from the Annals of Jazz

The Penthouse was a jazz club in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. It opened in 1962 and closed in 1968. It was demolished in 1968 and, in what some Seattleites who were regulars at the club consider to be an almost perfect example of the crassness of progress, was replaced by a parking garage. The club was the site of a weekly live broadcast on KING radio hosted by James Wilke. In terms of recorded renown, parts of a September 30, 1965 performance by John Coltrane and his sextet were released as the Live in Seattle disc in 1971. Much of the rest of that performance was later released as The Unissued Seattle Broadcast in 2011. Most recently, Elemental Music together with its imprint Jazz Detective and the Deep Digs Music Group put out two more recordings featuring shows at the Penthouse.

Cal Tjader had a groove. His vibraphone playing is a door to another world. The first song I remember hearing with him on the vibes was his 1967 collaboration with Eddie Palmieri titled “Bamboleate”—it remains an enticing and sensual invitation that sucks me in each and every time. The same can be said about his latest: Catch the Groove: Live at the Penthouse 1963-1967. Defining the seductive rhythms that defy description and hypnotize the listener in words is a challenge. This two-CD collection is an aural experience not to be ignored. It features six sessions at the Penthouse from the years 1963, 1965, 1966 and 1967. The combos featured both augment and highlight Tjader’s musicianship while simultaneously creating a sound that moves the definition of collaboration into its own part of the musical stratosphere that defies dictionary definition. The various members in different sessions include Clare Fischer, Lonnie Hewitt, and Al Zulaica on piano; Fred Schreiber, Terry Hilliard, Monk Montgomery and Stan Gilbert on bass; Johnny Rae and Carl Burnett on drums and timbres; and Bill Fitch and Armando Peraza on percussion.

Like the piano, the vibraphone is both a melodic and percussive instrument. Its tones lay down the rhythm as surely as it glides up and down the scales the player pulls their melody from. When the rhythm section becomes an equal partner to the vibraphone and its cousin the piano, as it does in the song “Morning of the Carnival” featured on the first disc in this package, it’s as if the gods of percussion are making love. The sensuality and what some call sin of Carnaval are transported into that club in Seattle and into the listener’s blood. This is the essence of Tjader and his hammers on the instrument he was clearly born to master.

Miles Davis said at least once that “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal.” The pianist, who died earlier in 2023, was known for his sense of timing and uses of space. Variety magazine wrote in its obituary that he was “free before free jazz was a thing.”(4/17/2023) Zav Feldman, the owner of the Jazz Detective record label and the producer who put all three of these recordings written about in this review, noted in the same Variety article: Jamal was “a genius” and an “absolute joy to work with… a living legend.” It was during the production of the Penthouse recordings just released by Feldman’s label where he got to know the man. Those recordings, which go by the name Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1966-1968 are from dates in 1966, 1967 and 1968 feature Jamal’s trio of Jamal, Jamail Nasser on bass, and Frank Gant on drums.

The songs on the two discs include popular standards for piano like Errol Garner’s “Misty” and Bacharach and David’s “Alfie.” They also include more esoteric improvisations on the saxophonist John Handy’s composition Dance to the Lady. Every single piece is melodically graceful and rhythmically robust. The keys dance under Jamal’s guidance, playing with the rhythm set by the bass and drums, soaring occasionally while flirting like morning birds when the spring returns to their newly-knitted nest.

The Half Note club was a little better known than the Penthouse, especially outside the sometimes insular world of jazz. Located in what is now called the Soho district in Manhattan, it was own and managed by the Canterino family. Like the Penthouse in Seattle, it was the site of live jazz radio broadcasts. The shows were on WABC-FM every Friday night. Jazz broadcast live on commercial radio isn’t something one hears much if at all in the United States in the 2020s. Culture ain’t what it used to be. Hell, live jazz is rarely heard on college and publicly-funded stations these days, if at all.

I’ve always dug Wes Montgomery. As someone who plays around on the guitar and whose ears are always open to sounds and music from the instrument I might not have heard before, my introduction to Montgomery in the mid-1970s remains an eye-opener. The seemingly inborn knowledge of the instrument displayed by Montgomery is as intimate as the knowledge an ancient monk has for his rosary and the prayer each bead represents. A newly released recording remastered and including never-before released material proves this mastery once again. The record is called Maximum Swing: The Unissued 1965 Half Note Recordings. After listening to it, it’s quite clear why. Montgomery plays his instrument with a style that can’t help but swing, especially in these lives sets. The men playing with him understand that’s what’s going to happen as soon as they sit down. As a listener I can see the feet tapping and Montgomery’s fingers playing the fretboard as nimbly as Jack jumping over his candlestick. The trio is composed of Montgomery on guitar, Jimmy Cobb on drums and Wynton Kelly on piano. There are four different bass players: Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Larry Ridley and Herman Wright—one for each of the first four sessions recorded here and with Ridley playing the third and fifth sets.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the producer of these three collections. Producer Zev Feldman has taken the material featured on these discs—material originally recorded in analog in clubs and for live radio broadcasts—and created recordings that are as clean and fresh as the Seattle sky in between rainstorms. The founder of his own imprint, Jazz Detective, and an executive on at least one other label, his Grammy-nominated work on archival recordings brings the creative sounds of the elders into the twenty-first century. In terms of knowing the music and how to make it sound best, comparisons to world-renowned producers like Tom Dowd and Quincy Jones are not far-fetched.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com