ODDS AGAINST SUCCESS are so intimidating that anyone who starts an independant jazz record company these days would seem to deserve a medal for bravery and a crash course in bottom-line business realities. Well, John Snyder gets the medal - for not only has he brought forth a new label, Artists House, but he is also offering bigger royalties to those who record for him and a deal whereby ownership of all material reverts to the artist after five years. As for the crash course, maybe not. Snyder seems to know what he is up to. A young lawyer who began in jazz recording with Creed Taylor and CTI in 1973, he went on to A&M Records and made a going operation of that pop label's jazz subsidiary, Horizon. And so perhaps if anybody is likely to make a go of it as an independent operator in that field, it is he.
The proof is in the first releases of Artists House. What is both saddening and a little ironic, however, is that among them are three that are more or less musical epitaphs. Sad to say, no matter how well they sell, there are not likely to be any repeat performances.
Paul Desmond, dying of lung cancer in 1977, kept a date to record a touchingly beautiful solo on a session for Chet Baker which was released on Snyder's Horizon subsidiary. It was his last recorded work. Now, however, from Artists House comes a posthumous album by Desmond with all-new material on it. Instead of the usual collection of alternate takes and rejects, however, this one features Desmond in live performance at a date played by the alto saxophonist at Bourbon Street, a club in Toronto, in 1975. It was made from a tape that Desmond himself had kept in his collection. Why? Because he liked it so much.
Listening to it, it is easy to understand why. Even with Dave Brubeck on those great early Quartet sessions Desmond never sounded better than he does on Paul Desmond (Artists House AH2). The group of Canadian musicians with whom he plays suits his slightly reticent, understated style perfectly. The piano-less date has guitarist Ed Bickert performing the comping duties that earlier went to Brubeck, and somehow it all seems to work a little better thay way. The lighter sound of the guitar goes so well with the light sound of the alto. Not to mention the fact that Bickert himself is a fine soloist who acquits himself admirably on every track.
But Desmond is what the album is all about, and Desmond is superb. The tunes are perfect - "When Sunny Gets Blue" and "Darn That Dream," filling out one whole side of relaxed invention and totaling over 22 minutes in elapsed time. On the other side: a find standard, "Too Marvelous for Words," that is perfect for this group; "Audrey," the fan letter he worte to Audrey Hepburn and originally recorded with Brubeck; and "Line for Lyons," a kind of tribute to Gerry Mulligan, the friend with whom he sometimes collaborated. All in all, it is vintage Desmond, Desmond at his best, and anyone who admires his work really owes it to himself to get this last fine sample of it.
Hampton Hawes was a pianist who first came to light on the West Coast as one of Shorty Rogers Giants and as a commissar in that mini-revolution of the '50s called Cool Jazz. He was remarkable in those days for his technique - flashy, polished, quick and sure. Every solo he took seemed almost to have been written out and rehearsed beforehand. Then? Well, he dropped out of sight for a few years - and it turned out that those few years were spent in jail on a drug charge. When he came out, he was much altered both as an artist and as a man. He detailed the personal changes in an excellent autobiography, Raise Up Off Me. He recorded the metamorphosis in himself as a jazz musician in the albums he made after his release, the last of which - recorded before his death in 1977 - being with that excellent bassist, Charlie Haden. The results of that last session, As Long As There's Music (Artists House AH4) shows just how much he had changed and how far he had come.
It is a much different Hampton Hawes who appears here. Thoughtful and almost tentative, he finds his notes rather than pounding them out as he once did. He sounds a little like Bill Evans on a few of these tracks, especially on "This Is Called Love," a paraphrase of "What Is This Thing. . . ." But it is Hawes himself, the mature musician, who comes through, a man who learned how much can be learned by listening, how much harmony there could be in collaboration. And how well he collaborates with Haden! It is only with a bassist of Haden's caliber - there are only a few others - that a pianist could even begin to share on an equal basis.
Significantly, it is where Haden is at his best that Hampton Hawes is also best - at his best he performs superlatively well. On the long, slow title track, a pop song that went nowhere by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne, the mood is reflective, and it is perfectly sustained by the two of them. On Hawes' own "Rain Forest," a melody so beautiful and lyrical that it cries for words to be sung, the pianist performs with ease, taste and careful invention. The album is a fitting bequest from an artist who grew immeasurably in stature during the latter years of his life. It is also just about the best jazz piano LP in a year - the best, anyway, since Mike Wofford's Afterthoughts, which came out last spring.
I am glad to say that the third album on my Artists House list is no more than an epitaph-of-sorts. The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Quartet (Artists House AH3) marks an appearance on record a little after these two excellent musicians split up following years as co-leaders of what was generally conceded to be the best big band in jazz. The band plays on - led by drummer Mel Lewis - but trumpeter Thad Jones will go his own way, one evidently not yet precisely charted. This being the case, perhaps it is best that what could turn out to be their last LP together should be a more intimate small-band recording. The better to hear them both on such fine standards as "But Not for Me," "This Can't Be Love," "Autumn Leaves," and (again) "What Is This Thing Called Love." The band which also includes Harold Danko on piano and Rufus Reid on bass, sounds so fine here that it is impossible not to wish Lewis and Jones had stayed together a while longer.Death is sadder, of course, but divorce, which the Muslims call "the most detestable of all permitted things," is also sad, and the breakup of an artistic collaboration such as theirs is a lot like a divorce. Something dies there, too. CAPTION: Picture, Paul Desmond