What I carried away in my head from the only time I saw Shelly Manne in person, at Ronnie Scott’s in the summer of 1970, was the sound of his ride cymbal. It was as close to perfection as you could get, the ideal balance of the dry ping produced by the stick’s tip and a discreet spread of sound that carried the momentum from one stroke to the next. It’s hard to find a cymbal like that, and I remember it as the best of its kind I’ve ever heard.
Very likely it was the same cymbal that he had been playing just under 10 years earlier on an album called Shelly Manne and His Men Play ‘Checkmate’, which I picked up second-hand the other day. I’d never heard it before, although the quintet with which he recorded it has gradually become one of my favourite small modern jazz groups of the era, quite the equal of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers or the Horace Silver Quintet, who set the standard for post-bop combos.
In 1959, when the group included the trumpeter Joe Gordon, the tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca, the pianist Victor Feldman and the bassist Monty Budwig, they were recorded over three nights at the Blackhawk club in San Francisco, leading to a series of five albums on the Contemporary label, Manne’s home for 20 years. Now out of copyright in Europe, they’re all available on a four-CD box released by the American Jazz Classics label, and they stand up very well to a direct comparison with the two LPs recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet at the same venue a year and a half later.
Manne’s group visited Europe in 1960, with Russ Freeman replacing Feldman (there’s a recording of their concert at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, called West Coast Jazz In England, on the Solar label), and by the time they made another live recording at a West Coast venue, this time at Shelly’s own Los Angeles club, the Manne-Hole, in March 1961, the line-up had undergone further changes. Gordon and Budwig were replaced by Conte Candoli and Chuck Berghofer, with absolutely no diminution of quality. In October of that year the reshaped group went into Contemporary’s little studio on Melrose Place in West Hollywood to record several themes written for a TV detective series by Johnny Williams, a pianist and composer who later became famous (and, presumably, very rich) from his soundtracks to Jaws, Star Wars and Harry Potter.
I have no idea whether or not the series was any good. Set in a San Francisco private detective agency, it ran for two years and 70 episodes, and its guest stars included Charles Laughton, Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin, Cyd Charisse and the torch singer Julie London. As far as I know, it was never shown in the UK. But Williams composed a series of carefully shaped pieces that provided Manne’s Men with the perfect material on which to exercise their brand of thoughtful, swinging, beautifully turned post-bop.
For me, the star — apart from Manne’s ride cymbal, of course — is Kamuca, who rose to a mild form of prominence in the 1950s as one of a large group of white tenorists heavily under the spell of Lester Young (others included Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Warne Marsh). He began his career with the big bands of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, and if you listen to the quartet and octet sides he recorded for the Mode and Hi-Fi Jazz labels in 1956 and ’57 (available on a Fresh Sounds CD called Tenor Ahead), pretty much all you hear is a diligent but unexceptional Young disciple. During his time with Manne’s group, however, he showed himself to have matured into an improviser of exceptional character and poise.
Every note he plays on the Checkmate set is worth hearing. The obvious comparison is with Hank Mobley, a sideman in the Davis group at the Blackhawk, once described as “the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone”. Showing a similar tone and fluency, but with fewer bluesy inflections in his playing than Mobley, Kamuca reveals himself to be a credible contender for the title. But the tenor-player he makes me think of, more surprisingly, is Wayne Shorter: his approach is more conventional, but there’s something similar about his gorgeous, lightly grained tone and the way he flights his unpredictably shaped but invariably graceful phrases with an airy quality perfectly suited to the sumptuous, clean-lined drive provided by Manne and Berghofer. To compound the pleasure, the quality of the recording made by Howard Holzer, one of Contemporary’s house engineers, has a warmth and a transparency to beat even the great Rudy Van Gelder at his own game, even though the studio also doubled as the label’s packing and mailing room.
Having made his name in California, Kamuca moved to New York for a while in the 1960s and then returned to Los Angeles, where he worked in the studios. He made a handful of albums for the Concord label but his star never burnt as brightly as it had done with Manne, and he died of cancer in 1977, aged 46. The beauty of jazz is that it allows a player of quiet originality to make a lasting mark, and Kamuca, once he had found his own voice, became just such a figure. If you like this kind of modern jazz, then these records by Shelly Manne’s Men, and Checkmate in particular, are as good as it gets.
* The painting of Shelly Manne is from the cover of Checkmate, signed illegibly and uncredited on the CD version reissued in 2002 as part of Fantasy’s Original Jazz Classics series. According to Geoff Winston (see Comments), the credits on the original Contemporary LP jacket reveal the artist to have been one George Deel.