For every widely-celebrated jazz musician, there may be hundreds of often equally-gifted players who never received their due whether by bad luck or by choice. In the case of the pianist Forrest Westbrook (1927-2014) – who would have been 90 today (Aug. 29) – it was the latter.
Hopelessly in love with music in a wide span of idioms, yet modest and uncompromising to a fault, Westbrook mostly resisted recording – which would have gotten his name out to the world beyond Southern California where he spent most of his 86 years. Only two credited examples of his work came out during his lifetime, both now out of print – as a sideman on saxophonist Gil Mellé’s avant-garde electro-jazz album Tome VI (Verve) and one solo LP, This Is Their Time, Oh Yes! (Revelation).
The irony is that Westbrook was also an audiophile and a record collector; he had accumulated approximately 20,000 LPs and at least 4,000 CDs at the time of his death and built an elaborate home playback system with 33 speakers. With all of that music in his ears, it may be that he knew what was possible and wouldn’t settle for anything less from a commercial record label.
But Westbrook did record privately in his Santa Monica apartment with a variety of jazzers under his conditions – and some of the tapes have surfaced thanks to the diligent efforts of his eldest daughter Leslie. First there was a quartet session under the leadership of trumpeter Carmell Jones (Fresh Sound FSR-CD 867), and then at last, came an album in which Westbrook is in the spotlight, The Remarkable Forrest Westbrook (Fresh Sound FSR-CD 890).
It turns out that Westbrook was a phenomenal pianist, not merely “remarkable,” in possession of a fleet right hand equipped with a whole vocabulary of staccato accents at various dynamic levels. On his solo CD, Westbrook’s point of departure is bedrock bebop with a piano trio (Bill Plummer, bass, Maurice Miller, drums), but within seconds he proves that he has his own idiosyncratic sense of direction. His rapid single lines on “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” the Charlie Parker blues, “Buzzy,” “Airegin” on the Jones CD, and even the hoary old “Shine On Harvest Moon” sprint out in unpredictable patterns that sometimes veer into the bass clef. If there is a reference point, it may be Lennie Tristano, but Westbrook swings more than Tristano did; indeed Westbrook’s best quality is his urge to swing at all times.
The excellent sound of the homemade 1958-vintage tapes with the trio confirms Westbrook’s reputation as an audio buff; listen to how firmly his equipment captures the pinging of Plummer’s bass. As a bonus, Fresh Sound raided the stash of Westbrook tapes for a single quintet track, “Effa,” from 1960, which if anything swings even harder. This unsung keyboardist is definitely worth getting to know, and there might be more on the way from this source.
Another jazz voice from the past, but still very much with us, is the great vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, who at 91 was coaxed briefly out of retirement to record one last jam session. (He didn’t want to do it at first, but was talked into it by his son Gerry). Like the Westbrook tapes, 92 Years Young: Jammin’ at the Gibbs House (Whaling City Sound WCS 092) was recorded at home in Sherman Oaks on excellent equipment – and like the Westbrook album, it is a wonderful, freewheeling bebop jam session on mostly standards that jam sessions rely upon to this day.
The CD jacket may say “92 Years” but you don’t have to believe it if you don’t want to, for the ever-ebullient Terry plays with undiminished zest and invention. The rhythm section, driven by Gerry on drums and featuring pianist John Campbell and bassist Mike Gurrola, swings like crazy. Once in a great while, as in many a jam, someone seems to lose the thread, but the rhythm keeps on churning and things gets back on track with no harm done. Everyone seems to be having a blast; Terry’s liner note makes it sound like the sessions were one big four-day house party – record a little, go out by the pool, grab some sandwiches, tell funny stories, go back in and record some more, repeat as needed. Terry says that this is his last recording, period, but there are leftovers in the can here, too, so don’t be surprised if we hear more from this terrific session.
And there is Reggie Young, a name that you might find familiar from the small print on record jackets like Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground and thousands of pop and country sessions from the 1950s into the 21st century. Up until now, though, the venerated Memphis and Nashville-based session guitarist had never recorded an album under his own name. But the years were passing, he was getting on (he’s now 80), his contemporaries were disappearing one by one, and he thought it was time to step up into the light.
It took a long time before the perfectionist in him was satisfied, and the result is Forever Young (Whaling City Sound WCS 094), a laid-back set of original tunes veering between dignified Memphis soul from the Stax era and countrified, loping Nashville jazz that recalls some of Chet Atkins’s later experiments for Columbia. Reggie’s playing is spare, not a single note wasted, each one aimed squarely in the pocket. The Jim Horn arrangements on the first four tracks pay homage to Stax, and while Young doesn’t really cut loose – that’s not his style – he does manage to get a little funky in the loping grooves of “It’s About Time” and “Exit 209” (which happens to be the exit on I-40 closest to Music Row in Nashville, but you probably figured that out). It’s a short set, just under 40 minutes like an LP, easy to hear or overhear, and you also get a detailed biography by Tennessee music authority Colin Escott that contains lots of great stories from Young.