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The 'Complete Bee Hive Recordings' Buzz With The Energy Of '70s Mainstream Jazz


This is FRESH AIR. In 1977, Jim and Susan Neumann of Evanston, Ill., started a mainstream jazz record label called Bee Hive. They released 16 LPs over the next seven years. Now the complete Bee Hive recordings have been reissued on CD for the first time. Our critic, Kevin Whitehead, says that hive contained a lot of honey.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola and Pepper Adams playing the bebop anthem "Donna Lee" at a slightly insane tempo. It's from 1978's "Baritone Madness," the first LP that came out on the industrious Bee Hive label. Some folks say mainstream jazz almost died out in the '70s, but hundreds of bebop-oriented musicians and their diehard fans stayed the course. Bee Hive catered to that audience, spotlighting some superior players who weren't household names, like Nick Brignola or his fellow saxophonist from Upstate New York, tenor man Sal Nistico.


WHITEHEAD: Sal Nistico with Sam Jones on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. The players heard in Mosaic's whopping 12-CD box of "The Complete Bee Hive Sessions" include pianists Billy Taylor, Dick Katz and label regular Ronnie Mathews, guitarist Sal Salvador, saxophonists Clifford Jordan and Von Freeman, and drummers Jimmy Cobb and Chicago hero Wilbur Campbell. There are also great trombonists, Curtis Fuller, Eddie Bert, Jimmy Knepper and plunger mute master Al Grey, who drops in for a couple of numbers.


WHITEHEAD: The suburban Chicago couple who ran Bee Hive must have treated musicians right because a bunch of them did multiple sessions. A few records put three horns in the front-line. And their players stayed busy, beefing up harmonies and filling in backgrounds. So you get textural variety and hot solos. The raucous "Manhattan Walk" is from a 1978 date by the elusive and sometimes wayward trumpeter Dizzy Reece. That's Albert Dailey on piano.


WHITEHEAD: Sound quality on some Bee Hive sessions can be a little harsh, but the label's artistic standards were generally high. The scene-stealing performances in the Bee Hive box include one speedy solo by guitarist Al Gafa. In the '70s, Gafa backed a few notable singers, including Johnny Hartman, who made one of his final records for Bee Hive in 1980.


JOHNNY HARTMAN: (Singing) I'll go my way by myself and this is the end of romance. I'll go my way by myself. Love is only a dance. I'll try to go by myself and teach my heart how to sing. I'll go my way by myself like a bird on the wing.

WHITEHEAD: Johnny Hartman. Bee Hive kept going into the mid-'80s, broadening its stylistic reach with LPs that featured bluesy saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Fathead Newman. There was also some tightly-arranged music from the New York Jazz Quartet, the only working band on the label roster. Composer Frank Wess is on tenor sax and George Mraz bows the bass.


WHITEHEAD: The New York Jazz Quartet's Roland Hanna on piano and Ben Riley on drums, 1981. By then, jazz was changing. Neo-boppers Wynton and Branford Marsalis hit the scene, bringing a lot of that talk about how the '70s was a jazz wasteland - instant cultural amnesia. Since that attitude still lingers in some quarters, it's good to have this rebuttal evidence from the Bee Hive label back in circulation, if only in a mammoth box set. Straight-ahead jazz never really went away. You just had to be looking for it.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the complete Bee Hive recordings on Mosaic. Tomorrow, I'll talk with Tracey Stewart. She and her husband, Jon Stewart, are starting a farm animal sanctuary, which has long been Tracey's dream. She's an animal advocate, a former vet tech and describes herself as obsessed with animals. She has a new book called "Do Unto Animals." We'll also talk with the book's illustrator, Lisel Ashlock. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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