The jazz world's coronation of Clifford Brown alongside the comparative neglect shown Harold Land would be amusing if it were not such a bad reflection on the public's lack of awareness of its greatest musicians, or those who followed in the footsteps of Louis, Hawk and Prez, Bird and Diz, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, contributing their own voices to an art that was of a such a high level it could no longer get "better": it could only be made "different." But if the music didn't improve, the same couldn't be said about the technology. Coincidentally with the public's attention to the art of improvisation as practiced in the groups of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, the MJQ, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Backer, was the equipment for recording the music. "Hi Fi" "Stereophonic Sound, the new 33rpm long-playing vinyl record--all were not mere coincidences but inventions of necessity, driven in part by the new attention to extended improvisation and the public's desire to hear this music recorded faithfully and fully. And one of the most exciting and celebrated improvisors in his brief 25-year lifetime was trumpeter Clifford Brown, who shared leadership honors with Max Roach, the "Dean of Modern Jazz Drummers," in arguably the most fiery, hard-driving modern jazz group of the early 1950s.
Harold Land was not only a member of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet: he appeared on every single album by the group with the exception of the last one, when Harold returned to California on family matters and Sonny Rollins replaced him. Clifford was considered by many leading musicians as not only the most brilliant trumpet player in jazz but the greatest improvisor, period. But such sentiments necessarily extended to Harold Land, who shadowed Clifford note for note on the most intriciate and up-tempo tunes. Moreover, rather than become rattled by Roach's forward-pushing, phrase-chopping drive, Land invariably created thoughtful, carefully shaped and "shaded" solos of striking originality, freshness and structural wholeness.
The trumpeter Carmel Jones (Horace Silver's "Song for My Father") was one of the younger musicians who considered Harold Land the greatest living improviser, pulling up his East Coast stakes and going to the West Coast to be able to play with and learn from Harold. Another champion of Land was the British pianist-drummer-vibist, Victor Feldman. Even after playing with the Adderleys and Miles Davis, Feldman stated that he considered Harold Land the greatest living improviser on either coast (this was after the death of Clifford and before the rise of Coltrane).
Having heard Land extensively on record and only twice in person, I suspect that in a club Rollins would "overshadow" Land with his physical presence and forceful, fully "embodied" tone. Harold was comparatively diminutive, with a hard-edged but narrower, more subtle and nuanced tone. On record it's doubtful that any other player could have stayed with Clifford as consistently and supportively as Harold. In fact, an inferior audio recording of Clifford and Max at the Beehive in Chicago captures both tenor players on the same bandstand playing the same tune. Rollins finds a motif and bulls his way through the chord sequence with striking authority; Land by contrast acknowledges each chord in the progression (I believe it's on "I'll Remember April"), effortlessly negotiating his melodic narrative with such detailed precision and expressive finesse that it's all too easy to take each of his statements for granted. Listeners can also compare the 4-bar exchanges between Clifford and Land with those of Clifford and Rollins.
As for the 6 "Classic Albums" of this box set: they're primarily from Land's 10-12 years, after his time with the Brown-Roach group, when he recorded for Lester Koenig's Contemporary Label, which employed one of the best sound engineers in the business: Roy DuNan (the contrast with Van Gelder's East Coast sound is at times striking and instructive).
After his tenure with the Brown-Roach Quintet (documented on all of the Mercury/RCA recordings save one), Harold would be featured more prominently in groups born largely of his own making. The goal of the first group was to become the West Coast's equivalent of more celebrated East Coast groups like that of Miles Davis. The present collection captures some of this group's most essential, revelatory recordings--all under the leadership of bassist Curtis Counce. Even before the presence of a white man (Bill Evans) in the group of Miles Davis produced controversy among MIles' fans and placed extra pressures on the budding star, Harold Land was taking under his wing the distinctive, inimical trumpet voice of Jack Sheldon. Listeners of this set of recordings will have a chance to compare Sheldon's inerrant technique and always identifiable voice--full of sunlight and bubbling good humor--with several other trumpet players with whom Land shares the frontline. (My main disappointment is not to see among the Counce recordings Harold's understated yet haunting ballad interpretation of Jule Styne's "Time After Time.")
The near-perfect balance of the Curtis Counce group was rendered permanently broken when the brilliant pianist, Carl Perkins, died of a drug overdose, prompting Counce to declare an end to several golden years that produced some of the most extraordinary yet representative and enduring modern jazz of the 1950s. Perkins had overcome polio and a withered left arm by developing a style that was an amalgamation of Bud Powell's bebop lines and Errol Garner's rich, orchestral approach. His raptruous chords behind Land on the aforementioned ballad, "Time After Time," are but one example of the fresh timbres he brought to the group. Moreover, the rhythm team of Counce, Perkins, and the singularly gifted Frank Butler (whom Miles had rejected in favor of Tony Williams) was a closely-knit team of players of unequaled subtlety, precision, and dynamic versatility. (Tracks 39-43, which comprise Land's scintilating composition and solo on "Landslide" and Butler's seamless control of his kit while moving from sticks to fingers and back again (on "A Fifth for Frank) are alone worth the price of the total package).
Although I'm partial to Land's immediate work in creating, with Curtis Counce, his own version of the Brown-Roach group (in which the bass of George Morrow was sometimes difficult to detect); others will find much of value in Land's later work--his own eponymous triumph ("The Fox") as well as with West Coast stars like trombonist Frank Rosolino.
Harold Land was not an overpowering player: but he was a player capable of exerting a lasting, powerful impact on the listener through his vision of the entire playing field prior to his "exploding" out of the gate like Bird (the last 2-4 bars of the introduction), and his purposeful story-telling during the course of a journey in which, rather than impress us, he invites us to be his traveling companions. His work in the '70s, like that of most jazz musicians, is less even, though there were a couple of good outings with vibist Bobby Hutcherson. His last twenty years found him playing competently but with less breath support and a thinner, weaker tone than was the case on his recorded work before 1980.
All told, Harold Land was, like Hank Mobley, an underappreciated giant. With players like Hawk, Prez, Getz, Rollins, Dexter and Coltrane getting most of the jazz savants' attention, Harold was, like Hank Mobley, another "Middleweight Champion" of the tenor saxophone--except to numerous other musicians. Mention his name or a recording like "The Fox" to West Coast musicians with longer memories, and they're often as speechless about his enormous facility as those whose uninformed silent voices made Land an "unsung hero." This set should help set the record straight. (I recently saw a presentation about the "Tenor Titans" of jazz hosted by Branford Marsalis, and there was no mention of Harold Land. I frankly don't see how you can listen to the music of this set and the recordings with Clifford that preceded these 6 albums without coming away with renewed respect for an American musician of the first order. He may not be in the Top 5 Tenors of all time, but any list of the Top 10 would be remiss not to include the name of Harold Land, one of the most instantly identifiable voices of all time on the quintessential jazz instrument.