Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Chris Connor & Dexter Gordon - Bethlehem Records Rises Again

Bethlehem Records Relaunch

Chris Connor graces the cover of her 1954 release Sings Lullabys For Lovers with her face firmly planted in her right hand, her blonde helmet resting above in a brilliant half circle. Does Connor have a lover or is she singing to lovers against her will? Regardless of the contract she entered into with Bethlehem founder Gus Wildi before stepping to the microphone, she is letting her voice sell it all. There are no smiles or breathy coos to draw the buyer. Good. It isn’t needed.

In August of 1954, Connor was 26. She sells the material with a charming weariness reflecting twice her age. “Lush Life” opens the album with her galloping and braking in tandem with guitarist Joe Cinderella. She exhibits a lyrical confidence that precious few vocalists have and she carries it throughout the eight tracks on this 10” record. She is joined by the Vinnie Burke Quartet which includes five people. Go figure. The small band works through cherished standards but few of them would help any amorous record buyers who have a penchant for lyrics.

Side A opens with the misery of “Lush Life” (Life is lonely again, And only last year everything seemed so sure). Side B is no less charming with Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye” (You take the high road and I’ll take the low, it’s time that we parted, it’s much better so). Are these songs intended to put lovers to sleep or to put love to sleep? Regardless, it’s beautiful and haunting. Connor honors the lyrics faithfully and the small band, which at times includes clarinet and accordion, is the perfect accompaniment to carry the faithfully romantic above the sadness in Connor’s delivery.

What does the rerelease of this album mean? Bethlehem Records has been resurrected. Started 60 years ago, the label captured essential young talents in a crowded New York field that included Riverside, Blue Note and Prestige. Not only has it been resurrected but it’s been put in a tuxedo and taken to the choicest parties. Crisp vinyl transfers and the original packaging are accompanying the slow roll of releases from the label's broad discography. Essential albums by Booker Little, Howard McGhee, Art Blakey and Nina Simone are also available. Chris Connor was honored as one of the first artists to get the deluxe treatment. Dexter Gordon was part of that honor too.  

Daddy Plays the Horn was recorded a year after Connor’s appearance on the label. Long Tall Dexter strides across the recording session with studied confidence, standing out among his tenor saxophone-wielding peers which included Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. He is joined on this album by a couple Los Angeles cohorts (bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Lawrence Marable) as well as pianist Kenny Drew. Less than six months after the death of Charlie Parker, they are dealing in a language that is influenced but not beholden to a bebop language. All four members prize melody with each plunk of their instrument shining on the newly remastered LPs even when they are speaking Parker’s own language on “Confirmation.”

Bethlehem Records has lovingly dug deep into their catalog with a great attention to detail and a respect for the original packaging that first graced turntables nearly 60 years ago. This is a real treat for vinyl geeks.

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