J.J. Johnson & Kai Winding - "Jay & Kay + 6"

J.J. Johnson & Kai Winding • Jay & Kay +6 • 1956 • Columbia Records CL 892
Recording dates and location unknown.

The Selections:

The Players:

J.J. Johnson - Trombone, Trombonium
Kai Winding - Trombone, Trombonium
Urbie Green - Trombone
Bob Alexander - Trombone
Eddie Bert - Trombone
Jimmy Cleveland - Trombone
Tom Mitchell - Bass Trombone
Bart Varsalona - Bass Trombone
Hank Jones - Piano
Milt Hinton - Bass (A2, A3, A5, A6, B2, B3, B5)
Ray Brown - Bass (A1, A4, B1, B4, B6)
Osie Johnson - Drums
Candido Camero - Conga, Bongo (A1, A4, B1)

The Tracks:

A1. A Night In Tunisia
A2. Piece For Two Tromboniums
A3. Rise 'N' Shine
A4. All At Once You Love Her
A5. No Moon At All
A6. Surrey With The Fringe On Top
B1. The Peanut Vendor
B2. You're My Thrill
B3. Jeanne
B4. Four Plus Four
B5. You Don't Know What Love Is
B6. The Continental

The Dig:

I scored this beauty in what I call the "vinyl underground," that dark and dusty world of crates and boxes that record stores keep under their shelves and bins of LPs. Sometimes they're marked at 50¢, sometimes at a $1, or in this case no prices at all, requiring a trip to the counter to find out what they want for it. In the jazz section these crates are often full of soft jazz, obscure torch singers or maybe just a whole bunch of Pete Fountain records. I was surprised to come across any quality title by J.J. Johnson (one of the jazz cats I just can't get enough of) let alone a rare LP from his time making albums with his fellow trombone maestro Kai Winding. The nice girl at the front counter informed me I could have it for $5, which seemed a deal for a 6-eye Columbia pressing no matter the music inside, so home it went with me.

The Record:

In 1954 J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding started a fruitful partnership that would run for the next two years, first on Savoy, then Bethlehem and finally ending with a few records for Columbia. The pairing would result in a run of quality albums that brought the two trombonists both critical praise as well as commercial fame. For most of this time they operated as a quintet, with the two trombone front-line joined by piano, bass and drums. Jay & Kai + 6 is rightfully billed to "The Jay and Kai Trombone Octet," as for this outing they are joined by six trombone players in addition to the regular rhythm section. The twelve tunes are arranged by either Johnson or Winding, who manage to not only find space for all the players, but to keep the music exciting and fresh as well.

The make up of the horn section is six "traditional" trombones and two bass trombones, along with what the liner notes tell us is the first appearance of the trombonium on a jazz record (played on a few tracks by Johnson and Winding). These instruments are apparently "upright valve instruments of similar range and nearly the same tone [as a trombone], developed to replace the more cumbersome slide trombones in marching bands." In any case, as a listener they are indistinguishable from the regular trombones.

Of the additional trombone players, there are a couple of recognizable names in Urbie Green and Jimmy Cleveland. I personally am not familiar with Eddie Bert and Bob Alexander or the two bass trombone players Tom Mitchell and Bart Varsalona. All the players,however, are more than up to the task of this complicated session, I can only imagine that Johnson and Winding were quite the perfectionists and raised the virtuosity of everyone present. The rhythm section is of very high quality for this period, with Hank Jones on piano, Milt Hinton or Ray Brown on Bass and Ossie Johnson on the drums. A young Candido also shows up for three songs, adding his distinctive percussion talents to the proceedings.

review of the album from the September 29, 1956 issue of Billboard Magazine illustrates their popularity at the time.

All the tracks are short and really enjoyable, with a few standouts including a blazing rendition of "Night In Tunisia" and the rollicking numbers "Rise 'N' Shine" and "The Continental." Just check out "Rise 'N' Shine" above with the soloists appearing in the following order: Johnson, Winding, Bart, Green and then Cleveland before Johnson comes back in for the final chorus. It's a great illustration of just how tight this group was in recording in a format that had never been tried before. Maybe most importantly, when you sit and listen to this record it comes off as great jazz music, not an interesting "experiment" involving multiple musicians on the same instrument. 

This would essentially be the final recording by Johnson and Winding for this first incarnation of their partnership (there would be one more appearance on record in the form of a live recording on the split album Dave Brubeck and Jay & Kai at Newport), before they would go their separate ways for a while. They would reunite a couple more times, notably for an Impulse! album in 1960 and a pair of albums on CTI in the late 1960's (apparently Creed Taylor thought highly of the duo). I find any of their recordings together to be great listening, but especially their original recordings in the mid-1950's when the creativity was flowing at a high level and - with the appreciation of audiences and critics alike - it must have seemed to the duo  that anything was possible in the jazz world, which for a short time it probably was.  

The Vinyl:

The 6-eye Columbia label doesn't disappoint, with it's loud and clear audio that gives the listener the feeling of being in the room with the the players. My copy has it's share of surface wear, but as with many early modern jazz vinyl, these 6-eye pressings seem to stand up to quite a bit of abuse and still give off beautiful sound. 

We've got "XLP38217-1A" stamped into each side (no change to "1B" for Side 2) as the lone markings in the vinyl trail-off, keeping that part simple. I know this album was never released on CD, and it appears to only have been re-issued on vinyl one time in 1981 as part of Columbia's "Jazz Odyssey" series - that strange set of quality jazz titles released with completely different cover artwork (although the original artwork was featured in the top left corner of the back cover). I never quite understood the logic behind the design of these releases, but they do offer an opportunity to own some obscure titles at cheap prices. Oddly enough, I have Johnson's J.J. Inc. in this incarnation and the sound quality is above average.

The cover art is phenomenal, with the great cartoonist Arnold Roth's illustration of eight trombonists playing together. It screams vintage 1950's LP cover, and the look on the poor chap's face on the bottom right who loses his hat gets me every time. A couple of issues with it, though, the first being that Winding's first name is misspelled as "Kay" twice on the front cover (including in the title), but is correct on the back cover and label. Second, all the trombone players on the cover are white. Johnson was a big star in the jazz world at this time, couldn't they have paid him (and Jimmy Cleveland as well) the respect of getting this rather important fact about him right? I know times were different in 1956, but it still strikes me as a bit ridiculous. Far from the greatest indignity Johnson would face in his life, I'm sure, but it still manages to rub me the wrong way and sully an otherwise great vinyl find.