Wardell Gray was one of the first great tenor sax players of the modern era. Born in Oklahoma Cityand brought up in Detroit, he started out playing clarinet in high school. He played in a variety of bands before joining up with Earl Hines, one of the old guard who was most open to the new sounds emerging in jazz. For three years Gray enjoyed the openness of Hines’ band. In 1946, with his style fully developed, he settled in Los Angeles.
A vibrant scene had sprung up around Central Avenue in the wake of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s appearance at Billy Berg’s Swing Club. Gray fitted right in alongside Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Chico Hamilton and others who were defining West Coast modern jazz. Some of the best nights were the Just Jazz jam sessions organised by local disc jockey Gene Norman. “Way Out Wardell” is the recorded evidence of two of those 1940s nights. Four numbers featuring Gray alongside Howard McGhee, Barney Kessel, Erroll Garner and a member of Garner’s Trio make up the album. What the tracks lack in high fidelity they make up for in excitement and high quality improvising. The album, originally released after Gray’s mysterious death in Las Vegas in 1955, is an essential record of a long-lost scene.
By Dean Rudland