Hal McKusick: Cross Section – Saxes (1958) Decca

Selection: Stratusphunk (Russell)


On Stratusphunk: Art Farmer (trumpet) Hal McKusick (alto sax) Bill Evans (piano) Barry Galbraith (guitar) Milt Hinton (bass) Charlie Persip (drums) recorded NYC, April 7, 1958 at  Pythian Temple Studios, 135 West 70th St.

On other tracks: Paul Chambers (bass) Connie Kay (drums); add Dick Hafer, Frank Socolow (tenor sax) Jay Cameron (baritone sax), recorded NYC, March 25 & 28, 1958

Starting musical life in the big bands of the ’40s, Hal McKusick’s discography as leader includes Triple Exposure  (Prestige PRLP 7135/ Esquire 32-073, RVG recording at Hackensack), and runs only from 1955 through to 1959, at which point he largely immersed himself in music education, with the occasional sideman role. His light swinging tone sits somewhere near Paul Desmond.

In addition his musical interests, Hal turned to craftsmanship, taught himself woodwork, opened an antiques and restoration shop where he crafted special commission furniture pieces.


The LJC flirtation with jazz arrangements continues.

For this album, McKusick commissioned arrangements from George Handy, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell and Ernie Wilkins, to show-tunes and compositions written by others, that late ’50s phenomenon of the “workshop jazz” concept.

Marc Meyers (JazzWax) interviewed McKusick  in 2010 about the Cross Section Saxes album, here. I can do no better than to respectfully pinch some snippets:

JW: What did Bill Evans think of your concept for the working septet?
HM: He loved it. Bill was interested in getting inside the music, to put his own touch on it while at the same time contributing to the whole. He always sought perfection. When you played a date with Bill or brought him in on a recording session, he would want to know exactly what was going to happen and what you needed from him. Then he would fit himself in appropriately. On Cross Section–Saxes, Bill looked over the charts carefully to see what they were all about. Then he determined his role. It was a fascinating process and outcome.


JW: Which song on the album is your favorite?
HM: George Russell’s  End of a Love Affair. I love the mood of it. The arrangement has this certain restlessness, too. It was a very East Coast sound, meaning you hear the energy and sophistication of the city–the close interaction of people, the hurrying, the ambition. That’s how the musicians felt. Each of us was striving to break new ground. It was an exciting, experimental time for jazz, and that was reflected in the music.


JW: How would you sum up Cross Section–Saxes?
HM: It’s a record with great musicians who had individual sounds. They all could read music brilliantly, listen carefully to each other, blend together and at the same time express their individuality. The arrangements gave us that opportunity. It’s a gem of an album in that regard.


JazzWax tracks: Cross Section–Saxes is out of print and sells for ghastly sums. … (LJC: not so ghastly, see Collector’s Corner) )

Evil Silver Disc to the rescue? Not quite. According to All-Music:

“Most of this music was reissued on the CD Now’s the Time (1957-1958), although two brilliant arrangements by Jimmy Giuffre (“Yesterdays” and his own “Sing Song”) were, unfortunately, omitted from that compilation, making it worth the effort to search for this elusive Decca LP.”

So much for additional  “bonus tracks” on CD, this time around it’s the LP that delivers the goods. “Elusive Decca LP“. That feels extra good.

Vinyl: Decca DL 79209 Mood/ Jazz in HiFi

Deep groove original, 143gm weight. US Decca is something I’d not seen in the UK, very early stereo, workmanlike engineering though not quite Decca, New Malden (New Malden, our answer to New Jersey). The Decca Mood Jazz  J9200 series seems to have been launched in 1958, according to The Billboard:


If the arrangements are brilliant, it features some of the most convoluted liner notes ever written, by Burt Korall, a jazz drummer and author of “Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz” – The Swing Years, and the Bebop Years.

Collector’s Corner

Tip-off on this record came from comments on a previous post. Never heard of or see before, only copy to be found was in the US. Deep breath. The record cost me  $10, but carried a $25 postal charge. Postal charges, don’t they hack you off?  However in a way, it was OK, in that it slipped under the customs threshold. (See comments regarding customs duty thresholds, below)

Update: Reference question in comments below (Ahem, let me Google that for you) yes, there are reissues of Cross Section – Saxes on vinyl both from  France and Japan, seen here, by MCA.


21 thoughts on “Hal McKusick: Cross Section – Saxes (1958) Decca

  1. you guys apparently are unhappy with your US pressings of Coral and Decca. I just went through my Coral/Decca/Brunswich collection and was struck by the better than average sound quality of all of them, no surface noise at all, which I attributed to the breakable non-vinyl material used. Could it be that your copies needed a good cleaning?

    • Rudolf, were the records you tested vinyl or styrene? Some of my Coral and Decca lps are styrene and sound amazing but styrene is brittle and wears down so much faster. I had a chance to A/B a vinyl vs. a styrene pressing of the Helen Merrill and Clifford Brown Emarcy lp. The styrene was louder and livelier but already had just enough groove wear that Clifford fuzzed out during the loudest high notes.

      • with a few exceptions they are styrene, or similar molecules. Styrene is brittle, but I don’t see them wear down in my lifetime.
        I have the John Williams trio on EmArcy in vinyl and styrene. I prefer the latter.

        • Modern tracking weight tonearms surely don’t “wear” grooves, so we must be talking about just historical wear.

          I tapped the side of this and compared tapping an ordinary vinyl, and I could not discern any difference, so I am no wiser.

          The surface is more “noisy” throughout, compared to pristine virgin vinyl, which I suspect is not “wear” or damage but the underlying purity/ quality of the base material pressed.

          Anyone shed more light, I’m all ears.

          • If the record was played with a bad needle it doesn’t take enough plays to inflict damage without showing anything that’s visually obvious. I bought some records from a collection and everything looked pristine. However even though they looked M-, no visible groove wear, they all ticked just on the right channel during high notes or faster passages. An audiophile friend of mine said he had different shaped needles just for this reason. He would try out different ones to see if he could find the right shape to ride above or below the groove walls where a previous needle had damaged the groove. Maybe one of these days……..

  2. Evil Silver Disc to the rescue? It could help if you want to hear this album’s fine music – AVID has all of this LP and two others on one of their “Three Classic Albums” collections.

  3. This is my first and only US Decca, no Coral, so I have an open mind (some say empty). I don’t have any great issue with this copy. It went through my cleaning machine fine, surface is perhaps a little noisier than my best condition vintage but it’s a busy record, music stays on top. I recall someone writing these were “styrene” not vinyl. I’ve no experience with styrene so I wouldn’t know if it is or isn’t, but it certainly doesn’t appear to deposit anything on the stylus.

    Decca UK in the ’50s was an engineering-driven manufacturer. Lots of quality control, great recording and mastering engineers, the famous “Decca tree” microphone technique. Decca US was…what… a marketing operation? I see lots of hifi/stereo hype but the engineering quality isn’t comparable to Contemporary, Columbia or Van Gelder. Pythian Temple Studios, 135 West 70th St. I’ve never heard of, no engineer credits mentioned.

    The artist selection in the J9200 series looks hopelessly dated, poor talent/ A&R direction, the “mood music” sums up their level of aspiration. The Hal McKusick title is beginning to look just a good one that slipped through the net by chance. The high surface noise-to-signal ratio is not a good sign regarding other titles, though the same applies to some Prestige/New Jazz titles in the early ’60s

    • If you tap the edge of the record with the back of your fingernail styrene has a more brittle sound, you’ll know it when you hear it. My friends who collect 45’s love the “hot” styrene soundstage but complain that they’re hard to find without some groove wear.

    • The reason why you haven’t heard of the Pythian Temple studio was because it was Decca’s own studio, located in a building in Manhattan leased from the Knights of Pythias, a Freemason-type organisation. Almost all of Decca’s East Coast sessions were recorded there, beginning with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”. It had a very distinctive room ambience, especially audible in the brass and percussion, that I happen to like very much, and certainly better than (e.g.) the sound of Columbia’s famous 207 East 30th Street studio.

      Decca was also big enough to have their own engineers. The chief engineer from 1943 to 1965 was Charles Lauda (1898-1965), who was killed in a plane crash in Cincinnati on his way to record the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The jazz A&R man was Commodore label founder Milt Gabler, who could be as avant-garde as he wanted to when he felt like it (check out his contributions to John Benson Brooks’s 1968 Decca LP “Avant Slant”).

      But to find the gems in the US Decca/Coral catalogue from this earlier era, you must look far beyond the 9200 series, which is a mood music series because it was deliberately designed to be one. In the mid-to-late ’50s, Decca had any number of worthwhile LPs by Al Cohn (with Zoot Sims), Joe Newman (arranged by Ernie Wilkins and Quincy Jones), Manny Albam, Eddie Costa, Bill Holman, George Russell; and on the West Coast, Ralph Burns, John Graas, Jerry Fielding, Elmer Bernstein… And also a large number of one-off LPs by studio groups with big names in them (this was a something of a Decca speciality).

      • An example of a studio group with big names in them: side B of Decca DL 8130. The group is named ” The Melrose Avenue Conservatory Chamber Music Society”. How is that as a name? Now the artists hidden in the group: Herb Geller, Jack Montrose, Bob Gordon, Stu Williamson, Chico Hamilton, Curtis Counce.

        • Yes, that’s one of those I had in mind, a great LP; I have the UK counterpart, Brunswick LAT 8110.

          That name is probably a spoof of “The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street”, a jazz show that ran NBC radio in 1940-44 and 1950-52. Decca’s West Coast studio was located at 5505 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

  4. I thought that HMRC charged vat on the combined postage and order value!
    Is it only calculated on the price of the item?

    • I looked up what I could find. I hadn’t looked closely at the rules for some years since I virtually never buy LPs from the US other than at “nominal” value.

      “If you buy goods online from outside the EU for delivery to the UK, you’ll have to pay Customs Duty (if over £120 value) and Import VAT (if over £18) on top of the purchase price (including duties), though Customs Duty is waived if the amount of the calculated duty payable is £7 or less. Please note there is also an £8 Parcel Force Fee for collecting the Import VAT.

      Make sure the supplier completes an accurate Customs Declaration. Goods arriving in the UK from outside the EU by post or courier must have a Customs Declaration fixed to the package – completed by the sender.[From the USA, this is a CN22 customs declaration labelfor most values under $400 US.]

      The Value for Import VAT purposes is based on this CN22 declaration AND Postage and Pack Fees.”

      It looks like you are correct, that if the cost of postage drags the combined value of item and postage over the UK Import VAT waiver threshold, you may get hit.

      If I’m reading it correctly, since the duty waiver is below £7 collectable, at 20% VAT rate, an item would need to be over £35 including cost of postage. But they also imply that the duty payable is also part of the items’ taxable value, a tax on a tax, though it doesn’t explain how a waived duty is not part of its final value, so maybe £35 less £7 ie £28 or may be not. They wonder why we hate them?

      My combined cost came to just under £30 GBP, so it “limbo-danced” through customs. May be that is why it took so long. No-one could decide what was due, and waved it through.

      • the filling out of the CN 22 declaration is in the hands of the seller. Many American sellers, in the teutonic way, warn that they are unwilling to give “false” information. Sometimes they will say that it is against EBay policy rules. If seller is unreasoble or stubborn you get hit. There is no way to reason people who never got into the outside (real) world. It has happened to me that a seller said to me that he would denounce me at our Embassy in Washington as a person trying to evade import duties in my home country!
        No safer way than buying in the U.K. or on the Continent.

  5. for whatever reason, postage from the UK to the US is quite reasonable. I have ordered a few records from you folks recently, and the postage is only about 7 pounds.

  6. This is a great album – fully reissued on CD in Japan about a decade ago. Original US Deccas of this vintage are in my experience poor listening experience. On more than one occasion I’ve witness the record surface ‘scrape off’ as the stylus plays. Mounds of grey dust accumulate on the stylus and across the playing surface. Same goes for Coral pressings too.
    That aside McKusick was a very fine player and underrated much like the amazing Gene Quill.

    • Re. mounds of grey dust: I had this happen to me just the once. The album was Jazz Tracks (Lift to the Scaffold?) but that’s not especially relevant. The stylus clogged up with fluff immediately on playing. Even after being run through my record cleaning machine a half dozen times the fluff kept coming, like a magician pulling bunting out of a top hat, endless quantities of stuff. The only explanation I could think was storage in an extremely dust environment, you know – a bachelor pad with no Hoover, and the dust got welded in over the decades. Weirdest thing.

      • I had a Swingville record do this and multiple RCM sessions did nothing. Lighter fluid lifted off the offending substance and now plays fine – after more RCM sessions… not really the way to treat records.

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