During a recent trip to the Bay area, at the invitation of publicist extraordinaire Terri Hinte, I made my first visit to Fantasy Records, in Berkeley. For the last quarter century, I have been listening, intently, to Fantasy releases. As their website explains, the Fantasy story is "actually the story of a number of outstanding record labels which, over the last quarter century, have happened to find themselves under one roof."?
My first Fantasy releases, back in the 60s, were Lenny Bruce's recordings, which had a tremendous impact on my teenage years. I can still recite one of his classic routines, "The Palladium,"? which I memorized after playing it so many times I had to replace the LP.
The San Francisco based label also recorded "Beat"? poets, Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader, and other Bay Area 50s "icons."? Saul Zaentz, who later built another career as a movie producer of Academy Award winning films, first worked as a salesman for Fantasy and in 1967, put together a group of investors to buy the label. The next year, Fantasy signed Creedence Clearwater Revival, who just happened to sell a hundred million records over the next few decades.
The success of CCR served as the catalyst for Fantasy's expansion. Under the direction of label president Ralph Kaffel, Fantasy started buying the catalogs of leading independents: Prestige (also including its subsidiaries New Jazz, Bluesville, Folklore, Swingville, Tru-Sound, and Moodsville); Riverside, ( along with Jazzland); and Milestone. Eventually Debut, Pablo, Contemporary, Stax and several others became part of the Fantasy family.
With this incredibly rich content, Fantasy began an unprecedented reissue campaign that brought the early music of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and many others, back into the forefront. The program continues to this day, preserving these works of art in a way that both honors the creators and their music, and the listener, as well.
In the 70s, Fantasy established a two for one "twofers"? program with luscious 2-LP sets. In the 80s, they debuted the Original Jazz Classics series, where reissues included the original artwork and format. In 1980, they also released the first boxed set by a jazz artist, Miles Davis' Chronicle: The Complete Prestige Recordings (1951-56)
The label's careful attention to royalties, remastering, art work, photos, liners notes and the inclusion of alternative takes and unreleased tracks became the standard by which all reissues have been judged ever since.
In addition to reissues, Fantasy recorded new music as well, including memorable Milestone albums by Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner. My tour of the building included a visit to several studios where both Fantasy artists and others still record. In fact, Carlos Santana had recently used one of the studios for some new music.
Interestingly, I came to San Francisco to hear McCoy Tyner at Yoshi's in a trio that featured Billy Cobham so I found it was quite a coincidence that during my tour, Terri Hinte, who has been at Fantasy since the Nixon administration, told me, "this is the studio where McCoy recorded 'Fly With The Wind' in 1976."? Billy Cobham was the drummer on that recording. And yet another studio was the birthplace of many favorite Sonny Rollins sessions.
Finally, we were in the archives, the vaults, a structurally sound, temperature-controlled room housing thousands of recordings, in varying formats. Stuart Kremsky, is the keeper of the keys to this kingdom, which includes many of the major musical achievements of the 20th century.
As Mr. Kremsky, a dedicated, knowledgeable writer/archivist gave me the 411 on the ins and outs of the archive, I was somewhat awe-stricken. It felt like I was in the Jazz Library of Congress. On one shelf, the masters for all of the Bill Evans Vanguard recordings. On the next, Miles' marathon Prestige sessions with Trane that originally produced six different Lps. In the next aisle, the complete 1957 Newport Jazz Festival and next to that, acetates from Jazz at the Philharmonic, live gigs from both the US and Europe. And it goes on and on and on. Mind boggling.
To be in the midst of that archive is to fully comprehend the enormity of what Fantasy has assembled over the last three decades. Realizing the serious nature of the task, reissuing this music properly, and how the label has accomplished this, generates tremendous respect for the folks at Fantasy. Thanks to Fantasy, other labels began to seriously explore their vaults and bring back some incredible music we would have never experienced. Boxed sets, a Fantasy innovation, have become essential, the cornerstone of any serious collection.