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Fantasy Records and The Concord Music Group

Andrew Velez By

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To be great recordings they really have to be honest and clear documents of what the artist is trying to say--a unique story in a compelling way... —Todd Barkan
The announcement in November 2004 by the Concord Music Group of its acquisition of Fantasy Records marked the joining of two of the last great independent music houses. With its own impressive jazz list including such legends as Marian McPartland, Rosemary Clooney and Gary Burton, Concord seemed a natural fit for Fantasy.

Established in 1949 in San Francisco by pressing plant owners Max and Sol Weiss, Fantasy's first artist was an Oakland pianist named Dave Brubeck. When his recordings began to sell, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Odetta, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce were added to their primarily but not exclusively jazz roster.

The label, which has passed through a number of owners and acquired many other labels, hit the jackpot in the early '70s with what is still Fantasy's biggest and most enduring seller: Creedence Clearwater Revival, the most successful four-piece American rock 'n roll band of all time, with over 100 million total sales worldwide. (The other perennial Fantasy top sellers are Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus and Bill Evans' Waltz For Debby). The enormous success of Creedence allowed Fantasy to acquire three top New York jazz independents: Prestige (and its subsidiaries), Riverside and Milestone.

The latter two were originally established by legendary producer Orrin Keepnews, whose first recording, in 1954, was a 10" Randy Weston LP. Keepnews worked at Fantasy during almost all of the '70s. Most recently he participated in the release of Bill Evans— The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961 (Riverside), for which he also served as producer at the original sessions. The previous partial releases of that set—Sunday at the Vanguard and Waltz for Debby—remain among the most influential recordings in jazz.

The first to record Evans and Wes Montgomery, Keepnews modestly observes, "They were there not because I invented them but because I paid attention to the musicians who told me about them before any other producers paid attention." Of Evans he says simply, "He was a genius and he was a very troubled man. And the combination gave us some very wonderful music."

To define his role as producer is "the most difficult question" says Keepnews, who shepherded recordings by Kenny Drew, McCoy Tyner, Cannonball Adderley, Abbey Lincoln, Junior Mance, Sonny Rollins and Chet Baker. "That job is to get records made in the best possible way, getting the best possible results. And it's almost literally true that the same way doesn't work on any two records. My job is to take as many different kinds of pressure off of the artist as possible."

Among a currently ongoing Fantasy reissue series of sparklingly remastered classics is a 1959 Keepnews session, Thelonious Monk's Alone In San Francisco (Riverside). He recalls it was "an incredibly easy session. Monk was working at the Blackhawk. It was his first San Francisco gig. He was in very good, relaxed shape. Everything on that album with one exception was recorded in one take. He was just completely in command of the situation and enjoying what he was doing."

Another of the great Fantasy producers is Todd Barkan, who currently serves as Artistic Director for Dizzy's Club in New York City, along with producing approximately 30 recordings annually, mainly for the Japanese market. His relationship with Fantasy dates back to the early '70s as a natural outgrowth of Barkan's work as a concert producer and owner of the club Keystone Korner. He began producing live recordings with artists he was booking such as Dexter Gordon, Roy Haynes, Art Pepper and Red Garland.

Barkan rates "a working relationship with an artist whose music you really believe in" as essential for a successful recording. "To be great recordings they really have to be honest and clear documents of what the artist is trying to say—a unique story in a compelling way—George Mraz is a good example. We were doing nothing less than documenting the individual voice of a very important musician."

Warming to his subject, Barkan continues, "What I think was special about Fantasy is those recordings were done for the art of it. Sure, we wanted them to sell, but there were not any expectations of huge sales. Like Steve Berrios. We did some great recordings. He's one of the #1 players who is equally immersed in straight ahead jazz and in the whole Afro-Cuban, Afro-South American Latin jazz genre." He adds, "I also had the luxury of actually working in that studio, the Fantasy studios, where I could go without pressure and spend as much time as I needed to mix and master those records. That enormously contributed to the quality of those records."

Asked to recall a memorable moment, Barkan recounts a session for Freddy Cole's Always. "Grover Washington, Jr. is on that record. He'd made some sweet potato pie. By the end of the second day we were able to get through 11 or 12 songs and we were just about out of pie by the same time. Our pianist, Cyrus Chestnut, who's a rather large fellow, was eyeing that last piece of pie rather avidly. We had one more tune to do, so Freddy Cole, seeing a situation that could be taken advantage of, said, 'OK, Cyrus. If we can do this tune in one take, you can have that piece of pie.' And Cyrus played like Rachmaninoff. He KILLED it. And to this day, those insiders who are close to Cyrus still all call him 'Tater'. He even wrote a tune commemorating that called 'Tateresque'."

Guitar legend Jim Hall, whose Milestone recordings Where Would I Be and Alone Together (a duo set with his close friend Ron Carter) remain catalogue perennials, offers an artist's view of Fantasy. It's a 1960 set, Ben Webster At The Renaissance (Contemporary), which he says has "a particular poignancy. I really had always loved Ben Webster's playing and it was literally an honor to be working with him. The pay was very low as I recall, but it didn't matter. Jimmy Rowles is on that too. He was a hero of mine. And Frank Butler and Red Mitchell. They were all fantastic players. The only thing I know for sure is that from the very beginning when I went to Los Angeles, it was almost an instinct that if you were a jazz player you would purposely stay away from large labels. Because the feeling was pretty much they would dictate what they wanted you to do and you were in danger of selling out."

As the Concord Music Group continues to maintain and expand the legendary list, jazz lovers can relax. Fantasy remains alive and well.

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