Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins: Celebrating Prestige's 60th Anniversary

Chris May By

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In fall 2009, the Prestige label is celebrating its 60th Anniversary with a series of compilations and remasters. In October, the Side Steps box set was released, chronicling saxophonist John Coltrane's sideman legacy with the label. In November, there's a compilation of sessions recorded by trumpeter Miles Davis with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, The Classic Prestige Sessions 1951-1956, and two reissues remastered by their original recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, pianist Red Garland's Dig It! (1957-58), featuring Coltrane, and Rollins' Moving Out (1954).

Packed with five-star performances, the albums catch Davis, Coltrane and Rollins poised on the edge of greatness and mark significant milestones in their careers.

Miles Davis & Sonny Rollins
The Classic Prestige Sessions 1951-1956
Prestige Records

The two-disc The Classic Prestige Sessions 1951-1956 brings together, in chronological order, half a dozen studio sessions jointly featuring Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. All the music is available in 2009 over seven separate Prestige albums: Davis' Early Miles, Miles Davis And Horns, Bags Groove and Collectors' Items, Rollins' With The Modern Jazz Quartet, the Davis/Rollins co-credited Dig, and Conception, jointly credited to Davis and saxophonists Stan Getz and Lee Konitz. Veteran jazz critic Ira Gitler, who wrote many of Prestige's sleeve notes during the period surveyed, and who produced one of the featured sessions, contributes a personal commentary on the music, and the circumstances surrounding its making, over eleven pages of the accompanying booklet.

In 1951, although Davis had achieved a degree of singularity with jazz's then-alternative manifesto, Birth Of The Cool (Capitol/Blue Note), and was already a soloist of considerable poise, he and Rollins were both still working within a generic bop style. Three 1951 sessions make up the first disc. By late 1956, both musicians were emerging as distinctive stylists, Davis with a series of quintet albums on Prestige and Columbia featuring Coltrane and Garland, and Rollins with the quartet set, Saxophone Colossus (Prestige). Sessions from 1953, 1954 and 1956 make up the second disc.

None of the source albums for The Classic Prestige Sessions 1951-1956 have wide currency in 2009—either among those Davis enthusiasts who signed up during or following his late 1960s/early 1970s electric era, or among those whose trajectory starts a decade earlier with Davis' post-Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959) acoustic maturity.

What a feast of thrilling music they're missing. The 1951 sessions burst with youthful exuberance and a tangible sense of two artists destined for greatness. Davis is the most consistently on-song soloist, his ringing tone and expansive lines giving little hint of the darker introspection that would become a trademark. His solos on "Blue Room (Take 2)" and "My Old Flame" are jewels of wistful loveliness. The down home "Bluing" is another enduring work—just short of 10 minutes long and according to Gitler the first Prestige track preplanned to extend beyond the era's prevailing three-minute 78rpm playing time (10-inch albums had just been introduced). Davis' affinity with the blues is often forgotten, and here he turns in a solo of near incantatory power. Rollins on tenor, and Jackie McLean on alto, though not reaching the same level, acquit themselves memorably too.

The second disc finds Davis and Rollins further down the road to individuality. "Round Midnight," from an otherwise lackluster 1953 session featuring Charlie Parker, on tenor (for contractual reasons), and with nine-tenths of a bottle of gin (and who knows what else) inside him, is a strikingly atmospheric reading of the Thelonious Monk/Cootie Williams tune. The 1954 session presents a newly confident and commanding Rollins, and includes three Rollins tunes which were soon to become jazz standards: "Airegin," "Oleo" and "Doxy." The closing 1956 session—"In Your Own Sweet Way," "No Line" and "Vierd Blues"—is music so deliciously dreamy that you may want to curl up and purr at the sound of it.

Red Garland Quintet with John Coltrane
Dig It! (Rudy Van Gelder Remasters)
Prestige Records

Dig It! is a bit of a curate's egg, to be sure. Put together from sessions led by Garland in December 1957 and February 1958, and a third intended for a solo album by drummer Art Taylor in March 1957, Dig It! is not the most cohesive of the pianist's Prestige albums of the period. Soul Junction and High Pressure (both 1957), featuring the same quintet—Coltrane, trumpeter Donald Byrd, bassist George Joyner (before he adopted the name Jamil Sulieman Nasser) and Taylor—are more rounded sets.

But in Charlie Parker's twisting and turning "Billie's Bounce" and Garland's blues "Lazy Mae," together totaling 26 minutes, Dig It! delivers high carat gold, especially from Coltrane. By the time of the session, in December 1957, Coltrane was on edge of superstardom, poised to wrest the tenor crown from Rollins, and his solos on the two tunes, largely fashioned from the "sheets of sound" that were to stir up such strong passions for and against, are amongst his most exciting of the period. Garland turns in his strongest solo on "Lazy Mae," his twin signatures of rococo block chords and funky single note lines built around flattened thirds and sevenths meshing to wonderful effect.

Sonny Rollins
Moving Out (Rudy Van Gelder Remasters)
Prestige Records

Recorded in August and October 1954, Moving Out chronicles Rollins just prior to the time he relocated from New York to Chicago for a year of study and self-evaluation. On his return to Manhattan, he set out his new stall, first with the aforementioned Saxophone Colossus and then with Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957).

On Moving Out, Rollins is accompanied on four originals by trumpeter Kenny Dorham, pianist Elmo Hope, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Art Blakey. On the fifth track, the standard "More Than You Know," he leads a quartet which also includes pianist Thelonious Monk, bassist Tommy Potter and Art Taylor.

As noted with The Classic Prestige Sessions 1951-1956, by 1954 Rollins' true stature was beginning to reveal itself, and on Moving Out he serves undeniable evidence of what was to follow the Chicago sabbatical. Supported by the propulsive Blakey and Heath over three up-tempo tunes and the ballad "Silk 'N' Satin," he turns in striking solos. Hope, on piano, though beset by "personal problems," is also on form, as is Monk on "More Than You Know." The album is a worthy addition to the Rudy Van Gelder Remasters.

Tracks and Personnel

The Classic Prestige Sessions 1951 - 1956

Tracks: CD1: Morpheus; Down; Blue Room (Take 1); Blue Room (Take 2); Whispering; I Know; Conception; Out Of The Blue; Denial; Bluing; Dig; My Old Flame; It's Only A Paper Moon. CD2: Compulsion; The Serpent's Tooth (Take 1); The Serpent's Tooth (Take 2); Round Midnight; Airegin; Oleo; But Not For Me (Take 1); But Not For Me (Take 2); Doxy; In Your Own Sweet Way; No Line; Vierd Blues.

Personnel: Miles Davis: trumpet (CD1#1-5, CD1#7-13, CD2), piano (CD1#6); Sonny Rollins: tenor saxophone (CD1#1-3, CD1#5-13, CD2); Bennie Green: trombone (CD1#1-2, CD1#5); Jackie McLean: alto saxophone: (CD1#7-12); John Lewis: piano (CD1#1-5); Walter Bishop Jr: piano (CD1#7-13, CD2#1-4); Percy Heath: bass (CD1#1-6, CD2#1-9); Tommy Potter: bass (CD1#7-13); Roy Haynes: drums (CD1#1-6); Art Blakey: drums (CD1#7-13). Charlie Parker: tenor saxophone (CD2#1-4); Horace Silver: piano (CD2#5-9); Tommy Flanagan: piano (CD2#10-12); Paul Chambers: bass (CD2#10-12); Philly Joe Jones: drums (CD2#1-4); Kenny Clarke: drums (CD2#5-9); Arthur Taylor: drums (CD2#10-12).

Dig It!

Tracks: Billie's Bounce; Crazy Rhythm; CTA; Lazy Mae.

Personnel: Red Garland: piano; John Coltrane: tenor saxophone (1, 3, 4); Donald Byrd: trumpet (1, 4); George Joyner: bass (1, 3, 4); Paul Chambers: bass (2); Arthur Taylor: drums.

Moving Out

Tracks: Moving Out; Swingin' For Bumsy; Silk 'N' Satin; Solid; More Than You Know.

Personnel: Sonny Rollins: tenor saxophone; Kenny Dorham: trumpet (1-4); Elmo Hope: piano (1-4); Thelonious Monk: piano (5); Percy Heath: bass (1-4); Tommy Flanagan: bass (5); Art Blakey: drums (1-4); Arthur Taylor: drums (5).

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