Various Artists: Prestige 50th Anniversary 20-bit Remasters

C. Andrew Hovan By

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When it came to classic mainstream jazz during the '50s and '60s, really only three major independent labels were documenting the kind of timeless fare that is still a dominant part of the jazz legacy- Blue Note, Riverside, and Prestige. The latter was formed in 1949 by Bob Weinstock and for a time served as home base to notable musicians like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, Gene Ammons, and John Coltrane, to name just a few. In later years, Prestige would broaden its range considerably by bringing such independent producers as Esmond Edwards, Don Schlitten, Cal Lampley, and Bob Porter on board. In addition, through their subsidiary labels they explored a wide pastiche of musical genres such as swing, blues, folk, gospel, and world music. Sold to Fantasy, Inc. in the seventies, the Prestige catalog has been maintained through the release of many Original Jazz Classics titles and various compilations.

Now that Prestige is celebrating their 50th anniversary, the folks at Fantasy have just released a set of ten classic titles in limited quantities of 10,000 and with each one receiving a new remastering job courtesy of JVC's 20-Bit K2 Super Coding System. Cut in Japan, this mastering process yields discs with a broader and more dynamic frequency range and resolution. Encased in an attractive outer jacket, original cover art and liners are used. As a charming bit of authenticity, no doubt fostered by Japanese involvement in this project, each CD sports a reproduction of a vintage Prestige record label.

No album from Prestige's past 50 years better fits the title of classic than Sonny Rollins' 1956 magnum opus, Saxophone Colossus (PRCD-7142). So much has already been said and written about this set that anything I add is surely to be superfluous. Nonetheless, it should be restated that at least three of the finest jazz performances ever recorded are to be found here- namely "St. Thomas," "Strode Rode," and "Blue 7." A more impeccable rhythm section could also not have been asked for, as Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins and Max Roach are legends of the music. The only thing left to add is that Rudy Van Gelder's pre-stereo sound, achieved in his parents' living room at the time, is even further refined by the new remastering job.

Rollins is also to be heard on one of the few encounters he had with pianist Thelonious Monk. The self-titled Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins (PRCD- 7075) is actually a deceptively-billed collection culled from three different sessions. Rollins pairs with Monk on two cuts from 1954 that feature just a quartet, plus one more that adds the distinctive French horn of Julius Watkins. Rounding things out are two choice trio numbers, "Nutty" and "Work," that find Monk going trio with bassist Percy Heath and drummer Art Blakey. Again, the overall transformation in remastering leads to subtle but significant improvements when compared to past efforts, especially since much of the Prestige stuff from the '50s that had made it to CD first appeared many years ago and before the current advancements in technology.

Although slightly overshadowed by the work of his "classic quartet" as documented by Impulse, saxophonist John Coltrane's consequential undertakings for Prestige are still a force to be reckoned with. One of his best from the '50s remains Soultrane (PRCD-7142), a highly-celebrated quartet date with the Red Garland Trio. The Billy Eckstine ballad, "I Want to Talk About You," is tender and romantic, as is "Theme For Ernie," a long-forgotten gem that Coltrane interprets with great feeling and an admirable depth of emotion. On the other end of the spectrum, the speed of "Russian Lullaby" plants the seeds for the advanced tumult of sound that would shortly mark Coltrane's own "Giant Steps" and "Countdown."

Pianist Red Garland was a Prestige artist in his own right, amassing over 20 albums for the label between 1956 and 1960 and before subsequently moving on to Riverside in '61. Of this striking embarrassment of riches, Groovy (PRCD-7113) is one of the best and prototypical of his influential technique. You see, Garland made it all sound so easy, but upon closer examination you realize that his commercially-viable style is also laden with profoundness and maturity. He could swing up tempo with the best of them (check out "C-Jam Blues" and "Hey Now"), but he had a real knack for those lowdown ballad tempos ("Gone Again" and "Willow Weep For Me"), where his blues-drenched lines were often punctuated by the bell-like tone of his signature block chords. Bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor serve roles beyond mere time-keeping, breathing as one with Garland's piano. To sum it up in a word- Groovy!

Before heading off to the string of Atlantic sides that would form the foundation of their recorded legacy, The Modern Jazz Quartet would record for Savoy and Blue Note under Milt Jackson's name before they donned the now-familiar group moniker first presented on Prestige. Django (PRCD-7057) is notable for being the first album to document John Lewis' unforgettable title track. Among the many other refined moments gathered from sessions in 1953 and 1955 are "La Ronde Suite," and "Delaunay's Dilemma." Not much more need be said, save that this one is a jazz essential for any respectable collection.

What would a collection of Prestige classics from the label's 50 years be without at least one record from Miles Davis? We don't have to think too long on that one because the anniversary collection includes not one, but three Miles titles (how they even narrowed it down to that must have been a challenge). 1954's Walkin' (PRCD-7076) was an obvious choice. The title track and "Blue 'n' Boogie" are consummate examples of the blowing session at its finest. Meanwhile, the rest of the date finds Miles waxing romantic with a mute over the rhythm team of Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke.

A timeless Christmas Eve session from 1954 forms the basis of the material presented on Miles Davis & the Modern Jazz Giants (PRCD-7150). What was at the time just another afternoon spent cutting some sides at Van Gelder's, now looks like a conference of giants, what with Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke on board. The same could be said for Cookin' (PRCD-7094), which has the final five recorded performances of the Davis band from 1956 that included Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. Taken in tandem with the cuts that appear on the subsequently released Relaxin', Workin', and Steamin' (all three of which should get the new 20-bit updating), you have some of the finest small group jazz recordings extant.

Way before such players as Houston Person and Rusty Bryant were hitting their strides with the "soul jazz" of the late '60s, archetypes of their robust and "down home" sound could be found via such label mates as Willis Jackson and Gene Ammons. The latter saxophonist had a lengthy run on Prestige, starting in the '50s and proceeding another two decades. A quintessential Ammons performance, Boss Tenor (PRCD-7180) goes down as one of those consummate releases where the creative juices were flowing. Often duplicated but seldom surpassed, the patient and methodical blues of "Hittin' the Jug" opens with a light statement from pianist Tommy Flanagan, only to have the heat turned up when Ammons makes his boisterous entrance. A tip of the hat goes to Rudy Van Gelder's engineering here too, with the cavernous echo on Ammons' horn adding to the overall mystique.

Aside from his one immortal Blue Note side, Out to Lunch, the main of multi- intrumentalist's Eric Dolphy's finest recorded artifacts are to be found on Prestige, with Outward Bound (PRCD-8236) being his 1960 debut. Stepping out with some true heavyweights, Dolphy shares the front line with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and backing provided by Jaki Byard, George Tucker, and Roy Haynes. The urgency which marks this cutting edge music impresses as much now as it must of startled listeners some 40 years ago. Things swing (and how could they not help to with Roy Haynes' "snap- crackle" drumming captured brilliantly by Van Gelder), yet there's a stretching of the boundaries that hints of things to come. It's a remarkable accomplishment which is just a small piece of the Dolphy puzzle, but one made more complete now with the entire session presented on a single disc for the first time ever.

Title: Prestige 50th Anniversary 20-bit Remasters | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Prestige Records


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