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various artists: Prestige 50th Anniversary Special Commemorative Editions

Robert Spencer By

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Fantasy Records is holding a Prestige Records 50th Anniversary celebration, and we are the beneficiaries in these ten Special Commemorative Editions of Prestige classic recordings. They share the virtues of the Prestige label itself: without an overkill of effusive retrospective essays and hypercool packaging, they put the emphasis on the music itself - which is where it should be. These ten towering discs, themselves products of Prestige founder Bob Weinstock's no-nonsense, no-frills approach, represent jazz at its finest: great jazz musicians making music in the moment, of the moment, with all the excitement and freedom of spontaneity. They are presented here in remastered glory, "20-bit supercoding," and there's no doubt whatsoever that the sound is much improved over that of the original reissues.

Above and beyond the sound quality, however, these are ten discs that belong in the library of anyone who is seriously interested in jazz music. Modern jazz? Mainstream jazz? Wynton's sound? It all starts here. And it doesn't get much better.

Boss Tenor, Gene Ammons (PRCD 7180), June 16, 1960

Gene Ammons is the great lost tenor man, a performer with a huge sound and tremendous energy, whose partners included Sonny Stitt and who numbered John Coltrane among his sidemen. This 1960 date is a dip into the Latin sound, with Ray Baretto on congas, but mostly it is big, bluesy, r&b Gene, highlighted by Tommy Flanagan's uncompromising piano, plus Doug Watkins on bass and Art Taylor on drums. "Hittin' the Jug" contains a magnificently precise and enormous Ammons solo; this man could raise the roof when he was right, and on this one he is right all the way through.

Soultrane, John Coltrane (PRCD 7142), February 7, 1958

This is one of those dates when Trane and Red and Mr. P.C. would break away from their cool Miles Davis Quintet mode and stretch out. It may be the best. The sound here is quite attention-grabbing, and brings welcome attention to how carefully and well Garland and co. accompanied Coltrane even at his most furious. "Good Bait" is a taste of what was to come for Coltrane, with a multiphonic hint, and "Russian Lullaby" is the sound that became famous as "sheets of sound." This one, along with Blue Train, is essential Coltrane of the Fiftues era, and for that matter of his entire career.

Walkin', Miles Davis All Stars (PRCD 7076), April 3, 29, 1954

Miles with the precise bop trombonist J. J. Johnson and an unheralded but superb pair of reedmen, Lucky Thompson on tenor and Davey Schildkraut on alto. Not to mention Horace Silver (piano), Percy Heath (bass), and Kenny Clarke (drums). The sound differentiation is hugely improved, on these relatively early recordings, over earlier releases. Meanwhile we have Miles defining his sound on for-the-ages takes of "Solar," "Walkin'," and "You Don't Know What Love Is." Schildkraut is especially inventive and lyrical, and Thompson's tenor is characteristically sweet and dignified. "Walkin'" and "Blue 'n' Boogie," by the way, are among the earliest extended recordings of the LP era; before this, every record was three minutes long.

Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, (PRCD 7150), December 24, 1954 and October 26, 1956

Two separate sessions: one from Christmas Eve 1954 featuring Thelonious Monk on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, and Heath and Clarke. They play "The Man I Love," "Swing Spring," and Monk's "Bemsha Swing." Then fast-forward to October 1956, when Miles was hurrying his celebrated Quintet through their Prestige contract. He and Coltrane, plus Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones dive into "'Round Midnight." This take has a much different feel from the better-known Columbia version. Again, the improved sound on this release offers a better glimpse into the magnificent interplay between the musicians, as all the voices are clearer and sharper.

Cookin', Miles Davis Quintet (PRCD 7094), October 26, 1956

This disc is one of the celebrated quartet by the Quintet: Cookin',, Workin',, Steamin', and Relaxin', all recorded in one marathon session. It all sounds like an excellent club date. The quintet is fiery on Sonny Rollins' "Airegin," where Coltrane is as sharp and brilliantine as ever. Davis, meanwhile, reaches a peak of his wounded romanticism on "My Funny Valentine." The longest track is "Tune Up/When Lights are Low," which offers an excellent opportunity to hear all five of these masters, each of whom left a profound mark on the development of his instrument. Of all these eight, if you can afford just one and don't know this disc, don't miss this one.

Outward Bound, Eric Dolphy Quintet (PRCD 8236), April 1, 1960

It was April Fools Day, but Eric Dolphy wasn't kidding. This was the world's first chance to hear the astonishing and still-missed multi-instrumentalist, who stretched the boundaries of hard bop but never left aside a passionately felt and strongly etched lyricism. Here he and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard go Miles one better on one of the senior trumpeter's signature tunes, "On Green Dolphin Street," with Dolphy bounding and swinging on the heretofore ponderous bass clarinet. The sound here is so crisp that at the first entrance of Hubbard's Harmon muted Miles impersonation, my nine-month-old son immediately looked up at the speaker; the previous release never turned his head. Magnificent music for all ages!

Groovy, Red Garland Trio (PRCD 7113), May 24 and August 9, 1957

Red Garland and Paul Chambers played piano and bass in the celebrated Miles Davis Quintet (along with Mr. Coltrane on tenor and Philly Joe Jones on drums). Joined here by well-traveled Prestige drummer Art Taylor, they take a couple of days off to define modern jazz piano trio music. Garland has somewhat maligned in his day, but after forty years it's a lot easier to hear his gentle and unhurried artistry. He isn't trying to stretch the stylistic boundaries or set any worlds on fire, but he is a consistently inventive improviser. Miles chose him well, and this disc offers a chance to hear what he could really do.

Django, The Modern Jazz Quartet (PRCD 7057), 1953-1955

The Modern Jazz Quartet epitomizes jazz with class, grace, and dignity, and all are much in evidence on this early recording, considerably enhanced in this new release. The hits "Django" and "One Bass Hit" are here, but there's also a good bit of pianist John Lewis' enduring infatuation with classical motifs, including "La Ronde Suite" (in four parts, one for each instrument) and traces all the way through. The MJQ went on for many years, but this disc is as good as any for an introduction to their signature elegance and unflashy virtuosity. Vibraphonist Milt Jackson is particularly commanding throughout.

Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, (PRCD 7075), November 13, 1953, September 22, 1954, and October 25, 1954

Rollins only plays on three of these five tracks (the other two are trios of Monk, Percy Heath, and Art Blakey), but what tracks they are. With a breeziness that sometimes went out of his later work, Rollins navigates over Monk's singular comping with aplomb. The only pity is that together on this disc they only recorded one Monk tune, the wonderful "Friday the 13th," on which French horn player Julius Watkins is an unexpected treat alongside Monk and Sonny. It's fascinating - and newly possible - to hear how Monk plays behind Rollins. He certainly isn't your average accompanist, but he always finds an appropriate space. A fascinating disc.

Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins (PRCD 7079), June 22, 1956

What can be said about a masterpiece? The sonic improvement here benefits Roach especially, and brings to the fore the pristine tick of his cymbal. But if you don't love this one, you don't love jazz, man. "St. Thomas" is Sonny at the top of his casual genius. His introduction to "You Don't Know What Love Is" tops even that. Then there's the sharp fury of "Strode Rode" and the outlandish on-kilter off-kilter "Blue 7." Sonny Rollins, was never better, and I'm not sure anyone else ever has been either. And to top it all off, it's never sounded better than it does here.

Title: Prestige 50th Anniversary Special Commemorative Editions | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Prestige Records


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