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Prestige Records: An Alternative Top 20 Albums

Prestige Records: An Alternative Top 20 Albums
Chris May By

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Alfred Lion had to make everything really good and break new ground musically. Prestige was the other side of that, a laid-back approach, easygoing. So it created a different kind of music, more relaxed, all improvisation. —Rudy Van Gelder
Along with Alfred Lion's Blue Note and Orrin Keepnews' Riverside, Bob Weinstock's Prestige was at the top table of independent New York City-based jazz labels from the early 1950s until the mid 1960s. Like those other two labels, Prestige built up a profuse catalogue packed with enduring treasures.

Originally a record retailer, Weinstock founded Prestige in 1949. The label struck unexpected gold in 1952 with singer King Pleasure's hit "Moody Mood For Love" (aka "Moody's Mood For Love"), which was based on alto saxophonist James Moody's 1949 single "I'm In The Mood For Love." As a capital-accruing lucky break, "Moody Mood For Love" was on a par with the success of Chess Records' first ever single, Gene Ammons' million-selling "My Foolish Heart" in 1950. Unhappy with the set up at Chess, Ammons began recording for Prestige the same year. He never topped "My Foolish Heart," but his sales were an important income stream for Prestige right up until Weinstock sold the label in 1971.

Like Alfred Lion and Orrin Keepnews, Weinstock focused on producing records by emerging or relatively unknown musicians. And also like Lion, his first-call engineer was Rudy Van Gelder, at whose Hackensack and later Englewood studios practically all Prestige albums were recorded from 1954 onwards.

Unlike Lion and Keepnews, Weinstock was not interested in second takes or rehearsals. He favoured replicating club performances, partly to save time and keep costs down, partly because he wanted to capture the same spontaneous vibe. (One of the handful of artists who successfully insisted on second takes was the Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis). And also unlike Lion, who had Reid Miles design almost all Blue Note's sleeves from 1955 -1966, Weinstock was not interested in sophisticated graphics or a house style. Nor were Prestige sessions documented with photographs, as they routinely were at Blue Note by Lion's business partner, Francis Wolff. For Weinstock, it was what was in the grooves that mattered.

Weinstock was an astute businessman, but most artists felt he treated them well, at least by the standards of the time. (Jackie McLean was later a vociferous exception). Prestige picked up the tagline "the junkie's label," because so many New York musicians knew they could pitch up Weinstock's office and get an immediate cash advance on a recording date. Lion and Keepnews (and his business partner, Bill Grauer) were reputedly less easy touches. Eventually the steady stream of visitors got too much even for Weinstock, and it was one of the reasons he moved Prestige's offices out of Manhattan to New Jersey in the mid 1960s.

Weinstock's modus operandi differed from those of Lion and Keepnews in his preference for managing Prestige's business affairs rather than producing its sessions. Ozzie Cadena, Ira Gitler, Chris Albertson and Bob Porter were among half-a-dozen producers he frequently used. On the occasions when he did produce, "Weinstock wanted Rudy to do what Rudy did," said Porter, "and stayed the hell out of his way." He expected his producers to do the same.

"It was discouraging to have a good date spoiled by poor sound," Weinstock said decades later. "I was seriously thinking of getting out of the business when we tried Rudy. Not only did he give us good engineering, but he has a thorough understanding of how a session should be handled. He knew the music, he knew what he was doing. He's a genius, let's face it."

In 1971, Weinstock sold Prestige to Fantasy and moved to Florida. Apart from a brief spell producing local musicians for Fantasy, he never returned to the studio. Instead he concentrated on his stock portfolio, using an investment system which he invented himself. He passed in 2006, aged 77.

Prestige is best known for a string of early albums by Miles Davis and John Coltrane, two of many Prestige artists who were snapped up by bigger labels once they had demonstrated their sales potential. In order to keep things alternative, the top twenty below excludes Davis' and Coltrane's albums along with other widely celebrated ones by the Modern Jazz Quartet, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk.

Hopefully, you will find one or two items that have so far escaped your attention.

PRESTIGE RECORDS: OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Jackie McLean Quintet
Lights Out!
1956

The first of nine albums Jackie McLean recorded for Prestige during a two-year burst of activity between January 1956 and August 1957, Lights Out! is the best of the bunch. McLean shares the frontline with Donald Byrd and Elmo Hope is the pianist. A straight-ahead mix of burners, blues and ballads, Lights Out! is some distance from the landmark albums McLean would go on to record with Grachan Moncur on Blue Note in the early 1960s, but it is a vibrant blast of first-wave hard bop (and includes a great version of George Gershwin's "A Foggy Day").

Art Farmer
Art Farmer Quintet Featuring Gigi Gryce
1956

In the mid 1950s, Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce collaborated on around half-a-dozen quietly adventurous albums for Prestige and other labels. The discs had a twin focus, part Gryce's composing and arranging, part Farmer's wonderfully lyrical improvising. Featuring Gigi Gryce includes Gryce's enduring tribute to jazz patron Baroness Panonnica de Koenigswarter, "Nica's Tempo." The Farmer / Gryce partnership broke up all too early. Gryce grew increasingly disenchanted with the music business and by the turn of the decade had begun a second career as an educator. Farmer then forged a partnership with another major league composer, Benny Golson, in the Jazztet.

Bob Brookmeyer
The Dual Role Of Bob Brookmeyer
1956

As a valve trombonist in other musicians' bands, Bob Brookmeyer played a key role in two magic moments in 1950s jazz: as Stan Getz's foil on the live album Stan Getz At The Shrine (Norgran, 1955) and as a member of Jimmy Giuffre's trio in the movie Jazz On A Summer's Day, recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. Both highlighted Brookmeyer's talent for contrapuntal improvising, which is also to the fore on The Dual Role Of Bob Brookmeyer. Brookmeyer leads a quartet, playing trombone on some tracks and piano on others. On half of them his frontline partner is guitarist Jimmy Raney, on the other half it is vibraphonist Teddy Charles.

Gene Ammons
The Happy Blues
1956

As an independent label, Prestige became accustomed to recording young lions and later, once they had proved their commercial potential, losing them to larger companies. But Gene Ammons never left the label. "Gene sold more than Miles, Coltrane, Monk, all of them put together," said Weinstock in 2001. "We'd do a lot of recording and I always had records ready to release. And whenever he came out of prison he would say: 'Thanks for keeping my name in front of the people while I was away.' He had the ability to reach the people, juke boxes, everything." The Happy Blues, featuring Art Farmer and Jackie McLean, is a great example of Ammons' art (which would merit the description "populist," were that not such a dirty word in 2020).

Tadd Dameron
Fontainebleau
1956

Swing-to-bop stylist Tadd Dameron played what is dismissively called "arranger's piano." But his talents as a composer and orchestrator more than compensated for that, enabling him to co-lead a band with trumpet pyrotechnician Fats Navarro from 1947 until Navarro passed from heroin-related causes in 1950, and also to lead the quartet which recorded Mating Call (Prestige, 1957), which was later reissued under John Coltrane's name. On Fontainebleau, Dameron heads an eight-piece band on five originals including "The Scene Is Clean" (yeah, right). The horn section includes Kenny Dorham, Sahib Shihab and Cecil Payne. The album was made not long before Dameron began a two-year prison term from which his career never recovered.

Moondog
The Story of Moondog
1957

Multi-instrumentalist, composer, instrument maker and life-long busker Moondog was perhaps the ultimate outsider of 20th century American music. He was championed by Lester Young, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker, who is said to have enjoyed jamming with Moondog on his pitch on the corner of New York's 6th Avenue and 54th Street. Philip Glass has cited the Prestige album, More Moondog (1956), as an influence on himself and fellow minimalist pioneer Steve Reich when they were studying at Juilliard. Moondog had been experimenting with outer-limits time signatures (here including 5/4 and 7/2) a decade before Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia, 1959). Andy Warhol, then an unknown commercial artist, designed the sleeve.

Herbie Mann & Bobby Jaspar
Flute Soufflé
1957

Like his British contemporary Tubby Hayes, Belgium's Bobby Jaspar was that rare creature during the late 1950s and 1960s: a European jazz musician who was taken seriously by American musicians. After backing visiting stars such as Chet Baker and Jimmy Raney in Brussels and Paris, and a brief marriage to Blossom Dearie, Jaspar moved to New York in 1956. Also like Hayes, Jaspar was a tenor saxophonist who doubled on flute. Herbie Mann was a flautist who doubled on tenor. Both musicians play both instruments on the mellifluous Flute Soufflé , but mostly flute and alto flute. Mann went on to enjoy a lengthy career. Jaspar died of heroin-related causes in 1963.

Jimmy Raney
A
1957

Jimmy Raney was one of two guitarists with whom Stan Getz recorded near masterpieces in the early 1950s. The other was Johnny Smith. Both were Kentuckyans, both had virtuosic technique and both were lyrical. There any similarity ends. Smith wove his improvisatory magic through extended chordal passages, Raney through lengthy but cohesive single-note runs. A is perhaps Raney's greatest own-name album. It is a compilation of three 1954 and 1955 sessions. Most of the tunes are standards and most of them are played by a quintet including trumpeter John Wilson. On the four quartet tracks Raney overdubbed a second guitar line.

Teo Macero And The Prestige Jazz Quartet
Teo
1957

A curiosity rather than a desert island disc. Rendered immortal as a producer for his roles on Miles Davis' In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), Teo Macero is less well known as a tenor saxophonist. This is mostly because his technical facility was not complemented by a flair for in-the-moment improvising. Macero functioned better as an editor and reassembler of other musicians' work. He was also a minor league Third Stream-ish composer. The Prestige Jazz Quartet includes vibraphonist Teddy Charles, who shared Macero's Third Stream interests, and pianist Mal Waldron. Blue Note's first-call graphic artist, Reid Miles, designed the sleeve. Herbie Mann and Bobby Jaspar's Flute Soufflé (above) also suggests Miles, but contains no sleeve credit.

Gil Evans
Gil Evans & Ten
1958

Recorded around the same time as his hit collaboration with Miles Davis, Miles Ahead (Columbia, 1957), Gil Evans & Ten is the first album Gil Evans released under his own name. Columbia's budget permitted a nineteen-piece band. The Prestige budget ran to eleven. Despite the smaller lineup, and Davis' absence, this is a great album, which has been overshadowed by Evans' subsequent releases on World Pacific and Impulse!. Standout tracks include Leadbelly's "Ella Speed," Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now" and Cole Porter's "Just One Of Those Things." Lee Konitz and Steve Lacy lead the reeds, Johnny Carisi and Jimmy Cleveland lead the brass.

Dorothy Ashby
Hip Harp
1958

Alice Coltrane may have brought the harp to a wider jazz audience in the 1960s, but Dorothy Ashby was championing the instrument a decade earlier. Hip Harp is her second 1958 release leading a quartet including flautist Frank Wess. The other is In A Minor Groove on the Prestige subsidiary New Jazz. Both are recommended. Herman Wright is the bassist on both discs; drummers are Art Taylor on the Prestige and Roy Haynes on the New Jazz. Hip Harp includes a sublime version of John Blackburn's "Moonlight In Vermont," and In A Minor Groove an equally memorable one of Oscar Pettiford's "Bohemia After Dark."

Paul Quinichette
Basie Reunion
1958

In 1952, Paul Quinichette was hired by Count Basie to replace Lester Young specifically because his sound was so close to that of Young. Quinichette duly became known as "Vice Prez." Basie Reunion, recorded with seven other Basie alumni including trumpeters Buck Clayton and Lester 'Shad' Collins, guitarist Freddie Green and drummer Jo Jones, was Quinichette's second Basie project for Prestige, following For Basie in 1957. Both are loose-limbed, expansive jams. Basie Reunion has the edge if only for the presence of Clayton.

Willis Jackson
Please Mr Jackson
1959

Weinstock turned down the chance to sign Jimmy Smith, who was quickly signed by Blue Note. "After that I signed the first fifteen organ players I could find," Weinstock said. One of them, Jack McDuff, is on hand for this session with bar-walking tenor saxophonist Willis "Gator" Jackson. Please Mr Jackson was the first of over two dozen albums Jackson made for Prestige, a good number of them with McDuff. Jackson could honk and scream with the best of them, but the focus here is on ballads. Bill Jennings is on guitar, Tommy Potter on bass and Alvin Johnson on drums. Unpretentious feel-good music, just like....

Jimmy Forrest
Out Of The Forrest
1961

.... on which Tommy Potter is again present. Jimmy Forrest was another great rhythm 'n' blues going on soul-jazz tenor saxophonist, who recorded for Prestige for a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The set list includes two Forrest originals, the burner "Crash Program" and the laid-back "Bolo's Blues," first heard as the B-side of Forrest's 1951 jukebox hit "Night Train." Also included is Joe "Honeydripper" Liggins' "I've Got A Right To Cry." For the rest of the tracks, Forrest sticks to standards. Joe Zawinul, who would shortly join Cannonball Adderley's band, is the pianist.

Roland Kirk
Kirk's Work
1961

Roland Kirk's only release for Prestige is an in-the-pocket tour de force which has been overshadowed by the breakthrough Mercury albums which followed it, notably We Free Kings, recorded just a few weeks later. Kirk, by turns blazing and balladic, plays tenor saxophone, manzello, stritch, flute and siren, alongside co-star Jack McDuff on Hammond B3. All Kirk's signature ingredients are in place: three horns played simultaneously, vocalised flute, blues 'n' roots originals, enough swing to raise the dead, and quirky inclusions in the set list. The latter is provided by Charles Emile Waldteufel's "Skater's Waltz." The spirit of the album is captured by the title of track two, Walter Donaldson's "Makin' Whoopee."

Eric Dolphy Eric Dolphy At The Five Spot
1961

Another neglected treasure from another one-off reeds player. Eric Dolphy's At The Five Spot was recorded at the NYC club in summer 1961. Co-headliner Booker Little passed a few months later, aged just 23. Dolphy plays alto saxophone and bass clarinet. Mal Waldron is on piano, Richard Davis on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. It is a monster band. Side one has terrific performances of Waldron's "Fire Waltz" and Little's "Bee Vamp," but it is Dolphy's "The Prophet," taking up all of side two, which is the high point. Dolphy would not release anything as majestic as this under his own name until Out To Lunch! (Blue Note) in 1964.

Oliver Nelson Screamin' The Blues
1961

Eric Dolphy shines again on Oliver Nelson's Screamin' The Blues. Only a hair's breadth separates this album from Nelson's chef d'oeuvre, The Blues And The Abstract Truth (Impulse!), also released in 1961. Well, two hairs' breadth maybe. Trumpeter Richard Williams and pianist Richard Wyands are sterling presences on Screamin', but Freddie Hubbard and Bill Evans are peerless on Abstract Truth, which also has the best tunes. Roy Haynes lights up both albums. Another worthwhile Nelson album on Prestige is 1962's Afro/American Sketches, his big band debut.

Larry Young Groove Street
1962

There are few clues here to the paradigm-shifting albums Larry Young would make on Blue Note during the latter half of the 1960s— although Young's shout out to John Coltrane, "Talkin' Bout J.C.," which closes this album, gives a clue to the extended harmonic territory he would shortly begin exploring. But while Groove Street is four-square in the soul-jazz organ framework preferred by Prestige, it avoids being formulaic. Guitarist Thornel Schwartz, an alumnus of groups led by Jimmy Smith and Johnny "Hammond" Smith, tenor saxophonist Bill Leslie and drummer Jimmie Smith, from Jimmy Forrest's road band, are hardly pushing the envelope, but they provide an uncluttered framework which does not get in the way of Young's probes towards new terrain.

Ted Curson Ted Curson Plays Fire Down Below
1963

In 2020, Ted Curson—whose singular style embraced classic jazz, hard bop and free jazz, and who could play prettily as convincingly as he could get down and dirty—is best remembered for his spell with Charles Mingus at the turn of the 1950s. Curson's obscurity is explained partly by his parallel career as an educator. He recorded over a dozen albums under his own name (for almost as many different labels) in the 1960s and 1970s, every one of which is worth looking out for. On Ted Curson Plays Fire Down Below, his only Prestige release, he leads an otherwise hornless band anchored by Roy Haynes.

A.K. Salim Afro-Soul / Drum Orgy
1965

A little known item in the Prestige discography, composer and arranger Ahmad Khatab Salim's Afro-Soul / Drum Orgy is among several early-to-mid 1960s percussion-rich albums which explicitly celebrate jazz's African roots. Two better known examples are Art Blakey & The Afro-Drum Ensemble's The African Beat (Blue Note, 1962) and Solomon Ilori & His Afro-Drum Ensemble's African High Life (Blue Note, 1963). A six-piece drums and tuned-percussion ensemble is augmented by Yusef Lateef on tenor saxophone, argol and flute, Sun Ra stalwart Pat Patrick on alto and baritone saxophones and Johnny Coles on trumpet.

Photo: Miles Davis outside Prestige Records, 447 West 50th Street, NYC, probably 1958.

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