From 1953, when it was set up, to 1964, when it was acquired by ABC, Riverside Records rivalled Blue Note and Prestige as one of the leading independent jazz labels based in New York City. The founders of all three labels were jazz fans who operated on slim margins and became producers partly because they enjoyed it but also to keep the payroll down. Orrin Keepnews
co-founded Riverside with Bill Grauer. The pair had been colleagues on Grauer's Record Changer
magazine, on which Keepnews was the copy editor. At Riverside, Grauer did a little studio work but mostly looked after administration and distribution, leaving Keepnews to concentrate on what he did best, which was scouting for artists and producing records. Grauer passed in late 1963 and Keepnews filed Riverside for voluntary bankruptcy less than a year later. He continued to work as a producer for other labels, most prolifically for Milestone and Fantasy.
In 2007, in his general introduction to the Keepnews Collection reissue series, Keepnews wrote: "For more than a half-century, I have frequently succeeded in finding, recognizing, coddling, arguing with, and collaborating with a great variety of talented and occasionally difficult people. On the whole, I am unreasonably and unshakably proud of the results." So he should have been.
Everyone has their own favourite Riverside albums, but the following would figure on most lists: Thelonious Monk
's Brilliant Corners
(1957) and others among the dozen-plus masterpieces Monk recorded for Riverside from 19551961, Sonny Rollins
' The Freedom Suite
(1958), Cannonball Adderley
's Things Are Getting Better
(1959), Nat Adderley
's Work Song
(1960), Wes Montgomery
's The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery
(1960), and Bill Evans
' Waltz For Debby
(1962) or any other of the four albums Evans recorded with Scott LaFaro
and Paul Motian
for Riverside from 19591961.
This alternative top ten tries to avoid the most widely celebrated Riverside releases and to draw attention instead to some of the label's lesser known treasures.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS: STREAMS & TRIBUTARIES
Randy Weston Trio Jazz A La Bohemia
1957 Jazz A La Bohemia
was recorded live at Greenwich Village's Café Bohemia in 1956. It is the second Riverside album Randy Weston
made with Cecil Payne
, bop's premier baritone saxophonist and Weston's neighbour in Brooklyn. The disc predates Weston's study trips to Africa, and his formative influence Thelonious Monk still resonates strongly, but you can already hear the Africanisms that would define Weston's style from the 1960s onwards. This is most obvious on "Hold 'Em Joe," a calypso that had been made popular by Harry Belafonte
. (Orrin Keepnews was receptive to recording jazz with pronounced African and/or Middle Eastern flavours and two such albums are included in this top ten). Jazz A La Bohemia
also predates Weston's emergence as an artist who mainly recorded his own material. His only original on the album is the Monkish "Chessman's Delight." Keepnews preferred to record Weston on standardshis label debut was Cole Porter In A Modern Mood
in 1954. This is forgivable, because Weston's interpretations of the Great American Songbook, like Monk's, are fresh, inventive and of immense charm. In 1959, however, Weston would release the all-original Little Niles
(United Artists) and quirky covers became fewer and further between. Happily, Riverside had preserved some of them for posterity.
Gigi GryceGigi Gryce And The Jazz Lab Quintet
If Gigi Gryce
had not early on switched from performing music to teaching it, he might conceivably have gone on to build a profile comparable with that of another great composer and arranger, Charles Mingus
: he had a talent which approached Mingus' (though a more affable nature, not always an advantage in career terms). An alto saxophonist and flautist of note, Gryce studied composition at Boston Conservatory and in Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s. On returning to the US he worked with Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee
, Max Roach
and Clifford Brown
before setting up The Jazz Lab in 1955.
On Gigi Gryce And The Jazz Lab Quintet
, Gryce shares the frontline and writing credits with Donald Byrd
, who is billed as co-leader on other albums by the band. The material is split between standards and originals and includes one of Gryce's most enduring tunes, "Minority."
Gryce pushed the boundaries of bop and hard bop, and his work still engages in 2020. He was also a champion of musicians' rights, setting up his own publishing company, Melotone, in 1955, an unusual move for a jazz musician at that time. In the early 1960s, disenchanted with the music business, he moved into teaching.
Herbie MannSultry Serenade
Do not be fooled by the cheesy sleeve art. Sultry Serenade
is indeed as sensual as its cover suggests, but it is more than a make-out album. Mann plays flute, alto flute and bass clarinet and leads an imaginatively assembled piano-less sextet which includes baritone saxophonist and second bass clarinetist Jack Nimitz
, trombonist Urbie Green
, guitarist Joe Puma
and bassist Oscar Pettiford
. Four of the tunes are Great American Songbook covers, three are originals (one each from Mann, Puma and Pettiford) and the eighth is Tyree Glenn
's title track. Mann's arrangements are as rewarding as those on well-realised contemporaneous chamber-jazz albums such as Chico Hamilton
's Chico Hamilton Quintet
(Pacific Jazz, 1955).
In 2020, Mann is best remembered for fusion albums across a range of genresamong them Flautista! Herbie Mann Plays Afro-Cuban Jazz
(Verve, 1959), the unfortunately titled Gone Native
(Savoy, 1961), and Do The Bossa Nova
(Atlantic 1962)and also for the soul-jazz infused Memphis Underground
(Atlantic, 1969). At their best, Mann's albums combine innovation with accessibility. Sultry Serenade
scores on both counts.
Bobby JasparTenor And Flute
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, where he worked with Miles Davis
, J.J. Johnson
, Milt Jackson
and Bill Evans
. Tenor And Flute
finds Jaspar in great company, leading a band which includes George Wallington
and Elvin Jones
and, on two tracks, Idrees Sulieman
. The material is a mixture of standards and originals by Jasper, Wallington and Sulieman. Jaspar's Lester Young
-derived tenor sound, which took on a harder edge a year or so later, shines on four tracks and his flute on the remaining two.
In their search for authentic jazz feeling, several prominent European musicians of the era, including Jaspar and Tubby Hayes, became involved with heroin, the drug of choice of so many of their American idols. Jaspar and Hayes both died of heroin-related causes while still in their thirties.
Ahmed Abdul MalikJazz Sahara
Like Yusef Lateef
(see below) and Randy Weston, on whose Jazz A La Bohemia
he plays, oud player and bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik
was among the first American musicians to (re)introduce shape-shifting infusions of African music to jazz. Also like Lateef and Weston, he embraced Maghrebi and Arabic traditions. Jazz Sahara
was Abdul-Malik's first release under his own name.
The album is subtitled Middle-Eastern Music With Johnny Griffin
. Johnny Griffin
, who recorded frequently for Riverside in the late 1950s and early 1960s, does not play on all tracks and the focus is on Abdul-Malik's oud, bass, composing and arranging. The Middle Eastern flavour is enhanced by a violinist and three hand drummers. Despite lacking any track record in Middle Eastern music, Griffin drops into the modal frameworks convincingly. (In 1957, the adaptable and unflappable Griffin is said to have been an effective last-minute dep for John Coltrane
in Thelonious Monk's quartet at NYC's Five Spot, in a band in which Abdul-Malik often replaced the incapacitated-by-heroin Wilbur Ware
Bill EvansEverybody Digs Bill Evans
OK, this is a bit of a cheat, as the album is likely to be in the library of every serious Bill Evans enthusiast and so barely qualifies as an "alternative" selection. But Everybody Digs Bill Evans
is too often overlooked in favour of the four Riverside albums Evans went on to record with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, of which the aforementioned Waltz For Debby
is probably the most popular choice.
Like most Evans connoisseurs, Keepnews felt that the albums with LaFaro and Motian caught Evans at the peak of his artistry, the seraphic beauty of his playing ramped up by the intensity of interplay within the trio. Nonetheless, in his liner notes for the 2007 reissue of Everybody Digs Bill Evans
, Keepnews wrote: "This might just possibly be my favorite Bill Evans album." The reason is the presence of Philly Joe Jones
. On the occasions Jones recorded with Evans, Jones' joie de vivre seemed to liberate Evans, bringing out a looser, less introspective performance which has its own special delights. Check out the trio's reading of Gigi Gryce's "Minority" on the YouTube clip below.
Yusef LateefThe Centaur And The Phoenix
1960 The Centaur And The Phoenix
was recorded a full year before Yusef Lateef's better known Eastern Sounds
(Moodsville, 1961). It is a grittier and more satisfying affair than the later disc, which was originally released on Prestige's easy listening imprint, Moodsville. Orrin Keepnews did not put pressure on Lateef to make his music more "acceptable" to American audiences (or if he did, he did not succeed), as Prestige's Bob Weinstock appears to have done.
The lineup on The Centaur And The Phoenix
is larger and more adventurous than on Eastern Sounds
. Lateef, who plays flute, oboe and tenor saxophone, leads a nonet which includes Tate Houston on baritone saxophone, Josea Taylor on bassoon, Curtis Fuller
on trombone, Clark Terry
on trumpet and Joe Zawinul
on piano. There are three Lateef originals and two pieces by contemporary-classical composer Charles Mills, who was commissioned to rearrange them for the session. An ambitious album and among the best in Lateef's considerable catalogue.
Pianist and composer George Russell
's book The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization
, published in 1953, is widely recognised as being a trigger for the modal experiments of John Coltrane, Miles Davis
and others later in decade. Russell's intent was to liberate improvisation from the constraints of linear chord progressions by, in effect, replacing them with open-ended scales, the basis of traditional African, Arabic, Indian and South East Asian musics. In 2020, Russell is a marginal figure, his name known to jazz connoisseurs but his music rarely listened to. Ezz-thetics
is one of several influential albums recorded by Russell in the late 1950s and early 1960s (another is Stratusphunk
, released on Riverside in 1960). Here he leads a sextet which includes Eric Dolphy
on alto saxophone and bass clarinet and Dave Baker on trombone. Three of the six tracks were written by Russell, and the rest by Baker, Miles Davis ("Nardis") and Thelonious Monk ('"Round Midnight.") The title of Russell's book might look a bit daunting but his music is wonderfully accessible.
Other than on its short-lived Living Legends series, which focused on veteran jazz and blues artists, Riverside did not release much vocal jazz. But when it did, Orrin Keepnews was right on the money. Opinions may be divided about Chet Baker
as a trumpeter, but as a ballad singer few would deny his talent. Abbey Lincoln
's Riverside albums are worthwhile, too. But perhaps the greatest singer Keepnews worked with was Mark Murphy
. Murphy could swing hard enough to raise the dead, his jazz sensibility was acute and he was a compelling improviser at all tempos. Rah
seems to have been made with some sort of socio-political concept in mind: Murphy has a book about economics on his knee and is holding a placard. But if there is such a concept, it is as enigmatic as the message on the placard. The message of the album is purely musical. The twelve-track set list is a treasure trove of jazz standards and Great American Songbook covers"Green Dolphin Street," "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most," "Milestones," "Doodlin,'" "My Favorite Things," the evergreens go on. Outstanding, too, are Ernie Wilkins
' arrangements and the musicians assembled to play themamong them Melba Liston
, Jimmy Cleveland
, Blue Mitchell
, Clark Terry, Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb
Among the last tranche of albums to be released by Riverside, Ugetsu
has been unfairly overshadowed by Art Blakey
's iconic (for once the word is justified) albums for Blue Note. Blakey leads a six-piece version of the The Jazz Messengers
which features a killer three-horn frontline comprising Wayne Shorter
, Freddie Hubbard
and Curtis Fuller. The same lineup recorded the studio album Caravan
(Riverside, 1963), but this live set has the edge. As swansongs go, Riverside could barely have gone out with a bigger bang.
Photo: Orrin Keepnews with (seated l-r) Scott LaFaro, Bill Evans and Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard, 1961.