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The Best of Prestige Records

Doug Collette By

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Individually or collectively, you will find these discs the foundation of an estimable jazz library.
With their cover graphics and CD booklet design uniformly simple, and perhaps, unadorned to a fault, Prestige's Best of... series nevertheless speaks volumes by dint of the music contained on the discs themselves. The West Coast counterpart to Blue Note's New York subsidization of the jazz art form, Prestige's significant contribution becomes clear as you read the liner notes to each entry: not only does the importance and distinction of the artist in question become clarified, so does the music selected to be part of the package. With running times close to two hours, this healthy sampling of major artists work doesn't pretend to be definitive—like the West Montgomery disc (it's all taken from the complete box set of his Riverside work)—but rather a distillation and/or starting point. And with a remastering job that even further enhances the listening experience and thus the package(s), these titles are far more than just product.

Resting comfortably on the cusp of blues and jazz, Jackie Mclean could define the genre, and rightly so, for both the novice and the aficionado. Or take the aforementioned Montgomery disc, where his liquid lines mesh smoothly with his accompanists whether it's a prominent organ piano vibes or horns and strings. Little wonder Wes, a disciple of Charlie Christian, is nonetheless regarded as the definitive voice of modern jazz guitar—although based solely on this anthology of Kenny Burrell's, you could engage in a healthy debate as the latter posits himself the ideal partner and lead man for a combo. The Milt Jackson set offers much the same lesson of flexibility, as the master vibraphonist, in a wholly unassuming way, simultaneously sets a tone for the sessions in which he participates. Jackson elevates the musicianship of those around him through his elegant solos that set a standard to which the other musicians, including such icons-to-be Cannonball Adderley and Art Blakey aspire. Speaking of icons, Coleman Hawkins' comparatively unassuming participation in the arrangements on his disc belie his revered status as one of the original men with a horn. Yet to hear the perfect logic and soulful passion of his playing is to understand why he has had such great influence over so many generations of jazzers.

Likewise, Miles Davis whose technical prowess as a trumpeter is often lost in discussions of his work as a visionary. The trumpeter's restraint and use of space are virtually unparalleled as they're captured on the landmark pieces "Walkin', " "Oleo" and "Airegin," not to mention his oft-utilized segue by the name of "The Theme." If Miles had done little more than the essential contained on this single disc, his legacy in jazz history would be assured, but he went on to revolutionize the music with his quintets including John Coltrane, the innovative work of the Hancock/Carter/Shorter/Williams group and then on the electric jazz-fusion. Thelonious Monk's productivity as a composer and recording artist is sometimes called into question past his early work as sampled in this series, but there's no second-guessing the idiosyncrasy of his playing and writing on tunes such as "'Round Midnight" and "Straight No Chaser." It's not a rationalization to claim Monk an absolute original even at this point in his career, and while it might be unfair to say he rested on these substantial laurels as he went on to record for Columbia (eventual home of Miles as well) and found some measure of mainstream success, there could probably be no better candidate than Monk.

Unless it was Bill Evans who participated in and led innovations in jazz by working with Miles and on his own in the trio format he established as a permanent configuration of modern jazz. Every listen to this masterful pianist is like discovering him all over again for the beauty of his playing and the subtlety of emotion he is able to infuse in what otherwise might seem just pretty. Likewise, anyone who accuses Red Garland of cocktail tendencies (as Ira Gitler alludes to in his excellent liner notes) is hopelessly missing the earthy groove contained within his work with a quintet—would John Coltrane play in the middle of the road?

No more than Sonny Rollins would! The latter's gusto gives real meaning to the oft-used word 'blow' and, like Garland, his name is cross-referenced, not so surprisingly, with other entries in this series. Specifically, the saxophone colossus is the composer of Davis standards "Airegin" and "Oleo," not to mention a vital participant in Miles early recordings for the Prestige label. And that role Sonny also reprises in collaboration with names almost equally renowned including MJQ (who were on the Montgomery disc), Monk and Coltrane. It's indicative of Sonny's uncompromising skill and attitude that he forged such associations early on in his career and that Gitler, in the winningly informal informative writing style, offhandedly references Rollin's complete Prestige recordings as a natural progression form this sampler. The complete works of Eric Dolphy seem a logical progression from his single disc anthology in this series, if only because there doesn't seem to be enough of the fearless musician; the delicate balance between abandon and restraint Dolphy commands—mirrored in his use of flute and other woodwinds besides the sax— is startling.

To go into detailed analysis of these titles is contrary to the concept of the series as it only intends—and succeeds by the way—in presenting accurate musical snapshots of significant figures in jazz history and the music that made them so. Nevertheless, for both the novice and the true disciple, playing these cd's is a means of enjoying jazz at its best for this it's all the genuine article and the real deal from "Tenor Madness " back to Monk's self-composed jazz standards. It's usually true that anthologies such as these take on a life of their own, singly or as part of a series and that's certainly the case here. Individually or collectively, you will find these discs the foundation of an estimable jazz library.

New Titles
The Best of Art Pepper
The Best of Shelly Manne
The Best of Red Garland Trios
The Best of John Coltrane
The Best of Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis
The Best of Bobby Timmons

Previously Released Titles
The Best of Eric Dolphy
The Best of Jackie McLean
The Best of Kenny Burrell
The Best of Lightnin' Hopkins
The Best of Bill Evans
The Best of Chet Baker
The Best of Miles Davis
The Best of the Red Garland Quintets
The Best of Sonny Rollins
The Best of Coleman Hawkins
The Best of Wes Montgomery
The Best of Thelonious Monk
The Best of Milt Jackson

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