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Various Artists: The Prestige Records Story

Robert Spencer By

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This is much more than the history of just one label: this is a primer of modern jazz. The sweep of Bob Weinstock and Prestige Records, particularly in the Fifties and early Sixties, was so broad that this collection encompasses a large part of the jazz that mattered in those days. There is a stunning roster of the biggest names possible, including Miles Davis, Gil Evans, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, and Dexter Gordon. There's even music from Stan Getz, Roland Kirk, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano, George Benson and unsung luminaries such as Gene Ammons, Tadd Dameron, and Sonny Stitt.

That makes this the collection to give to anyone who ever asks you, "What is jazz?"

Highlights, of course, abound. All the tracks are highlights; that's why they're here. But even among box sets, this is an exceptionally well-chosen group of tracks. The set kicks off with Konitz and Tristano's unforgettable take of "Subconcious-Lee," which defined the subtle and serpentine investigations of "West Coast cool" jazz, in a setting apart from the more mainstream cool of Miles Davis. There's the great saxophonist (and rival of Bird, only to die too young and unheralded) Wardell Gray's marvelously jolly and treacherous "Twisted," along with, a little while later, Annie Ross' delightful vocal take on the tune, which was later made famous by Joni Mitchell.

Miles Davis tracks appear on discs one and two, culminating on his businesslike take on Monk's "Well, You Needn't," on which John Coltrane shows only some of the unquenchable fire that burns brightly on his own version of Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullaby." Thelonious Monk himself chimes in with a version of "Blue Monk" so crystalline that it only deepens the mystery as to why Weinstock sold his contract to Riverside for a bottle of whiskey, or whatever it was; you mean people weren't lining up to buy this stuff?

Sonny Rollins gives a couple of improvisation lessons in the neo-calypso "St. Thomas" and the bouncing-off-the-walls "Pent-Up House," both of which display the breathtaking coherence of his on-the-stop composing. Tadd Dameron's "On a Misty Night," featuring Coltrane, is a bright and beautiful tune, and the MJQ's "Django" is magisterial.

There's even a taste of the outer edge provided by Eric Dolphy's "G.W." and Roland Kirk's (pre-Rahsaan) "Kirk's Work." But there isn't too much of the New Thing that swept into the jazz mainstream in the Sixties, for Weinstock's answer to the rock-and-roll that was stealing almost all the audience was to step up the r&b production. Gene Ammons is a case in point: on disc one he plays "Blues Up and Down" with an aesthetic not far removed from that of Davis, Coltrane, and Rollins. But by disc four, he lays down "Ca'Purange (Jungle Soul)" and "Jungle Strut" with the same big tone and melodic inventiveness, but with a certain simplification and smoothing out of the structure and backing. On disc four, r&b-ers including George Benson, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Illinois Jacquet, Houston Person, and Charles Earland predominate.

That's not to say that the music suffers. Dexter Gordon's "Fried Bananas" here stands up to anything from earlier, and Sonny Criss's unaccompanied introduction to Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" is stunning and Dolphyan in his mastery of the horn and dynamic control.

Want to know what jazz is? Get The Prestige Records Story.

Title: The Prestige Records Story | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Fantasy Jazz

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