Various Artists: The Prestige Records Story

Douglas Payne By

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From 1949 through 1971, Prestige Records was among the most famous and successful of the independent jazz labels. Perhaps only Blue Note, which had its reign during roughly the same period, provided Prestige with significant competition. Both maintained strong, unique identities - even shared many of the same musicians and, in most cases, engineer Rudy Van Gelder. But Blue Note lavished more money on rehearsals and their albums sounded more planned than those that came from Prestige. Still, it was the spontaneous honesty of jazz and the necessary economy of recording that gave Prestige its cache. And at the heart of it all was founder Bob Weinstock, whose deep love of jazz, entrepreneurial spirit and close kinship with musicians that made Prestige an important and historic source of jazz.

This year Prestige turns 50 and Fantasy Records - which has owned Prestige since Weinstock sold it in 1971 — celebrates with this magnificent four-disc collection, The Prestige Records Story.

Indeed, the Prestige story is largely Bob Weinstock's story. Like his father, an avid jazz fan, Weinstock (b. 1929) was running his own record store as a teenager and had even developed renown as a distributor of jazz records to collectors worldwide. He combed New York jazz clubs night after night and became well known to the musicians. The affable Weinstock was easily welcomed into the players' circle. Some even suggested that if he ever started his own label, they'd want to record for him.

For the enterprising Weinstock, that's all it took. Prestige was launched with a January 1949 Lennie Tristano session yielding Lee Konitz's "Subconcious-Lee" (included here). The record got rave notices from Down Beat and Metronome. So Weinstock found a distributor to get his product into more stores and jumped back into the studio and recorded with prolific abandon. Prestige caught many of the early classics in the "cool" school (Lee Konitz, Stan Getz) and captured a significant portion of the emerging bop movement (J.J. Johnson, Wardell Gray), recording an average of 75 sessions a year.

Weinstock attracted significant talent to the label during this time. Important recordings emerged from Gene Ammons (whose entire recorded legacy was almost solely Prestige's doing), Miles Davis, Art Farmer, Red Garland, Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins and, in his debut as a leader, John Coltrane. Prestige also boasted an impressive roster of jazz staples with the original recordings of "Django," "Blue Monk," and "St. Thomas" - which, as you might guess, are all included here.

By the mid-1950s, Weinstock became more involved in the "business" of running the label. So he set about recruiting an impressive group of young producers - experience not necessary — to supervise a wide variety of impressive Prestige productions: from Ira Gitler, Ozzie Cadena and Esmond Edwards to Cal Lampley, Bob Porter and Don Schlitten later on.

Prestige maintained its strong identity during the 1960s while branching out into folk and spoken-word records and (briefly) introducing subsidiary labels like Bluesville, Swingsville and Moodsville. Soul became the ticket to success at the time and many more organ groups were recorded (Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Richard "Groove" Holmes). Later in the decade, Bob Porter's productions upped the funk ante for artists like Rusty Bryant, Charles Earland, Houston Person and Boogaloo "Joe" Jones and paved the way for the "acid jazz" momentum of the 1980s.

When Weinstock sold the label in 1971 — citing the difficulty for an independent jazz label to compete against emerging trends in rock and a desire to retire and move to Florida - Prestige continued. Some of the artists stayed a couple more years. By the mid-Seventies, it was reissues that kept Prestige going. Occasional releases from producers for hire by artists like Patrice Rushen, Gary Bartz, Azar Lawrence, Jack Dejohnette and David Newman were all that was left for Prestige. The CD revolution and Fantasy's "Original Jazz Classics" line helped restore the Prestige legacy in the mid 1980s. Even Weinstock has now returned to the business, producing local acts from his south Florida home for the Fantasy family of labels.

The Prestige Records Story wisely sticks to the label's Weinstock years, traversing the impressive legacy of artists as important and varied as Mose Allison (1958's "The Seventh Son"), John Coltrane (1958's "Russian Lullaby"), Sonny Criss (1967's "Smile"), Tadd Dameron (1956's "On A Misty Night"), Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis (1958's "In The Kitchen"), Davis with Coleman Hawkins, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate (1959's "Very Saxy"), Gil Evans (1957's "Nobody's Heart"), Jimmy Forrest, King Curtis and Oliver Nelson (1960's "Soul Street"), Red Garland (1956's "If I Were A Bell"), Stan Getz (1949's "Four And One More"), Dexter Gordon (1969's "Fried Bananas"), Coleman Hawkins (1960's "Trouble is a Man"), Richard "Groove" Holmes (1965's hit "Misty"), Willis Jackson (1960's "This'll Get To Ya" and 1963's "Troubled Times"), Milt Jackson (1955's "My Funny Valentine"), Illinois Jacquet (1968's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free"), Roland Kirk (1961's "Kirk's Work"), Jack McDuff (1963's "Rock Candy"), James Moody (1955's "Disappointed"), King Pleasure (1952's "Moody's Mood For Love"), Sonny Rollins ( 1956's "St. Thomas," "Pent Up House"), Shirley Scott (1961's "Hip Soul") and Sonny Stitt (1949's "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm").

Catch your breath yet? Then consider the Prestige debuts of George Benson (as a solo jazz guitarist on 1964's "Sweet Alice Blues"), Modern Jazz Quartet ("Django"), Etta Jones ("Don't Go To Stranger") and Eric Dolphy ("G.W.") — all featured here. Gene Ammons is featured in five titles recorded between 1970 and 1969 and Miles Davis takes honors with most tracks - six! — recorded between 1953 and 1956. In sheer name-dropping, this is an impressive collection. And that doesn't even cover the sidemen (a list too long to mention)!

Packaged in the same smart, easily stored box style as Fantasy's nearly wonderful The West Coast Jazz Box (1998), the Prestige set boasts an especially valuable addition - a beautifully designed 100-page full-color book. The book contains complete session detail for each song (dates, personnel, producer, studio), a reproduction of each song's original 10" or LP jacket, discussion with the producers about each song and other important sessions not included. It amounts to a thorough and engaging history of a significant jazz label. Also included are lengthy interviews with Bob Weinstock, Bob Porter and (the man who bought Prestige from Weinstock in 1971 and now runs the label) Ralph Kaffel - the compilation's producers - as well as others associated with Prestige through the years.

An especially nice touch is that each of the four discs feature a different representation of the Prestige label through the years, from the early 'sax on blue and silver' label to the later purple 'arrows' label.

Of course, there's no room for everybody on a four-disc set covering a quarter century's worth of vital music. However, it's a shame to leave out such important parts of Prestige's heritage as Mal Waldron and Kenny Burrell ('leaders' of many fifties jam sessions fostered by Prestige), Jaki Byard, Pat Martino and Booker Ervin (whose recorded legacy results from his significant Prestige "Book" series).

Still, this is one impressive set. Both content and presentation are heavy, in deference to the weighty contribution Bob Weinstock has made through Prestige Records to jazz history. Like the label itself, The Prestige Records Story is a valuable addition to the jazz legacy and well worth the expense necessary to enhance a real jazz collector's library.

Tracks: Disc OneLee Konitz/Lennie Tristano: Subconscious-Lee; Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Allen Eager, Brew Moore: Four and One Moore; Wardell Gray: Twisted ; Sonny Stitt: All God's Chillun Got Rhythm; Gene Ammons: Blues Up and Down (take 3); James Moody: I'm in the Mood for Love (aka Moody's Mood for Love); King Pleasure: Moody's Mood for Love (aka I'm in the Mood for Love); Annie Ross; Twisted; Miles Davis: Dig; Jimmy Raney and Stan Getz: 'Round Midnight; Miles Davis: The Serpent's Tooth (take 1); Thelonious Monk: Blue Monk; Miles Davis: Bags' Groove (take 2); Milt Jackson: My Funny Valentine; Miles Davis: Doxy; The Modern Jazz Quartet: Django.Disc Two:James Moody: Disappointed; Miles Davis Sextet: Walkin'; Sonny Rollins: St. Thomas; Sonny Rollins: Pent-Up House; Miles Davis Quintet: Well, You Needn't; Tadd Dameron: On a Misty Night; Red Garland: If I Were a Bell; Gil Evans: Nobody's Heart; John Coltrane: Russian Lullaby; Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis: In the Kitchen.Disc Three:Gene Ammons: Canadian Sunset; Coleman Hawkins: Trouble Is a Man; Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Arnett Cobb, Buddy Tate: Very Saxy; Mose Allison: The Seventh Son; Eric Dolphy: G.W.; Roland Kirk: Kirk's Work; Oliver Nelson, King Curtis, Jimmy Forrest: Soul Street; Etta Jones: Don't Go to Strangers; Shirley Scott: Hip Soul; Willis Jackson: This'll Get to Ya; Jack McDuff: Rock Candy; Willis Jackson: Troubled Times.Disc Four:Gene Ammons: Ca'Purange (Jungle Soul); George Benson: Sweet Alice Blues; Richard "Groove" Holmes: Misty; Illinois Jacquet: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free; Sonny Criss: Smile; Dexter Gordon: Fried Bananas; Houston Person: Jamilah; Gene Ammons: Jungle Strut; Charles Earland: More Today Than Yesterday; Rusty Bryant: Soul Liberation; Boogaloo Joe Jones: No Way; Gene Ammons: You Talk That Talk.

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

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