Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Prestige Label @ 60

The Very Best of Prestige Records
Prestige/Concord 2-CD set

Arguably, Prestige and Blue Note Records were the two greatest labels of the Hard Bop era. They recorded many of the same artists, including jazz giants like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean, and Sonny Rollins, as well as less publicized musicians like Gil MellĂ© and George Braith. They even shared the same recording engineer: the venerable Rudy Van Gelder. However, where Blue Note’s sessions had a burnished intensity, Prestige’s were looser, more spontaneous. They were the two sides of the same jazz coin. After their counterparts recently marked their 70th year, Prestige now celebrates their 60th anniversary, with The Very Best of Prestige Records, a commemorative double-disk collection of their classic instrumental jazz sessions.

Though the label would be known for its earthy Hard Bop and funky Soul-Jazz, the first session produced by label founder Bob Weinstock showcased the cool, cerebral music of pianist Lennie Tristano and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. Logically enough, the anniversary set starts here with “Subconscious-Lee.” It is immediately followed by one of the label’s all-time greatest hits, James Moody’s “I’m in the Mood for Love,” which the tenor titan has probably played nearly every night since this 1949 recording. “Mood” is actually a bit of an anomaly, because it was a Swedish recording licensed by Prestige, uncharacteristically featuring Moody on the alto saxophone.

Probably Prestige’s most important signing was a young Charlie Parker sideman named Miles Davis, so naturally he is well represented in this collection. Although many critics were initially unimpressed by Davis, he would develop during his Prestige tenure into one of the best-selling jazz artists of his time. His stint with the label included the bulk of his recordings with what is now considered his first great quintet of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and of course John Coltrane on tenor. Included in the anniversary set is their rendition of “If I Were a Bell,” recorded during a marathon session Davis cut to satisfy his Prestige contract before leaving for the big money offered by Columbia Records.

Several of Davis’s own sidemen would also sign with Prestige, probably the most notable being Coltrane, who would cut his bop teeth at the label as he was developing his “sheets of sound” innovations. Trane is heard in several contexts here, including “Why Was I Born?” from a beautiful late-night duet with guitarist Kenny Burrell. Sonny Rollins, another tenor player Davis recorded with and long coveted for his working group, also signed with Weinstock, recording Saxophone Colossus, which remains probably the most analyzed album in jazz history. “St. Thomas,” included in this collection, is a defining example of Rollins’ jazz calypsos, which still sounds fresh and invigorating.

The second disk is largely dominated by the greasy soul-jazz sounds that became Prestige’s bread-and-butter in the 1960’s, which is all good. If any artist personifies the soulful side of the label, it would probably be R&B-influenced tenor-man Gene Ammons. Despite serving two considerable prison stretches, Prestige kept his records in circulation, most certainly including his perennial favorite, the azure blue “Hittin’ the Jug.” There are also a couple of departures from the soul-jazz vibe on disk two, the most notable being Yusef Lateef’s gorgeous “The Plum Blossom,” taken from the Eastern Sounds LP. Recorded in 1961, it was Lateef’s fullest exploration of Eastern musical forms up to that point, yet he still kept it firmly grounded in the jazz idiom. Here Lateef plays the Chinese globular flute and bassist Ernie Farrow plays the rebat (or rabaab), sounding like a cross between the upright bass and the mbira.

The Very Best exclusively collects instrumental jazz, foregoing Prestige’s significant jazz vocalists like Mose Allison, and not even touching on the music of their Bluesville subsidiary label. While the Prestige catalog has had several owners since Weinstock sold his interest, a great number of their jazz sessions are available on CD, including the original source albums for every track on the 60th anniversary set. However, there are a few sessions that really deserve a long-awaited reissue life, particularly the three LPs released by the Morris Nanton Trio, with Norman Edge on bass, who still play together and have a loyal following for their monthly Shanghai Jazz gigs, but perhaps I digress.

While everything collected here is available elsewhere (often in multiple formats), it is all certainly rewarding music. Prestige has an undeniably rich jazz discography, well worth celebrating on its 60th anniversary.