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Special CD Review: The Prestige in Jazz

By BK

Just as the East Coast had Blue Note Records with its famed owners Alfred Lion/Francis Wolff, the West Coast had Prestige Records and founder Bob Weinstock. Weinstock formed his record company in 1949 under the name New Jazz and then changed the name to Prestige shortly afterwards. For the following 22 years, until Weinstock sold the label in 1971, some of jazz's finest artists recorded for the label. For those 2 plus decades, some of jazz's premium musicians passed through the studios doors - Miles Davis, Gene Ammons, Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk and John Coltrane- just to name a few. Coinciding with these musicians, there was also a plethora of musical styles. Although 22 years may seem miniscule in the grand timelines of history, those years saw be-bop and bop in its prime, the ascent of jazz-pop vocalists, the introduction to the avant-garde, the funking of soul jazz and the ultimate ushering of jazz-rock fusion. Bob Weinstock did not want to limit his company's scope, so all styles were put on the Prestige label.

In commemoration to those illustrious years and the man that made it happen, Fantasy/Prestige (the present day owners) released the 4 disc The Prestige Records Story. As a celebration of the fifty years since Weinstock first opened his doors, Fantasy/Prestige compiled fifty select tracks from the label’s golden years. Coupled with these tracks is an informative booklet that has comments from Weinstock as well as session producers, writers, publicists and photographers who haled witness to many of these famed recording sessions. As you will see, this is not only a record of the label's history but jazz in general.

 

The Boppin' 1950s

In 1952, an amazing triumvirate of trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean teamed up to record "Dig" for the album of the same title. While Miles Davis (age 26 in 1952) had already introduced himself to the jazz world through his work with Charlie Parker and the "Birth of the Cool" sessions, these recordings signified the first important recordings for the two saxophonists (Rollins was 22 and McLean was 19). Bob Weinstock commented on Rollins: "All the musicians loved Sonny Rollins in his early years because he was a be-bopper and he knew everybody - he played with everybody in the neighborhood group up in Harlem . His ideas were so great! They all knew just like I knew - because I signed him to a contract - that he would be a force someday. And sure enough he was. The ability was there and it emerged little by little. He made himself a great player."

Throughout the 1950s, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins shared many sessions together. In 1953, they recorded "The Serpent's Tooth" with Charlie Parker. According to session producer Ira Gitler, the recording was plagued with problems: Davis showed up late, Parker was drunk and they were under a tight schedule. Due to contract problems, Parker played under the name Charlie Chan. As a leader, Sonny Rollins recorded five notable albums in 1956 for Prestige -two of the cuts "St. Thomas" from Saxophone Colossus and "Pent-Up House" from Sonny Rollins plus Four are part of this set.

Rollins and Davis teamed up again in 1954 with Percy Heath, Horace Silver and Kenny Clarke to record "Doxy". These three later comprised the Miles Davis Sextet during the same year to record "Walkin'" with trombonist JJ Johnson and saxophonist Lucky Thompson. Weinstock was a big fan of both Thompson and this session: "....we got one of the greatest tenor solos in history. This tune, the whole performance, is my favorite of all things I made." While Horace Silver would move on to form the Jazz Messengers, Heath and Clarke would form the backbone of the Modern Jazz Quartet with vibist Milt Jackson and pianist John Lewis. These four recorded the tribute to Django Reinhardt titled "Django" in 1954. In a 1999 interview with the Vermont Review, Lewis spoke of Django: ".. he was a great wonderful musician and one of the most powerful musicians for his instrument that I ever heard."

Prestige did not only highlight the teamwork of Davis and Rollins but also Davis and John Coltrane. The two recorded "Well, You Needn't" in 1956 for the legendary Steamin with the Miles Davis Quintet album. These Prestige sessions were the precursor to the memorable Columbia Record albums such as Round About Midnight. When Columbia approached Davis, he still had a contract with Prestige, so Davis went back to Prestige to cut a succession of albums with Coltrane such as Steamin'. Two other members of these Coltrane/Davis collaborations were pianist Red Garland and bassist Paul Chambers who recorded together on may instances following those sessions. Along with drummer Arthur Taylor, they recorded "If I Were A Bell" from Garland's 1956 album Red Garland's Piano. Less than six months later, this trio supported John Coltrane on "Russian Lullaby" for his landmark album Soultrane. This would be one of eight albums that Coltrane recorded for Prestige in 1958 and through these sessions, Coltrane rose from being a Miles Davis sideman to becoming a household name.

In addition to Rollins and Coltrane, Prestige also highlighted the work of two other famed tenor saxophonists - Coleman Hawkins and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. In 1959, the two heavy hitters teamed up to record "Very Saxy" with Shirley Scott on organ. Session producer and photographer Esmond Edwards reflected in the great Hawkins and his ability to adapt to any session: "'Trouble is a Man" is a tune he was not familiar with. But you let him run the tune down one time and you'd think he had written it. His learning was so rapid and he absorbed the nuances of the tune so rapidly. He was just masterful."

During these sessions of instrumental prowess, some talented vocalists also made it onto the Prestige label. In 1952, King Pleasure recorded "Moody's Mood For Love" which won R&B Record of the Year in Down Beat magazine. This track exemplified the definition problems that occurred between R&B and Jazz. Vocal tracks like these could be lumped in both the pop and jazz categories and it was difficult to determine their real place in music categorization. As many musicians would say, only critics categorize the music. The musicians simply play what they feel. In the same year, female vocalist Annie Ross recorded "Twisted" with Art Blakey on drums. In 1958, one of the most original jazz vocalists/pianist, Mose Allison, released the album Creek Bank with the song "The Seventh Son". With a simple trio of bass, drums and piano Allison's music danced the line between jazz and blues. For the longest time, listeners were not sure if Allison was black or white. When an album was released with his picture on the cover, album sales dropped. I guess that says something about Prestige's market. In general, the vocal pieces were the biggest hits for Prestige as the songs were able to permeate multiple markets. One other great hit was Etta Jones "Don't Go To Strangers" which Number 5 on the R&B charts.

 

 

The Funkin' 1960s

In addition to Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt were veritable legends during jazz's be-bop heydey in the 1950s . Unlike the aforementioned, Stitt and Ammons remained with Prestige right through the 1960s-1970s. Sonny Stitt was one of the first musicians to record for Weinstock. Stitt's "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm"(1949) was one of the first tunes that alerted Weinstock to the value and marketability of the tenor saxophonist. In years to follow Stitt's recording, prominent saxophone players like Gene Ammons, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Roland Kirk and John Coltrane passed through the Prestige studios thanks to the pathfinding of Stitt. Both Ammons and Stitt collaborated in 1950 for the song "Blues Up and Down". This tune proves the misconceptions that funk and jazz did not meet until the 1960s and 1970s for this tune shows that funk was alive and well in the 1950s. George Weinstock spoke of Ammons and "Blues Up and Down": "He was really the only player who was mixing funk with modern jazz. I had never heard anything like this. It was so loud it was terrifying. I knew we had a hit right away."

During the late 1960s, when jazz was losing popularity, Stitt and Ammons kept food on the table by playing really funky jazz. Since the concept of difficult time changes and chord arrangements was not selling records, record label owners and musicians needed to make jazz more accessible to the general public. Unfortunately, jazz creativity had to take a backseat to economic survival. The music became simplified and Gene Ammons was a continuos favorite to pave the way with these feel good tunes. This approach is shown with his 1960 recording "Canadian Sunset". Ammons' later recordings displayed his infatuation with the Rainforest. This compilation contains "Ca' Purange (Jungle Soul)" from his 1962 album "Bad! Bossa Nova" and "Jungle Strut" from Ammons's 1969 album Brother Jug! Although seven years separate these two releases, the two tracks are immersed in funk, but two remarkably different strains of the funk. The 1962 tune, which also has Kenny Burrell on rhythm guitar and Bucky Pizzarelli on Spanish guitar alludes to the slinky grooves that are inherent in Latin jazz. The 1969 tune signifies jazz's teaming up with R&B influences such as James Brown, George Clinton and Sly and the Family Stone. One of the greatest soul jazzers was Hammond B3 organist Brother Jack McDuff. In 1961, he recorded Kirk's Work with the multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk. Although there is funk on this album, Kirk’s grasp of the varied musical styles surface on this album. With terms of being one of Kirk’s first recording sessions, Kirk’s Work was an excellent indicator of the many different directions that Kirk pursued in the years following. A year later McDuff collaborated with tenor saxophonist Willis Jackson on Jackson's "This'll Get To Ya". Jackson is highlighted again with his 1963 "Troubled Times" with longtime companion, Pat Martino, on guitar. McDuff reappears on the 1963 live version of "Rock Candy" with guitarist George Benson and tenor saxophonist Red Holloway.

Two lesser-known, but immensely talented jazz musicians who are highlighted on this compilation are guitarist Melvin Sparks and drummer Idris Muhammad. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, these two were Prestige’s #1 session men. For this compilation, they show up on Hammond B3 organist Charles Earland's "More Today Than Yesterday". Earland, Muhammad and Sparks were all veterans of Lou Donaldson's bands so they were perfect for this session. These three also joined in for tenor saxophonist Rust Bryant's "Soul Liberation". Both Muhammad and Sparks have made the news in recent months with their marathon jamathon with organist Reuben Wilson and the youthful members of Soulive. This session occurred on Wednesday night at Wetland’s Preserve in New York City and the six musicians tore the house down.

Besides Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, the label signed some veterans of modern jazz during the final days of Weinstock's involvement with the label. Like Stitt, Illinois Jacquet, the musical director for Blue Note Records, deviated from the hard bop he was synonymous with and played the earthy-blues "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free" (with the underrated Billy Butler on electric guitar). The late 1960s were not all about soul jazz and funk as alto saxophonist Sonny Criss ("Smile") and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon ("Fried Bananas") kept things traditional during this period. Gordon, who had been living in Europe for some time, had not recorded in the studio for quite some time and this 1969 date signified his first effort in four years.

This is a quick tour of all of the illustrious music that can be found within the 4 CD The Prestige Records Story. The set is fine collection of tunes and styles that relay a history of a genre. To find out more about Prestige Records and the musicians who made up the label's history, head on over to www.fantasyjazz.com.