The Profiler: Prestige Deserved and Revived as a Welcome Name
With a deep catalog spanning a specifically fertile period in jazz and including performances from some of the greatest names in jazz history, the revival of the Prestige label is celebrated with a massive simultaneous release of artist-specific compilations and samplers. But do the releases prove the vitality of the vaults? Results may vary.
I dedicate this article to the British sometime jazz critic Peter Russell, now celebrating his 80th birthday. He was a teacher to many after opening up his jazz mail order shop in Plymouth, England, and he continued to write a fascinating miscellany of comments in the catalogue he updated regularly over the years, keeping all but a few early pages in print and reissuing the whole set now and then as a loose-bound volume.
Pete (I never met the man, but his attention remained personal) was a jazz enthusiast of old, much like Bob Weinstock, who started producing shellac discs in 1949. That was only the first step on Weinstock's road to founding the Prestige recording company -- the beginning of a maybe 15-year rise, before external factors precipitated a decline in the late 1970s. The company was sold to a bigger organisation in 1971, things having become ropey in the business (just as now, but for other reasons), so that some wonderful old Prestige vinyl issues I own carry the provisional name Status on their labels. I'm just glad they ever existed.
After the sale, a fair proportion of Prestige's vast list came out on the Fantasy label, in several different presentations (vinyl twofers combining sometimes three LPs, sometimes selections from several). CDs can still be found on the Original Jazz Classics label, along with recordings from other independents that found a (capital F) real Fantasy home. More recently, Fantasy was absorbed by jazz publishing giant Concord Records, who decided to restore much the Prestige vault to its original name. And in a move designed to celebrate the return of Prestige, the label has gathered various material from its original active years as recorded by ten of its most famous artists, compiled them into a "profiles" series, and packaged them with bonus samplers reflecting similar works from the Prestige vaults.
If I say that the present set is fairly representative of what Mr. Weinstock seems to have initially had in mind, or hoped for, I have to call it a catalogue of sometimes unsurpassed performances by (often very) young musicians who became even more interesting as his company grew. I say unsurpassed because some of them were certainly equaled by productions from other enthusiasts, such as Messrs. Lion and Wolff, who'd started Blue Note 10 years before, premiering the later Prestige artist Thelonious Monk, subsequently Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins, and quite a few others who moved to Prestige. Lester Koenig started Contemporary, while Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer founded Riverside in the 1950s, to whom Monk went from Prestige. Et cetera.
Riverside also ran into a storm in the late 1960s, but only after the now-defunct English independent Transatlantic (on the XTRA label) had debuted in Europe rather more than just those Prestige releases by the famous -- not least Sonny Rollins's Saxophone Colossus -- as franchised by the biggie EMI. Prohibitive rates of tax and duty made imported records very pricey in UK shops, or from the mail order outlets some Americans also patronised (Pete was a major information source for many under American circumstances). The only thing that changed in that situation was British tax. As soon as it had been reformed, with promises of much lower prices, an oil crisis restored the old high prices by jacking up the cost of vinyl. Dammit!
A vast stack of Prestige vinyl filled an area of the old Mole Jazz shop at London's King's Cross a few years back; I'm not sure from whence it came. Though broke at the time, I found the exploration fascinating. What had become established as Prestige began, after a while, to -- not exactly diversify -- but to issue recordings on sub-genre labels: Swingville for the musicians represented briefly on the sampler accompanying the Coleman Hawkins Profile in this first batch; Moodsville, featuring Hawkins at less than his most exciting, and others in more mellow but not sell-out performances. Better to pay real musicians than be forced to pander on a model all too well described in anti-utopian satires.
For the New Jazz label, Weinstock's first publishing endeavor, see the Eric Dolphy Profile. Bluesville speaks for itself (although the little blurb in the liners to these sets errs in calling Gary Davis a blues legend... he'd recorded two blues numbers in 1933, but usually performed gospel, though he was at times induced to play the Carolina guitar ragtime that was the basis of his sanctified accompaniments). Some of Bluesville's blues band recordings were overproduced, and lacking in fire, although accessible documentation of some country blues performers and songsters (Pink Anderson) owes everything to Prestige.
Overproduced the jazz recordings weren't. Sometimes a 1930s star hornman just played a routine set with rhythm, and with exceptions where musicians were on fire with something new, or were themselves well organised, or the occasional cases of serious planning, there were times when steam wasn't raised to a proper level. Other than those involving the big names represented in this first Profiles list, Prestige did produce an impressive range, if not a huge number, of special recordings, such as Tommy Flanagan on piano with Pee Wee Russell's unique clarinet in partnership with Buck Clayton, and a set with Dick Wellstood and Fats Waller's musicians, sharing an LP with the pianist Cliff Jackson and 1920s veterans. The lately departed Al Casey was recorded in a classic set on acoustic guitar. A few more will be mentioned below.
The new management's issue of the present series as Profiles rather than Best-Ofs is commendable, let alone the bonus CD inclusion of selected single items from the depths of the vaults with each main disc. Best-Ofs are issues which commonly fail to actually be the best of, and when they don't fail in that, they can at times turn out as ill-sorted programmes planned on paper without thought to how it would sound to listen to these various tracks together. And the best what of? Best album? Remarket Kind of Blue as the "Best Of" Miles Davis? A Best of Miles Davis would have to draw on several companies' work, including Blue Note and Columbia, and to pretend that title could apply to Prestige's Davis list is horribly inaccurate. It wasn't Bob Weinstock's fault that he could only record Davis for a few years out of a career that spanned decades. I don't have a high opinion of the decision to prepare and market these types of disc as Best Ofs, especially given that Davis, like John Coltrane and others, not only moved into making different music, but different music that earlier listeners disliked strongly (neither the artist, nor the customer, nor indeed many the company, is always right). These are problems beyond mere marketing, but it does matter what gets marketed. However, this hardly counts in the case of Prestige, who weren't around for long enough with enough money to have artists' catalogs with quite those problems.
Also, and too often, someone looking for the sort of general representation which might unrealistically be expected of a Best Of is, well, just after the wrong thing. One of an artist's best albums might be the optimal choice for a beginner or for someone not ambitious enough to move beyond a beginner stage. Expecting a kind of overall summary is simply not possible. Buy one of the good ones -- why would you need a mixture?
The fact is, the great artists produced handfuls of great complete albums, and didn't need collections to prove their worth. Regardless of the number of albums he has produced, Sonny Rollins never needed to scrape together a few items in order to fill a whole album. Other musicians' discographies have sometimes, however, been lumbered with whole sessions whose sole merit consisted in having got them paid. They'd already done the same thing several times on disc. With other musicians, we can only wish they'd had the chances to repeat themselves on record. But on to the Profiles!
Prestige Profiles, Vol. 1: Miles Davis
As stated above, there's no way to succinctly collect a "best of" Miles Davis. And anyway, all the Miles from the 1953-56 period can be had in a big box of all the man's Prestige recordings. The English critic John Postage long ago wrote an impressive essay on what he called the St. Louis trumpet style, represented by Joe Thomas (whom Prestige recorded), and Clark Terry, and Miles, but represented in its first little-recorded manifestation by Dewey Jackson. An album of Jackson's work, recorded I think after this Miles set, should be due from Denmark in the near future. Regardless, Miles Davis might be one of the last musicians to appear and become famous above a certain level (far above it, too!) on the basis of a regional style.
The opener here is "A Night in Tunisia", with unusual timing in the melody statement, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and Oscar Pettiford (greatest of the day) on bass; the only quartet track in the set. The pianist is Red Garland, who, as the notes say, was doing the Ahmad Jamal thing Mr. Davis wanted him to do by the time they recorded "Surrey with the Fringe on Top". Then come another three titles with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe that I don't need to write any more about. Suffice to say, the tenorist's name is Coltrane.
If your collection is without any Miles Davis of this period, and you're in search of one nice CD from then, you might be further encouraged to pick this one up by the second disc sampler. Here, the offering is selections by a Chet Baker Quintet, Sonny Rollins with MJQ, Kinny Dorham with Tommy Flanagan from the lauded Quiet Kenny, Davis's sometime mate Gil Evans's so-refined but good-natured "Jambangle", Steve Lacy and Jimmy Cleveland (trombone), Coltrane's "Traneing In", and a title from an Art Farmer/Donald Byrd two-trumpeter set.
Prestige Profiles, Vol. 2: Red Garland
Red Garland has his own Profile, culled from his numerous quintet recordings with Coltrane and Donald Byrd (Art Taylor, George Joyner on bass), or Oliver Nelson and Richard Williams (Charlie Persip, Peck Morrison on bass). Ira Gitler contributes an interesting memoir about the various Red Garland quintets that performed live gigs at the time, Coltrane's spells with Monk, and Garland and Coltrane's coming and going from Miles Davis's band. Donald Byrd played trumpet on the studio dates with Coltrane, producing a relaxed "Billie's Bounce", Ellington's "Solitude" with Garland's locked hands opening, and nice ballad solos from Byrd and Coltrane -- who, when not blowing hard, avoided overdrive and played with more flexibility. It's something of a relief to hear Garland's blurry version of Bud Powell opening "Soft Winds" after the block chords solo toward the end of "Solitude". There's more block-chording in the latter title, which has an OK tenor solo from Nelson and lively playing from the underappreciated Williams.
Then, Garland opens his "Soul Junction" with playing that wouldn't have been out of place on a late 1940s California blues record -- before the block-chord imitation of Ahmad Jamal that Davis (deduct a penalty point) encouraged Garland to play -- and the bassist toils to prevent the seven minutes of albeit impeccable slow blues choruses from declining into background music. He fails. Fragments of Avery Parrish's "After Hours" are quoted in the course of Coltrane's solo. Nothing that startling, but while "On Green Dolphin Street" with Nelson and Williams, and Tadd Dameron's "Our Delight" with Byrd and Coltrane, are fair enough, they bring to mind Prestige's occasional tendency to flood the market with routine, workmanlike sessions of yet more of the same old thing. Garland recorded so much for the label, and in trio, it might have seemed like a good idea to contemplate a selection of his quintet recordings. Gradually, but increasingly quickly, it becomes clear that it wasn't. David Marchese's admirable
And Garland becomes wearying, so that on hearing the usually delightful Coleman Hawkins run through Billy Taylor's "Mambo Inn" on the sampler, it's surprising to find it instantly even duller than Garland's own CD became. I could get to dislike a lot of Garland. "Blues by Five" is a classic by the Miles Davis band with Coltrane -- and Garland. God bless Paul Chambers and Philly Joe for the life in it! "Eclypso" is, I believe, a Tommy Flanagan tune, from a date sampled on the Kenny Burrell Profile, with yet more Coltrane (albeit in better form than on the Garland CD). Even the early "Blue Monk" from its composer can't lift a besetting gloom. There's Mose Allison, far from Parchman Farm, "Groovin' High" in piano trio, and the finesse of Ray Bryant's cunningly titled "Blues Changes". The special interest of an eighth title (Cedar Walton's "Ugetsu") is that it's not even mentioned in any of the paperwork. The pianist is very interesting. At least he's not Red Garland, whose Quintets CD I have by now decided I won't listen to again. Oh, dear!
Prestige Profiles, Vol. 3: Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins himself needs little comment. His Profile opens with "St. Thomas", a Caribbean theme and one of his most famously uplifting, with Tommy Flanagan, Julius Watkins, and Max Roach on drums. "More Than You Know" has Art Taylor on drums, with Tommy Potter on bass, and Monk playing a wondrous long ballad solo, not let down by Rollins's sequel to it. On "I Feel a Song Coming On", the pianist is the undervalued Richie Powell, whose older brother Bud was so jealous that Jackie McLean had to provide an alibi to cover the times Richie was at piano lessons. Richie was killed in the same car crash almost fifty years ago that took the life of the trumpeter on this date, Clifford Brown, who was getting better and better at the time of his death (as can be heard from a tape of the gig after which he died on the Pennsylvania turnpike).
George Morrow was the regular bassist in this Max Roach band, which I can't commend too highly, and turns up on a performance of "My Ideal" with the questionable asset of Earl Coleman's vocal and the undoubted one of another later Copenhagen resident, Kenny Drew, on piano. "On a Slow Boat to China" is another Rollins classic, one of several show tunes suited to Rollins's good humoured irony and affection. Morrow and Roach are on the more usual jazz vehicle; Drew, Percy Heath, and Taylor are on "It's All Right with Me", with Ray Bryant on piano. John Lewis is, of course, on the Rollins-with-MJQ performance of "In a Sentimental Mood". "Moritat" is from the same set as "St. Thomas", the appropriately titled Saxophone Colossus album. Other folks call the tune "Mack the Knife".
Rollins's own blues "Mambo Bounce" is with again with Percy H., Taylor, and Drew, whose piano sings! Tenor Madness was a two-tenor set with Garland, Chambers, and Philly Joe, with Coltrane spinning phrases almost in emulation of Rollins, who relaxes things after taking over on the title track here. Keep in mind; this is only one phase of the Rollins career: 1951-56. Nothing shallow, and a high road to a good mood.
This time, the little sampler package begins with Davis's "Oleo" from 1954, with Rollins, Monk, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke. Horace Silver alternates on piano with Monk, whose "Think of Me" has Rollins, the French horn of Julius Watkins, Percy Heath, and Art Blakey. I can't be bothered looking up details of the excellent men with Clifford Brown on "Lover Come Bak to Me", but Curtis Fuller and Ray Bryant are in the company of Benny Golson, though I do not know who's with Dexter Gordon on "Airegin". Richard Williams shows his worth on trumpet with Oliver Nelson on "March On, March On" from the Screamin' the Blues album. Nelson and Eric Dolphy (wow!) solo, while Richard Wyands turns up on piano with Duvivier and Haynes. The closer seems to have been adapted from early Count Basie, with the four tenors of Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Hank Mobley, and John Coltrane playing a passage presumably scored by Cohn: "Tenor Conclave", from the 1956 album of the same name.
Prestige Profiles, Vol. 4: Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins certainly made some routine recordings for Prestige, especially the Moodsville imprint. Not among them is the set with Flanagan in a nice band with Joe Thomas of St. Louis on trumpet, Vic Dickenson on trombone, and stalwarts of the Swingville label Wendell Marshall (ex-Ellington) on bass and Osie Johnson drums. On "I'm Beginning to See the Light", Thomas is lyrical, and Dickenson sardonic with throwaway quotes. On the other hand, "Greensleeves" has had a mixed reception. Hawkins was, it seems, so taken with the tune when he heard Bryant rattle through it while warming up that he mugged up on it in the studio and recorded it as an emotionally unrestrained slow ballad. Burrell and Ray Bryant make nice accompanying noises. On Jerry Valentine's arrangement of "Since I Fell for You", Jerome Richardson plays brassy alto before the old man blazes in, and Idrees Sulieman plays trumpet lead in a band with Pepper Adams on baritone. It's all right.
Other than "In a Mellow Tone", from the amazing Night Hawk album with Lockjaw Davis, the rest of the set is Hawkins plus rhythm. With Flanagan, Marshall, and Osie J., "I'll Get By" is taken at a steady mid-tempo with lightened tone (for Moodsville), while "Soul Blues" has Ray Bryant in his Me and the Blues mode, and Kenny Burrell duets with Hawkins before the tenor solo.
On "I'll Never Be the Same", Hawkins is light and dreamy, Ron Carter's bass and Andrew Cyrille's drums produce momentum, and Burrell comes in on good form. Ronell Bright wasn't the best-known pianist (an old album of his for Savoy is on CD), but he maintains the mood just as Cyrille's cymbal-blows add lift now and then. Very nice. "The Sweetest Sounds" has Flanagan, Major Holley, and Hawkins's usual drummer of the time, Eddie Locke, brisk but gentle.
With Garland, Watkins, and Specs Wright on drums, "I Want to Be Loved" is breathier than the other ballad titles, and Garland mostly keeps to a sort of Hank Jones style. The last two titles are with Flanagan, Holley, and Locke. "Make Someone Happy" has an ingenious recasting of the theme; the playing is breathtaking in its mastery, the brief performance making the best of an unprepossessing tune. Very superior mood music is also represented by "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", no relation to the Hawk Eyes album (not represented here) with Charlie Shavers on trumpet and one of the best Hawkins albums for any label. This selection's unspectacular, but well listenable.
The accompanying sampler has a lot of interesting things, beginning with a sample from a four tenor jam with Hawkins, Lockjaw Davis, Buddy Tate, and Arnett Cobb. More preparation than the typical Prestige norm was involved in the Benny Carter set with Ben Webster, Barney Bigard (a rare mainstream date for the ex-Ellington clarinetist), and (not named) the trumpeter Shorty Sherock, from deep in the Prestige archives. Gene Ammons recorded several quartet albums for Prestige, likewise Illinois Jacquet, but one of the truly interesting sets was by Doc Cheatham with the Ellingtonian St. Louis trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker, a great lyrical player who died aged only 53. This set was a legendary rare Cheatham appearance on disc before he came to the fore in his seventies and eighties, if not nineties. Buck Clayton and Buddy Tate recorded two excellent albums for Swingville, which are featured elsewhere in this series. Prestige even recorded Tate's celebrity Club Orchestra, whose paying job was to play while ladies undressed. That band was cherished by Tate's contemporaries as a working band they could sit in with. I can't really complain about a two-tenor jam with Stan Getz and Zoot Sims from a loose Woody Herman-associated set, or the early Prestige recording, from 78 rpm, of Wardell Gray's "Twisted", though there was room instead for more of the Swingville list.
Prestige Profiles, Vol. 5: Eric Dolphy
The Eric Dolphy Profile -- he too has a complete Prestige recordings boxed set -- opens with a four-stars five-star quartet: Georges Duvivier on bass, Ron Carter on Cello, Roy Haynes on drums. Hear the bassist, bowing with Carter's solo, and soloing himself. Dolphy's on alto on this new thing sort of theme titled "Out There". Roy Haynes is back on "On Green Dolphin Street", Freddie Hubbard brilliant at that time. The liner note's reference to Dolphy's straining into a newer thing against a standard bebop rhythm section is rubbished by reference to George Tucker's sometimes riffing bass, providing a perfect pulse, and Jaki Byard. Byard played like nobody else, especially on the conclusion, and always anything but "standard". He's on "Far Cry", where the tragically short-lived Booker Little takes the opening solo on trumpet. He makes it speak. Dolphy solos on alto on a harmonic extension Byard keeps suggesting in his piano solo. Carter's the bassist.
Then we're back to the quartet of the first title. On "Serene", Dolphy does his wild alto thing on bass clarinet. Having bowed in unison in the theme statement, Carter joins in plucked duet with Duvivier after the bassist's solo. Dolphy sat in with older men in Harlem, and when the veteran Cap Handy brought his alto out of New Orleans a couple of years after Dolphy's horrifyingly early death in a diabetic coma, parallels were attempted. Reasonably. Dolphy's harmonic complexity and far-outness had a primal jazz voice. "Miss Ann" brings back the Booker Little quintet, with Little inspired, Byard exercising his yen for the crazy.
"Fire Waltz" has the unmistakable piano of Mal Waldron, who later continued the wonderful things he did on further records for Prestige. Dolphy's duly economical with notes in his low-register alto solo, even implying Dexter Gordon. But isn't that tenor rather than a trumpet? Yes. Did Richard Davis solo twice, the first time sounding like a cello, with incredible virtuosity? No. This "Fire Waltz" isn't the one listed. Not Little... Booker Ervin was on tenor three weeks before the "Fire Waltz" supposedly here. Ron Carter played cello, and the bassist who doesn't sound like Richard Davis was Joe Benjamin. And this CD has already been out as The Best of Eric Dolphy? It ain't. The liner note seems to be describing the track listed on paper, rather than this excellent performance, which can also be heard, but duly scheduled, on the sampler included with the John Coltrane Profile. Prestige faux pas times two!
"G.W." is named for the very lively, recently recorded Gerald Wilson, something of a mentor to Dolphy (who came from the West Coast). Dolphy's alto is more like extended bebop, Hubbard impressive (same date as "On Green Dolphin Street"), and Byard also plays in standard bebop manner, with Tucker propelling things, until the pianist gives both his hands free rein and they do the things only his hands ever did. On Byard's several mightily impressive Prestige albums, he was said by several early reviewers to be able to sound like anybody else when he chose, without having a voice of his own. What were these people listening for when they wrote such nonsense about that most individual pianist, who sounded like himself by playing with unparalleled variety?
"Glad to Be Unhappy" is the one representation here of Dolphy's flute, recorded with Scandinavian rhythm in a students' club in Copenhagen. There's even a hint of oboe in his introduction, and he has a more dug-in sound than is usual on the instrument. The rhythm has to work to play quietly. The final twenty-eight minutes are taken up by two titles from the Five Spot. Richard Davis, lately on the Thad Jones tribute recording, solos into the cello register on bass. Little is here, too, with Ed Blackwell on drums. On "Booker's Waltz", Little solos at length, taking long pauses a couple of times while the rhythm section labours, and after three minutes it's Dolphy's bass clarinet. This was not, I'm sure, the very best of Eric Dolphy. I'd want "245", and that unaccompanied bass clarinet solo from Denmark. It doesn't mean this isn't a nice record, but it could have had stronger appeal to listeners less curious about Prestige's New Jazz list.
Byard's instantly recognisable on the sampler, in the tenorist Booker Ervin's "A Lunar Tune" from The Space Book, stunning, with terrific drumming. Who? Ervin and Byard distinguished some wonderful Mingus recordings. Prestige did them both proud! "Blue 7" is from Sonny Rollins's Saxophone Colossus album (personnel on the Rollins Profile). Coltrane's "Bakai" has a solo from Pepper Adams, but the trumpet contributions are only in ensemble and I can't recognise whoever it is. It's not hard to recognise who's playing on "Blues for the Orient": who but Yusef Lateef used oboe? Apart from the Oriental intro, this is a standard blues performance distinguished by appreciation of special qualities of the oboe. Don Cherry and Steve Lacy are surpassingly oblique with bass and drums on Monk's "Evidence". Don Ellis was a cult figure who later ran a very big band, and used weird time signatures and rock effects which seem new now. He also had a four-valve trumpet to facilitate playing quarter-tones, but before that he worked with Byard on very musical, very under control avant-garde experimental music which never dated. To round off a very interesting sampler, there's Ron Carter's cello again, and Dolphy playing bass clarinet at least as interestingly as on anything on the CD dedicated to just him, plus some nice Waldron with Duvivier on bass and Charlie Persip drums.