By James Kelly
Contributing Music Editor
Imagine my good fortune when a package arrived at my door with five incredible jazz collections, each one by a true legend in the genre. As much as I love country music, every now and then I have to have a good jazz fix. When I was a wee lad, my Dad used to play some old Dixieland jazz records for me – Acker Bilk, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson, and many more, so the seeds were planted early. In the ’60s & ‘70s, I was influenced by Frank Zappa’s jazz odysseys, and I eventually found a path back to the classics through the notorious Weather Report-Mahavishnu “jazz fusion” enchantment of my high school years. So here is a brief summary of five of the most essential artists in the history of jazz, all of whom have brand new compilations on the amazing Prestige/Riverside labels now under Concord Music Group. Please keep in mind that each of these greats has very deep catalogs, and these are mere samples of a certain time span in their illustrious careers.
THE VERY BEST OF
From 1956 to 1958, tenor sax man Sonny Rollins released a series of tracks that stand as some of the finest cool jazz ever. Joined by a cavalcade of equally talented sidemen including drummer Max Roach (who whips out some stunning solos on this disc) and amazing trumpeter Clifford Brown, Rollins was equally melodic and experimental, combining his own material with classic standards and improvising with other legends such as the Modern Jazz Quartet and John Coltrane, whose duet with Rollins on a 12-minute jam called “Tenor Madness” is jaw-dropping good. Even the funky version of “I’m An Old Cowhand” shines with originality. His rich tone, precision playing and keen ear for great material coalesced into audio beauty, and while he continues to blaze new trails in his 80s, Rollins’ baseline set an incredibly high standard of excellence early on.
The Miles Davis Quintet
THE VERY BEST OF
Everybody loves Miles. He was a chameleon who followed his internal musical muse in whatever direction it took him, and sometimes he seemed a bit possessed. There is no shortage of great Davis compilations, and these tracks from 1954-1956 have been well documented in the past. The 10 cuts provide some insight into the transition Davis was making from a bebop player to a more mature, stylistically focused band leader. His Quintet at this time consisted of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, basically a jazz supergroup. Garland’s hypnotizing piano solos permeate and complement Davis’ muted and buttery smooth tone, which eventually became his trademark sound. “’Round Midnight,” My Funny Valentine,” we’ve heard these plenty of times, but they never fail to generate a deep visceral feeling of being in a dark smoky club, whiskey on the rocks in hand, and the best band in the world playing just for you.
THE VERY BEST OF
A life cut short too soon, Wes Montgomery’s work has been a standard by which all decent and respectful guitarists must compare themselves. His treatments of rock and pop classics on the CTI albums are legendary, and showcased his amazing improvisational skills. But this compilation is a real treasure, as it covers a lot of his lesser known early work on Riverside Records. Montgomery played with his thumb instead of a pick, which resulted in a very smooth tone that became immediately recognizable as his sound. Like his peers, Montgomery utilized the best of the best sidemen, which enhanced his own visibility. With Hank Jones on piano, Ron Carter on bass, the incredible Milt Jackson on vibes (where is Jackson’s “Best Of…” album?), and multiple drummers, Montgomery’s early work is a perfect example of the late ‘50s early ‘60s jazz groove – subtle but confident, melodic but challenging, and manna for the ears.
THE VERY BEST OF: THE PRESTIGE ERA
He’s the other giant of modern Jazz, standing equally tall as his occasional bandmate Miles Davis. There is no need to elaborate on the importance and influence of Coltrane’s legacy. It permeates most real jazz that has been written and performed since he passed away. Captured here are 10 tracks from 1956 to 1958; each piece is a blast of confident control, a mini musical dissertation on how to make a perfect Jazz record. His time in the trenches with Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk had given Coltrane an education, and obviously inspired a push toward total excellence. With equal parts skill and soul, he blazed through multiple pieces of music, branding each as his own with a rich and powerful command of the saxophone, one that has not really been matched since then. His unique interplay with trumpeter Donald Byrd on “Lover Come Back To Me” is a schoolboy lesson in collaboration and exploration, and simply unforgettable. Fast, slow, jammy or moody, Coltrane could do it all.
THE VERY BEST OF
He had it all – the looks, the sound, the charisma, the reputation, and sadly, the taste for dope. Chet Baker has long been an icon, an incredible trumpet player and vocalist whose life circled down into a tragic tale of wasted talent and untimely death, eloquently reinvigorated in a fawning documentary by Bruce Weber (now almost impossible to find). But putting aside the drama, Baker was a master, who sang and played like an impressionist painter, delivering the “essence” of a melody in a way that pulls you toward it, and allows you to construct the framework in your own mind. From his early 20s, working with Gerry Mulligan, Baker got noticed immediately by both other players and jazz aficionados, and the 14 tracks on this fine compilation give a fairly comprehensive and profoundly entertaining panorama of Baker’s skills. His ability to turn standards into his own tunes was remarkable, and each cut is a treat. His tender half tempo version of “How High The Moon” is a prime example. As one of the very few jazzmen who also sang, Baker had a honey smooth voice that oozed sensuality. During these sessions, Baker played with an energy and smoothness that belied his impending battles with the demons of excess and temptation, and while he recorded sporadically in later years, he maintained that magic touch until the end.