REVIEW: Various Artists – Very Best Of Prestige Records

Before I read the album notes for a new collection called The Very Best Of Prestige Records, I naturally enough thought to myself that it would have been child’s play to put together this double-album commemorating the label’s 60th anniversary. After all, Prestige has a long history as one of the best jazz labels around, with a roster that includes names such as Coltrane, Rollins, Monk, and Davis.

But then I began reading producer Nick Phillips’ notes, and realized that he was right when he said that the problem with putting together a collection like this is not what you include. Instead, it’s more about agonizing over what you have to leave out, because there is so much good stuff available that even with two CDs to fill you have to make some tough decisions.

The final product, available this week on the Prestige label pres2(via Concord Music Group), is a 20-year slice of what might well be called the golden age of Prestige. Starting with recordings made in 1949 and proceeding chronologically, the double album includes 25 tracks that provide a inspired look at a legendary stable of musicians.

Prestige was originally a very sax-friendly label, with founder Bob Weinstock often leaning toward tenor sax masters like Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, but he eventually encompassed many other instrumentalists too. This collection pretty accurately reflects that history, with a lot of the earlier pieces especially sax-centric. Among those are tenor sax-man James Moody picking up an alto sax to perform “I’m In The Mood For Love,” Sonny Stitt’s “I Want To Be Happy,” and of course, “Tenor Madness,” which features Sonny Rollins on one of his best.

But even though it seems as if saxophonists are in the ascendancy, it doesn’t take long for other influences to be felt. In fact, the very first track — “Subconscious-Lee,” which was also part of Prestige’s 1949 debut album — stars saxophonist Lee Konitz, but is also a showcase for pianist presLennie Tristano. Also among the early pieces are legendary pianist Thelonious Monk’s performance of his classic “Blue Monk,” and trumpet great Miles Davis performing his well-remembered “Airegin,” along with “My Funny Valentine.”

As the years passed and jazz evolved, Prestige continued to offer some of the best sounds around, including those from some super groups. Among those are “Django” from the Modern Jazz Quartet, and “Hey Now,” a classic 1957 performance by the Red Garland Trio.

In the 1960s, Prestige featured new sounds such as alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy’s “Les,” and Yusef Lateef on flute with “The Plum Blossom,” along with guitarist Pat Martino’s “Waltz For Geri.” The decade also marked the rise of the organ as a jazz instrument, and this collection includes some outstanding examples, including Shirley Scott’s  “Soul Shoutin’,” a rollicking piece that also gives saxophonist Stanley Turrentine a chance to shine. Also included is Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes’ moody and lush turn on “Misty.”prescd1

There are lots of other classic tracks here, including pieces by Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Dexter Gordon, and Gene Ammons. Two CDs totaling over two hours of solid, timeless jazz from an important era. I’d encourage jazz fans to take a look at this one. Highly recommended.

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