Rudy Van Gelder is one of the great unsung heroes of jazz. The New Jersey native parlayed his hobby into a career in the 1950s, recording many of the greatest figures in modern jazz for Prestige Records, initially at his home studio in Hackensack, New Jersey, and later at his now-legendary facility in nearby Englewood Cliffs. There some of the great innovators of the era made records that played a vital role in setting the tone for modern jazz. Van Gelder, who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2004, remains active, transferring select albums he engineered from the original analog master tapes to 24·bit digital technology, including these highlights from Prestige's glory years.
Modern Jazz Quartet pianist ,John Lewis composed "Django" in honor of one of Europe's most significant contributions to jazz, Belg"ium-born guitarist Jean Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt. Lewis met the former Quintet of the Hot Club of France virtuoso during his misbegotten post-World War II tour with Duke Ellington. Lewis, then a member of Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra (as were the other three future founders of the MJQ), recalls the notoriously abstracted Reinhardt visiting with Lewis and his friends at a club on 52nd Street in New York and needing to be prodded to make it to impending gigs. Lewis unveiled his tribute shortly after the 43-year-old Reinhardt's death in 1953 following a stroke. It's became a jazz standard covered by a who's who of instrumentalists that includes Miles Davis, Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, John McLaughlin and Wynton Marsalis.
Milt Jackson: vibes / John Lewis: piano / Percy Heath: bass / Kenny Clarke: drums
2. Like Someone In Love
John Coltrane had been playing professionally for more than a decade when he began work on Lush Life in the summer of 1957. Trane was gathering steam at that stage. While every year between '55 and his death in 1967 was crucial, '57 was marked by one milestone after another: he kicked heroin, left Miles Davis's "First Great Quintet," raised his profile as a leader, played with Thelonious Monk and rejoined Davis's band all in one intense 12-month period. He recorded the James Van Heusen/Johnny Burke ballad "Like Someone in Love" sans piano, a move necessitated by the unexpected absence of Red Garland. The nonplussed Trane opens with a soulful cadenza before settling in with a tender performance that belies the fire-breathing reputation he'd soon earn as a free jazz trailblazer.
John Coltrane: tenor saxophone / Earl May: bass / Arthur Taylor: drums
3. If I Were A Bell
Dallas-born pianist William "Red" Garland and bassist Paul Chambers contributed to two versions of Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls standard in the fall of 1956, cutting it as members of Miles Davis's "First Great Quintet" on October 26 and revisiting it on December 14 (sans Davis and John Coltrane) with skinman Art Taylor switched in for Philly Joe Jones. That take is one of the highlights of Garland's second LP as a leader. Garland didn't seriously explore the piano until he was in the Army during World War II, preferring the clarinet and alto sax as a youth. He flirted with a boxing career after he finished his tour of duty, notching 35 fights, including a bout with Sugar Ray Robinson. Garland's unfussy, economical style-the keyboard equivalent of a crisp, well-executed jab-made him an in-demand sideman and a key player for Prestige during its heyday.
Red Garland: piano / Paul Chambers: bass / Arthur Taylor: drums
4. Speak Low
Coleman Hawkins had four full decades as a professional musician under his belt when he recorded this oft-covered tune by German musical theater composer Kurt Weill in the winter of 1961. Employed by classic blues singer Mamie Smith before he reached his teens, the Missouri native was by the late 1920s heralded as the man who set the standard for saxophonists. Generations of reed men chose to follow the lead of either Hawk or his stylistically contrasting rival, Lester Young, who considered Hawkins the man who "woke you up and let you know there was a tenor saxophone." Here the jazz graybeard and an unseasoned but gifted combo (his sidemen are, on average, 30 years his junior) mesh with a gently swinging take on a song Weill wrote with whimsical poet Ogden Nash, he of "candy is dandy but liquor is quicker" fame.
Coleman Hawkins: tenor saxophone / Kenny Bnrrell: guitar / Ronnell Bright: piano / Ron Carter: Bass / Andrew Cyrille: drums
5. I Could Write A Book
Miles Davis hadn't yet celebrated his 30th birthday when he unveiled what's come to be known as the "First Great Quintet" on Steve Allen's televised Tonight Show. The date was October 18, 1955. He was nearing his 31st birthday when he disbanded the now-fabled ensemble. In that brief window, the five men recorded enough material for five Prestige albums and Davis's Columbia Records debut, Round About Midnight, in the process defining jazz for many of the post· war generation. Their October 26, 1956, take on the 1940 Rodgers and Hart chestnut "I Could Write a Book" captures the giddiness of the lyric ("If they asked me I could write a book / About the way you walk and whisper and look"), Miles's middle-register lyricism contrasting with Trane's gutsier bearing.
Miles Davis: trumpet / John Coltrane: tenor saxophone / Red Garland: piano / Paul Chambers: bass / PhiIIy Joe Jones: drums
6. Canadian Sunset
Tough but tender tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons's career was severely marred by his addiction to heroin. The Chicago native (and son of boogie-woogie piano whiz Albert Ammons), a veteran of Billy Eckstine's and Woody Herman's bands and co-leader of a high-octane combo with Sonny Stitt in the early '50s, served a two-year sentence for narcotics possession that ended in 1960. He recorded Boss Tenor, widely considered his masterwork, on June 16 of that year, returning to prison a short time later after violating his parole. He began another longer sentence in 1962. The man they called Jug brings both nimbleness and brawn to his version of "Canadian Sunset," which had been a hit for both "beautiful music" maestro Hugo Winterhalter and crooner Andy Williams in 1956.
Gene Ammons: tenor saxophone / Tommy Flanagan: piano Doug Watkins: bass / Arthur Taylor: drums / Ray Barretto: conga
7. Lotus Blossom
McKinley Howard Dorham was a low-key but prime figure in jazz through the 19508 and into the mid-'60s. Overshadowed during an era when trumpet lions ranging from the still-formidable Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis to Dizzy Gillespie were on the prowl, the versatile, adaptable Texan was revered by his peers. He served stints alongside Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Art Blakey and when shooting-star Clifford Brown died in a 1956 auto accident, Dorham was recruited to fill his place in the Max Roach Quintet. Dorham, who doubled as a Down Beat critic in the '60s, recorded Quiet Kenny in one session on November 14, 1959. It opens with an uptempo original that: showcases the pure tone and sage phrasing that made him a valuable sideman and respected leader.
Kenny Dorham: trumpet / Tommy Flanagan: piano / Paul Chambers: bass / Arthur Taylor: drums
8. Why Was I Born?
Two months after he wrapped up Lush Life, John Coltrane returned to Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Hackensack with a small combo co-led by guitarist Kenny Burrell. Coltrane, remarkably prolific and firing on all cylinders now that his drug habit was history (he took part in more than two dozen sessions in 1957 and '58), cut five tracks with the young guitarist. Interestingly Burrell received first billing on the cover o fthe self-titled LP. Four of the tracks featured Prestige rhythm-section mainstays Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. This intimate take on Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's reflective 1929 ballad, however, is a musical conversation between the two principals. It's also Coltrane's only recorded duo with a chordal instrument.
Kenny Burrell: guitar / John Coltrane: tenor saxophone
The word "inimitable" could have been invented for Thelonious Monk. While he drew inspiration from established players as he gained his footing in the 1930s and '40s (notably James P. Johnson and other Harlem stride masters), he'd completely developed his own unmistakable style while still in his twenties. As controversial as he was distinct (some, not content to cast aspersions on his technical prowess, questioned his sanity), Monk was still seen as more kook than genius during his two-year stint with Prestige. The Monk original "Work" was recorded on September 22, 1954, near the end of his Prestige days. The Art Blakey/Percy Heath rhythm section sets the tempo while Monk sets off on the kind of oblique flights of fancy that initially perplexed and ultimately won over the '50s jazz cognoscenti.
Thelonious Monk: piano / Percy Heath: bass / Art Blakey: drums
To his detractors (at one point including the influential jazz bible Down Beat), Eric Dolphy was a noxious anti-jazz nihilist. To the Los Angeles-born reedman's champions, he, along with fellow travelers John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, represented the best of the post-bop "new thing" that challenged jazz orthodoxy as the '60s displaced the '50s. An in-demand sideman whose credits eventually included stints with Coltrane, Coleman and Charles Mingus, Dolphy first encountered "Feather" when he was a member of drummer Chico Hamilton's band. It made such an impression on him that he tracked down and befriended its composer, Hale Smith, while playing a date in Cleveland.
A hauntingly introspective dirge, "Feather" is defined by Dolphy's crying alto and the interplay of bassist George Duvivier and young cellist Ron Carter, who's gone on to become one of jazz's greatest bassists.
Eric Dolphy: alto saxophone / Ron Carter: cello / George Duvivier: bass / Roy Haynes: drums
11. St Thomas
Saxophone Colossus buttressed 25-year-old Sonny Rollins's standing in the jazz elite. Unique among those at the top of the mid-1950s jazz pantheon that included Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, the tenor saxophonist remains a driving force five decades later. "St. 'l'homas" is based on a Caribbean melody his mother sang when he was a child; he renamed the jaunty tune in honor of her island birthplace. Drummer Max Roach's rippling rhythms lay the foundation for solos in which Rollins first flirts with the melody and then sweeps it off its feet.
Sonny Rollins: tenor saxophone / Tommy Flanagan: piano Doug Watkins: bass / Max Roach: drums
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