When the Concord Music Group purchased Fantasy Records in 2004, they became the owners of what I consider to be the finest jazz catalog in the world. What made the catalog so rich was that in addition to the artists on Fantasy itself, the company owned the masters of pioneering labels such as Prestige and Riverside as well.
Riverside was formed in 1953 by Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews, and are celebrating their 60th anniversary this year. As part of this milestone event, they have reissued five legendary recordings, which span the years 1957-1962. The discs have been remastered by Joe Tarantino, include the original liner notes from producer Keepnews, plus newly written notes placing the recordings in their proper historical context. In chronological order, the latest releases are:
Thelonious Monk & Gerry Mulligan - Mulligan Meets Monk (1957)
I guess there has always been an East Coast vs. West Coast musical divide, and that is one of the attractions of this summit meeting. The piano style of Monk was considered definitively New York, while Mulligan's sax represented the "cool" jazz of Southern California. Along with bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson, the six tracks on the original album provide an intriguing mix of stylistic approaches. I especially enjoyed hearing the quartet's approach to two of Monk's most celebrated compositions, "Round Midnight," and "Straight, No Chaser."
There are four bonus cuts, all alternate versions including two takes on "I Mean You." The new liner notes are by Neil Tesser. This is a great showcase for both artists, without a doubt. I would like to recommend one more Concord Music Group title for those who might wish to delve a little further into the music of Thelonious Monk. It is part of a series released in 2012, titled The Very Best of Thelonious Monk
Cannonball Adderley & Milt Jackson - Things Are Getting Better (1958)
Although Things Are Getting Better is credited to Cannonball and Jackson, it is really an all-star affair. The incomparable Art Blakey occupies the drum chair, Jackson's fellow Modern Jazz Quartet member Percy Heath plays bass, and Wynton Kelly tickles the ivories. Among a number of prestige dates for all of these musicians, one stands out. In just five months after these sessions, Adderley and Kelly would appear on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Of the seven cuts on the original album, Adderley composed two, and "Bags" Jackson composed one. "Blues Oriental" is the Bags track, which opens the set, and is my favorite of the bunch. It is in good company though, as the whole album is remarkable. There are three bonus tracks, including the 44-second Adderley bit "A Few Words." Cannonball's impressive ability to express himself verbally is discussed at length in the new biography Walk Tall: The Music & Life of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley by Cary Ginnel. The new liner notes were written by Willard Jenkins.
Chet Baker - Plays the Best of Lerner and Lowe (1959)
Chet Baker is on a seemingly endless list of artists I need to further investigate. I was trying to figure out just how many albums he released over the years, and just for fun checked how many Amazon carries. I imagine there are a bunch of duplicates and stuff, but they have over 1,100 listings. That is obviously nowhere near the correct number, but he was prolific. Baker was only signed to Riverside for one year, and in that year he released six albums, including this eight-song Lerner and Lowe collection.
The songs are drawn from four Lerner and Lowe shows: My Fair Lady; Brigadoon; Gigi; and Paint Your Wagon. The guest list is pretty impressive. Although not everyone plays on every song, the list of participants includes Herbie Mann, Zoot Sims, Pepper Adams, Bill Evans, Bob Corwin, Earl May, and Clifford Jarvis. There are no bonus cuts on this one, and the new liner notes were written by James Rozzi.
Wes Montgomery - So Much Guitar! (1961)
Although it is not billed as such, this release is actually a two-fer. The original Riverside release of So Much Guitar! contained eight songs, and with bonus tracks, the reissue contains 16. That is the equivalent of a whole other album, which is exactly what it is - or was. The additional eight songs were recorded live at The Cellar, Vancouver, B.C. in 1961, and were released as The Montgomery Brothers in Canada on Fantasy Records.
So that is kind of the headline, but the So Much Guitar! album is pretty great by itself. The sound of Montgomery's guitar just sublime, and was highly influential. While he composed two of the tunes, it is the 7:44 closer "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)" that really knocked me out. Among the supporting cast are a very young Ron Carter on bass, who treasured his time with the guitarist. The Very Best of Wes Montgomery is recommended for an broader overview of the guitar legend.
Bill Evans Trio - How My Heart Sings! (1962)
I might as well begin by admitting my bias. I think Bill Evans is the greatest jazz pianist of all time. I just adore his music. How My Heart Sings! is the companion piece to Evans' previous Moonbeams.
With the tragic auto-accident death of Scott LaFaro in 1961, Evans and drummer Paul Motian were devastated. It took a while, but they eventually recruited bassist Chuck Israels to form a second trio. During this era, "themed" albums were popular, and the trio were set to record one, made up of ballads. Orrin Keepnews thought it would be a good idea for them to mix things up during the sessions though. To keep things interesting, they threw in some up-tempo numbers. In effect, they recorded two albums during this time. The ballads album became Moonbeams, and the swingin' alternates were released as How My Heart Sings!
The original LP had eight tracks, and there are some very good performances here. I really like the title song, and "34 Skidoo" is pretty wild as well. This reissue contains three bonus cuts, "34 Skidoo;" "In Your Own Sweet Way;" and "Ev'rything I Love." The new liner notes were written by Doug Ramsey.
At the top of this article, I claimed that Concord Music Group now owns the greatest jazz catalog in the world. The only competition would be that of Columbia Records, now owned by Sony. Columbia is where Miles, Monk, and Dave Brubeck went, after their stints with the CMG labels, such as Riverside.
Riverside was formed by two jazz fanatics, and the artists and albums they recorded are some of the most important in the history of the genre. I love the music, and to be honest, I love the fact that the well is boundless. For instance, out of this five-CD reissue, I came to see how much Chet Baker music it out there for me to check into, I want to hear more Wes Montgomery, and will do further research into the career of the Modern Jazz Quartet. And those are just off the top of my head, there will probably be more "investigations" triggered by associations that I have yet to notice.
Riverside folded in 1964, a year after the death of Bill Grauer. In my opinion, their run from 1953 to '64 paralleled the greatest years of the music itself. These are just five, of over 500 releases, and all I can say is jump right in. I recommend each one of these five, for various reasons. That in itself is yet another cool thing about the music. On a sunny day like today, I am inclined to Mulligan Meets Monk, and come fall, I bet So Much Guitar! will be a perfect choice one afternoon. And on and on.
Jazz fans know what I am talking about, as these are bona-fide classics one and all. So let me just say for anyone who is on the fence, like I was for a long time. Just about anything you find on the Riverside label is likely to be a winner. Just give it a shot.