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“The Very Best Of” Jazz: Concord Launches New Series With Davis, Rollins, Coltrane and More

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If you’ve ever felt it might be a daunting task to “get into” jazz, Concord Music Group just might have the perfect releases for you.  Concord is home to many of the genre’s greatest labels, including Prestige, Contemporary, Riverside, Milestone, Fantasy and Pablo.  With the new series simply titled The Very Best Of, the Concord team has offered an affordable, entry-level look into five of the most influential musicians of all time: Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone), Chet Baker (trumpet) and Wes Montgomery (guitar).  All five titles in the series are in stores now, and offer a selection of their most enduring music, primarily dating from the 1950s and early 1960s.  They capture these artists in the early portion of their careers, i.e. Davis before Columbia, Coltrane before Atlantic, Montgomery before Verve, when they were all breaking new ground and honing a personal style.  Each title – effective as either an introduction or a sampler – offers uniform design, remastered sound and new liner notes from authors including Neil Tesser, Ashley Kahn and Doug Ramsey.

For a musician who has influenced every guitarist from George Benson to Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery is remembered for a body of work that lasted just over ten years.  Montgomery didn’t enter a recording studio until 25 years of age, didn’t record as a leader until another ten years had elapsed, and was dead ten years after that, felled by a heart attack at age 45.  The guitarist’s work can be divided into three distinct periods at different labels: Riverside (1959-1964), Verve (1964-1966) and A&M (1967-1968).  The latter two stints were spent under the aegis of producer Creed Taylor, who shaped Montgomery into a pioneer of the crossover jazz market, sweetening his recordings with strings and encouraging him to record the latest pop/rock hits. Concord’s The Very Best of Wes Montgomery is drawn from the pure jazz recorded at Riverside.  Montgomery’s sound was, even in his earliest days, instantly identifiable.  He made radical use of octaves (playing the same note on two strings, one octave apart) and chord melodies, and was inclined to play with his thumb rather than a pick, making his sound one of the most recognizable in all jazz.  The new set’s eleven tracks are drawn from eight of Montgomery’s Riverside albums, bookended by 1959’s The Wes Montgomery Trio and 1963’s Boss Guitar.  As you’ll find with all of these albums, a number of other luminaries appear as sidemen, here including Wynton Kelly (piano), Philly Joe Jones (drums), Milt Jackson (vibes) and Ron Carter (bass).  A number of Montgomery originals have been selected (“Four on Six,” “West Coast Blues,” “Cariba”) as well as covers of standards and pop songs (“Gone with the Wind,” “Canadian Sunset”) and jazz classics by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.  For those only familiar with Montgomery’s hit Verve and A&M albums, these eleven tracks will likely be a revelation.  In any event, they’re a solid starting point to explore the sadly-truncated career of a true great.

Among the artists chosen to inaugurate this series, Chet Baker stands out as the only one to have a career as both instrumentalist and vocalist.  Both sides of Baker are on display in The Very Best of Chet Baker, which consists of 14 tracks recorded between 1953 and 1965 from the Riverside, Prestige and Fantasy catalogues.  The collection’s earliest song, Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” hails from Baker’s 1953 debut as part of The Gerry Mulligan Quartet.  It quickly became a signature song for the young trumpeter, whose tone was one of restraint, intimacy and smoothness.  A major player in the West Coast school of jazz, the handsome young Baker was courted for motion pictures and groomed for stardom, but a drug problem kept him running from the law and the court of public opinion throughout his entire life.  Other than drugs, the one constant was his great musicianship, whether playing or singing.  Four of his vocals are represented here, including three from Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen to You (1958) and one from Chet Baker with Fifty Italian Strings (1959).  Baker’s cool, relaxed take on “Do It the Hard Way” from Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey is a particular standout.  Many of Broadway’s finest songwriters received sympathetic treatment from Baker.  In addition to four songs from the Rodgers and Hart songbook, two come from Lerner and Loewe, and two more from Jerome Kern (with Oscar Hammerstein II and B.G. DeSylva).  Pianist Bill Evans joins Baker on two selections from 1959’s Chet, and Herbie Mann’s tenor sax enlivens “Almost Like Being in Love” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” both from 1959’s The Best of Lerner and Loewe.  Baker continued to record until his untimely, mysterious death from a hotel window in 1988 (Was it suicide?  Was it an accident?  Was it something else?), but this collection preserves the musician in his prime.

After the jump, we explore sets from John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and the Miles Davis Quintet, plus we’ve got full track listings with discographical annotation, and pre-order links!

2011 Kennedy Center Honoree Sonny Rollins’ first recordings as a leader were released in 1956 on the Prestige label, the tenor saxophonist having put in time with J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet.  That was the year he recorded Saxophone Colossus, a title that’s not nearly as hyperbolic as it sounds.  Rollins truly was (and is) a saxophone colossus, having brought innovation to improvisation, and having built on the legacies of his predecessors like Charlie Parker with new ideas and sophistication.  With the exception of one song recorded in 1953 and released in 1956 on Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet, every track on The Very Best of Sonny Rollins comes from one extremely fertile period between 1956 and 1958 when each track being cut for Prestige by Rollins became an instant classic.  It was during this period that he pioneered the piano-less trio (tenor saxophone, bass drums) on albums like Way Out West and Freedom Suite, both represented here.   Two tracks have been taken from Saxophone Colossus, and one from Tenor Madness, another landmark.  That album contained Rollins’ only performance with another colossus, John Coltrane, and that collaboration is included here.  In his liner notes, Neil Tesser breaks down some of Rollins’ solos for your listening and reading enjoyment, and describes how Rollins was gifted in transforming standards like Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business”  and Kern and Hammerstein’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris” into something wholly new.  Though Rollins is still active today, the recordings heard here from half a century ago still resonate.

Intense, dark, probing: the color of John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone was all his own.  An early innovator in bebop and hard bop and later a groundbreaker in modal and free jazz, Coltrane remains one of the most significant players in popular music.  The Very Best of John Coltrane offers ten cuts from the Prestige Records label as heard on eight albums.  All were recorded between 1956 and 1958, although most were released on LPs after Coltrane had already ascended to prominence at the Atlantic and Impulse! labels.  These are the songs in which the saxophonist found his own voice: moody, emotionally deep and probing, bluesy.  Coltrane could be exuberant, too, as evinced by the performance here of “I Hear a Rhapsody.”  The only self-written composition here is “Traneing In” from 1957; Thelonious Monk plays piano on his own “Nutty,” from the same year.  Cole Porter is represented by “I Love You” and Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II by “Lover, Come Back to Me.”  Two of Coltrane’s piano men, Tadd Dameron and Tommy Flanagan, offer originals, as well.  Ashley Kahn (author of A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album) supplies notes placing these early tracks in perspective with the artist’s career.

Finally, The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet presents ten tracks from the remarkable group consisting of Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums).  In the new liner notes, Ashley Kahn admits that “it would be erroneous to say that the music in this collection captures Miles Davis in his prime – simply because the trumpeter of legend had so many creative crests in a career that spanned seven decades.  Yet it would be equally inaccurate to say that these ten tracks are anything less than Miles at the height of his powers, while in the company of his first great quintet.”  These recordings, all from 1955-1956, represent the end of Davis’ run at Prestige Records just prior to his signing with Columbia; as with Coltrane, many first appeared on LP after he had departed Prestige.  The tracks on this 10-track compilation range from hard bop to lushly romantic ballads, and even the songwriters are a “Who’s Who” of jazz.  Two songs come from Sonny Rollins (“Oleo” and “Airegin”) and Thelonious Monk (“’Round Midnight” and “Well, You Needn’t”), with one each from Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington (“Just Squeeze Me”).  Then there are standards (Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine”) and Davis originals (“Four” and “Tune Up”).  All share the indelible mark of Miles Davis as he was making a name for himself and in the process, transforming jazz and bringing it closer to the mainstream.

We’ll be sure to keep you updated on planned future volumes in this series, but the first batch of five titles is available now from Concord Records.  You’ll find order links just below!

Wes Montgomery, The Very Best of Wes Montgomery (Riverside, RIV-33758-02, 2012)

  1. Groove Yard
  2. Besame Mucho
  3. I’m Just a Lucky So and So
  4. Delilah
  5. West Coast Blues
  6. ‘Round Midnight
  7. Four on Six
  8. Canadian Sunset
  9. Sandu
  10. Gone with the Wind
  11. Cariba

Track 1 from Groove Yard (Riverside 9362, rec. 1961)
Tracks 2 & 8 from Boss Guitar (Riverside 9459, rec. 1963)
Track 3 from So Much Guitar! (Riverside 9382, rec. 1961)
Track 4 from Bags Meets Wes! (Riverside 9407, rec. 1961)
Tracks 5, 7 & 10 from The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (Riverside 9320, rec. 1960)
Track 6 from The Wes Montgomery Trio (Riverside 1156, rec. 1959)
Track 9 from Movin’ Along (Riverside 9342, rec. 1960)
Track 11 from Full House (Riverside 9434, rec. 1962)

Chet Baker, The Very Best of Chet Baker (Riverside RIV-33757-02, 2012)

  1. My Funny Valentine
  2. Moonlight in Vermont
  3. Do It the Hard Way
  4. My Heart Stood Still
  5. Old Devil Moon
  6. Fair Weather
  7. If You Could See Me Now
  8. How High the Moon
  9. Look for the Silver Lining
  10. The Song is You
  11. Almost Like Being in Love
  12. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face
  13. Have You Met Miss Jones?
  14. When You’re Gone

Tracks 1 & 2 from Gerry Mulligan Quartet (Fantasy 3-6, rec. 1952/1953)
Tracks 3-5 from Chet Baker Sings…It Could Happen to You (Riverside 1120, rec. 1958)
Track 6 from Chet Baker in New York (Riverside 1119, rec. 1958)
Tracks 7 & 8 from Chet (Riverside 1135, rec. 1958)
Track 9 from In Milan (Jazzland 18, rec. 1959)
Track 10 from Chet Baker with Fifty Italian Strings (Jazzland 921, rec. 1959)
Tracks 11 & 12 from Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe (Riverside 1152, rec. 1959)
Track 13 from Smokin’ with the Chet Baker Quintet (Prestige 7449, rec. 1965)
Track 14 from Comin’ with the Chet Baker Quintet (Prestige 7478, rec. 1965)

Sonny Rollins, The Very Best of Sonny Rollins (Prestige PRS-33754-02, 2012)

  1. St. Thomas
  2. Pent-Up House
  3. In a Sentimental Mood
  4. I’m an Old Cowhand
  5. Someday I’ll Find You
  6. There’s No Business Like Show Business
  7. You Don’t Know What Love Is
  8. Tenor Madness
  9. The Last Time I Saw Paris
  10. I’ve Found a New Baby

Tracks 1 & 7 from Saxophone Colossus (Prestige 7079, rec. 1956)
Track 2 from Plus 4 (Prestige 7038, rec. 1956)
Track 3 from Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet (Prestige 7029, 1953)
Track 4 from Way Out West (Contemporary 7530, rec. 1957)
Track 5 from Freedom Suite (Riverside 258, rec. 1958)
Track 6 from Work Time (Prestige 7020, rec. 1955)
Track 8 from Tenor Madness (Prestige 7047, rec. 1956)
Track 9 from The Sound of Sonny (Riverside 241, rec. 1957)
Track 10 from Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders (Contemporary 7564, rec. 1958)

John Coltrane, The Very Best of John Coltrane (Prestige PRS-33753-02, 2012)

  1. I Hear a Rhapsody
  2. Nutty
  3. Soultrane
  4. I Love You
  5. Lover, Come Back to Me
  6. Good Bait
  7. Traneing In
  8. Freight Trane
  9. Theme for Ernie
  10. Bahia

Tracks 1 & 4 from Lush Life (Prestige 7188, rec. 1957)
Track 2 from Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (Jazzland 46, rec. 1957)
Track 3 from Mating Call (Prestige 7070, rec. 1956)
Track 5 from Black Pearls (Prestige 7316, rec. 1958)
Tracks 6 & 9 from Soultrane (Prestige 7142, rec. 1958)
Track 7 from Traneing In (Prestige 7123, rec. 1957)
Track 8 from Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane (New Jazz 8276, rec. 1958)
Track 10 from Bahia (Prestige 7353, rec. 1958)

Miles Davis, The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige PRS-33751-02, 2012)

  1. Just Squeeze Me
  2. Oleo
  3. ‘Round Midnight
  4. Four
  5. My Funny Valentine
  6. Well, You Needn’t
  7. In Your Own Sweet Way
  8. Airegin
  9. You’re My Everything
  10. Tune Up

Track 1 from Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige 7014)
Tracks 2 & 9 from Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige 7129)
Track 3 from Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (Prestige 7150)
Tracks 4 & 7 from Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige 7166)
Tracks 5, 8 & 10 from Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige 7094)
Track 6 from Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige 7200)

All tracks recorded 1956 except Track 1 recorded 1955

Written by Joe Marchese

June 29, 2012 at 10:06

4 Responses

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  1. I consider myself fairly well-versed in both Miles and Coltrane, but I’m still not all that familiar with Wes or Sonny (though I have heard — and enjoyed — my limited exposure to Rollins). These new collections might be good places to start. Thanks!


    June 30, 2012 at 19:01

    • Not to be too hard on you, but I would say that if you are well versed in Miles and Coltrane, by definition you should be fairly well versed in Sonny Rollins. Not only for the context of jazz in the 50’s, but they played and recorded together.


      July 2, 2012 at 23:52

      • I realize that… I know Sonny’s own work a bit, just not an expert of any kind. And really, my knowledge of Miles and Trane is probably a drop in the bucket too. But I have a fair sampling of their works through various periods.

        I’m also something of a contrarian, I guess, in that I really like a lot of the electric, fusion-era Miles.


        July 3, 2012 at 16:37

  2. Start by getting all the Sonny Rollins from the 50’s, then take off from there all the way to the present


    July 2, 2012 at 23:54

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