The passing of Saul Zaentz yesterday at 92 brings to mind the crucial part he played in expanding Fantasy Records from a vital, colorful, but minor independent label into a pop hit-maker and a major repository of jazz recordings from the late 1940s on. He is being remembered in obituaries around the world as the producer of Amadeus, The English Patient, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and other major motion pictures. For a thorough review of his life and career, see this piece in The New York Times.
Zaentz’s importance to jazz was as the head of Fantasy. When the label’s founders, the brothers Max and Sol Weiss, decided to sell the company in 1967, it went to Zaentz, their longtime right-hand man. Under Zaentz and Fantasy president Ralph Kaffel, the label’s star hit-maker was Creedence Clearwater Revival, a rock band that became a massive success and sold millions of albums. The profits the band’s recordings earned for Fantasy set up Zaentz not only to form the Saul Zaentz Company and get into film production, but also to buy the catalogs of the Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary and Pablo labels.
For several years, Fantasy owned one of the world’s richest concentrations of mainstream jazz recordings. Until Zaentz and Kaffel sold Fantasy to Concord Music in 2004, they maintained the integrity of that catalog. In the past ten years, Concord has branched into pop, rock, soul, hip-hop and other areas of popular music. Uncompromising jazz has assumed a smaller role. Much of the jazz catalog that Concord acquired from Fantasy is now available only as digital downloads.
That catalog contained essential recordings by a roster that included Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Woody Herman, Art Blakey, Cal Tjader, Vince Guaraldi, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Count Basie, Art Pepper and Duke Ellington, among dozens of key jazz artists. Merely sampling the highlights of the former Fantasy catalog could take hundreds of hours of listening. In remembrance of Saul Zaentz, from that precious lode we have chosen one track from an album by a Fantasy artist whom he championed long before the multimillion-seller pop hits and the Oscar-winning movies.