Publishers allow complete sets of Shakespeare and Faulkner to go out of print. Record companies are under no greater obligation when it comes to classics in music. In the free market, a label is at liberty to do whatever it pleases with its stock. Concord, the company that bought the Fantasy complex of labels, has not disclosed its intentions for other important complete collections, but it has dropped from its catalogue the monumental 18-CD Complete Bill Evans on Riverside. Amazon.com is down to five copies of the Evans box. Two of the five are used. One of the sets described as new and unopened is offered at the astonishing price of $399.94. That’s $200 above list. A few other sets are scattered among assorted web sites. Evans completists who have been waiting might do well to move quickly, as might those who have been putting off buying Thelonious Monk: Complete Riverside Recordings. That 15-CD box is also gone from the Concord catalogue, along with Wes Montgomery: The Complete Riverside Recordings (12 CDs).
So far, Concord’s John Coltrane: The Prestige Recordings (16 CDs) and Miles Davis Chronicle: The Complete Prestige Recordings (12 CDs) are still in the catalogue and available at or near list prices. It would be nice to think that Concord not only considers commercial potential but also places cultural existence value on treasures like the Coltrane and Davis boxes, but the fate of the Evans, Monk and Montgomery sets is not encouraging.
To Concord’s credit, it has recently reissued smaller, but still substantial, Coltrane and Davis boxes and one with some of saxophonist Sonny Stitt’s best early work. John Coltrane: Fearless Leader has six CDs covering the 1957 and ’58 Prestige dates under the tenor saxophonist’s own name. That means his collaborations with Sonny Rollins, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Hank Mobley, Paul Quinichette, Tadd Dameron, Gene Ammons and several cooperative sessions are not included. Still, the collection presents Coltrane during a period of stunning development when he cleaned up his life after being fired by Miles Davis for unreliability. Under Thelonious Monk’s leadership, he expanded his craftsmanship and creativity at a pace all but unprecedented by an established jazz musician. He was on his way back and soon would rejoin Miles Davis in the mind-blowing sextet with Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.
The Miles Davis Quintet: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions is the 1955-’56 band with Coltrane, Chambers, Jones and pianist Red Garland. This was Davis on his own comeback trail, establishing himself as one of the most influential and popular musicians of his generation and his quintet as one of the best small bands in jazz history. The music in this set was released as LPs called Miles, Workin’, Relaxin’, Steamin’ and Cookin’. The four CD set contains previously unreleased performances made as air checks from Steve Allen’s Tonight Show and two taped at the Blue Note in Philadelphia. It also includes four pieces recorded at the Café Bohemia in New York after Bill Evans replaced Garland in 1958 but before Adderley made the band a sextet. Thus, the new disc would be important as a document of transition even if the music wasn’t first rate, which for the most part it is.
Sonny Stitt once told me with a straight face and aggressive finality that he arrived at his way of playing independent of Charlie Parker’s influence. It is a matter of continuing speculation among students of jazz geneology whether it is conceivable that Stitt, four years younger, could have sounded so much like Parker without having heard bebop’s incandescent solo genius. Given Stitt’s cocky bravado, it is difficult not to be skeptical, but in the long run the music is what matters to all but scholars and specialists. The best of Stitt’s music, which includes nearly everything in this collection, is in the top tier of jazz improvisation. Aside from the question of stylistic originality, he was one of the most gifted saxophonists of the bop era, as technically formidable, creative and hard-driving on tenor as on alto. Stitt’s Bits, Sonny Stitt: The Bebop Recordings, 1949-1952 is a 3-CD box that starts with Stitt in J.J. Johnson’s quintet and ends with him at the head of an octet. It concentrates on Stitt’s tenor saxophone, the instrument on which he was warmest, even at the rapid tempos he loved.
It presents all ten tracks from his Prestige quartet sessions with Bud Powell, the progenitor of modern jazz pianists. Stitt and Powell achieved an intensity that makes the perfectly respectable quartet tracks that follow, with pianist Kenny Drew, seem polite. The collection covers the early years of the celebrated two-tenors collaboration between Stitt and Gene Ammons, starting with the 1950 session that produced their famous “Blues Up and Down” and including the great chase sequence on “Stringin’ the Jug.” On alto, with a dream rhythm section of Junior Mance, Gene Wright and Art Blakey, Stitt soars through “Cherokee” at a blazing tempo, leaving no doubt that regardless of whether he modeled himself on Parker, he equaled the master in facility. Like the Coltrane and Davis sets, the Stitt box has beautifully remastered sound and attractive, informative packaging.
I have been critical enough of Concord Records that it is fair to give the company credit when they earn it. With these sets, they earn it. The tilt of Concord’s new recording efforts is drastically away from the invaluable mainstream music that still populates the labels they bought from Fantasy, Inc. Big headline in the “News” section of the Concord web site:
TV ALERT- MICHAEL BOLTON TO APPEAR ON DR. PHIL AIRING DECEMBER 12!
Let’s hope that the Fantasies, Riversides, Prestiges, Contemporaries and Debuts in the Concord catalogue survive the Bolton era.