Concord Music Group – Very Best of Jazz series (review)

Concord Music – Very Best of Jazz series (review)

Classic jazz music is now easier to find than ever before.  Once relegated to small, niche-oriented record stores, the genre can now be accessed from anywhere, thanks to the Internet.  However, with all this music at our disposal, it’s hard to know where to begin.  Concord Music Group has just issued the “The Very Best of” series, from their extensive library of vintage labels.  These collections offer excellent introductions to many of the legendary performers of jazz

The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet –
This is by no means meant to represent Davis’ entire career – in fact, the recordings featured in The Very Best of cover only about a year’s time of the almost 50 the trumpeter spent in the music business.  However, it does do an excellent job of summing up an important part of his history – his first successful quintet, featuring a very young John Coltrane, but also the tight rhythm section of Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Jo Jones on drums.  In a way, this is an excellent place for people to start with Miles.  Of the ten tracks, several are in the soft ballad vein, especially “My Funny Valentine,” “Just Squeeze Me,” and “In Your Own Sweet Way.”

These are much more palatable to those not so familiar with Davis’ music.  The crazy bop numbers are kept to a minimum, represented here by a pair of Sonny Rollins’ compositions, “Oleo,” and “Airegin.”  Several songs are edited, including a much shorter version of “Tune Up,” from Cookin’.  Most of these recordings were originally laid down in a mammoth recording session that was meant to free Davis from his then-current record contract with the tiny Prestige label, so he could go on to more lucrative times with the giant Columbia records.   This isn’t quite the trailblazing that he would do with releases like Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew, but the recordings featured on the Very Best of are still some of his finest.

The Very Best of Chet Baker – Unlike the Davis’ set, The Very Best of Chet Baker offers an excellent overview of his entire career.  Beginning as a sideman for the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1952, he turns in a luscious rendition of “My Funny Valentine,” performed at an incredibly slow pace.  The pair’s interplay is truly a thing of beauty.  But, his tenure in the band was short-lived and Baker soon set out on his own.  This disc does not cover those first few solo years, picking up again in 1958 with three tracks from the excellent It Could Happen to You LP, featuring the incomparable Philly Jo Jones on drums.  There’s also a nice sampling of Baker’s vocal tracks – you see where Harry Connick got some of his schtick on cuts like “My Heart Stood Still.”

Also of note is “Fair Weather” from Chet Baker in New York, which took the artist out of his comfort zone of California and placed him in a setting where things really sizzle.  As the trumpeter’s drug problems mounted, he fled the country to the more relaxed laws of Europe, yet these recordings are still remarkable.  There’s also tracks from when Baker attempted to emulate the Davis Quintet recordings from the above set with titles like Smokin’ and Comin’, with satisfying results.

The Very Best of John Coltrane – The Prestige Era Quite possibly the most legendary of all jazz figures, it’s hard to imagine that John Coltrane came from rather humble beginnings.  Starting out as a sideman for Miles Davis in 1955, the tenor quickly drew criticism, both good and bad, for his brash style.  It wasn’t until several years later that he would actually lead his own band.  The Very Best of John Coltrane chronicles those first steps that he made with recordings under his own name, starting in 1956, with a session co-billed with pianist Tadd Dameron (represented here with a swinging take on the standard “I Hear a Rhapsody”).  From there, ‘Trane moved onto to Thelonious Monk’s band, with one of Monk’s own “Nutty” – it’s a shame these two colossal figures didn’t record more together.

Even though this set only covers about two years – it was a very fertile time for the saxman.  Several tracks include his Davis Quintet bandmates, pianist Red Garland and bassist Paul Chambers, and some of their interplay is a thing of wonder – even at 12 minutes in length, “Good Bait” will have you wishing it was longer. Also of note is an excellent date featuring Coltrane paired with guitar great Kenny Burrell on “Freight Trane” – the smooth lines from the guitarist provide the perfect foil for Coltrane’s other-worldly solos.  Ironically, while Davis left Prestige, Coltrane signed with the small label and released some fine albums.  While these are nowhere near as adventurous as he would later get with albums like Giant Steps, and especially A Love Supreme,  this early period is still marked by excellent playing and plenty of inventiveness.  In fact, just as in the Davis’ set, The Very Best of John Coltrane is an excellent starting point for those wanting to know more about the legendary performer.  Start here before jumping into the crazier stuff.

The Very Best of Wes Montgomery While Miles and Coltrane went on to bigger and better things, The Very Best of Wes Montgomery captures the guitarist at arguably the peak of his powers and inventiveness.  Covering the first four years of his incredibly short career, this collection finds him in a variety of settings.  First, in a quartet alongside his brothers – Buddy on piano and Monk on bass, and Bobby Thomas on drums (represented here with the aptly-titled “Groove Yard”).  Some of the most stunning music here is done with organist Melvin Rhyne, and either Jimmy Cobb or Paul Parker on drums.  These tracks, represented by the bossa nova “Besame Mucho,” “Canadian Sunset,” and a take on Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” leave plenty of room for each musician to step out (there is no bass guitar).  The guitarist would join forces with vibraphonist Milt Jackson for Bags Meets Wes!, and pulled from that album is the tasty “Delilah.”  Probably his most famous album of all-time, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, is given three tracks here – and these are exemplary.  His fluid playing is simply a thing of wonder – stretching out in ways he would only hint at later.  Once you hear these recordings, it’s obvious that so much of what came after started with Wes Montgomery.  –Tony Peters