Concord Records Definitive Series (review)

Concord Records – Definitive Series Concord Records has released three more collections in their “Definitive Series”: The Definitive Miles Davis on Prestige, The Definitive Albert King on Stax, and the Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy.  Utilizing the two-disc format, these sets are able to paint a much more vivid picture of each artist.  Excellent and insightful liner notes and keen track selection all lead to must-haves for music fans.

The Definitive Miles Davis on Prestige The subtitle to this set should be “A Legend Comes of Age.”  By his late twenties, Miles Davis had already been at the center of several jazz movements: he was an up and coming horn player when he joined Charlie Parker’s band in 1947 and quickly carved out a niche in the Bop movement, then in 1949, Davis teamed with arranger Gil Evans for Birth of the Cool, which was highly influential on the West Coast, Cool movement.

When the trumpet player signed with Prestige in 1950, he brought all those influences with him.  Disc one opens “Morpheus,” which sounds like a mix of both Bop and Cool, with its frenetic beginning and more subdued ending.  Although impressive in its dexterity, Davis shows little of the tone and melodic sense that would later make him a star.  There’s also a decent amount of pretty ballads, including Davis’ own “Four,” that show off a delicate side of the trumpet player that would soon be masked behind the harsh Harmon mute, which would be his signature accessory.  Miles always had a knack for surrounding himself with the best of the best – even in those early days – Sonny Rollins on tenor sax, Percy Heath on bass, Art Blakey on drums and Horace Silver on piano.  There’s even a cameo from Davis’ old boss Parker on “Compulsion.”  But, it’s disc two when things really begin to heat up.  Davis assembled his “new” quintet, featuring a young John Coltrane on tenor sax, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones.  This was his first true “band” that stayed together for a decent amount of time, and it showed.  The group gained the attention of Columbia records and was signed to a lucrative recording deal.  However, Miles still owed Prestige five albums on the previous contract.  Normal practice would’ve been to hand his old label scraps – but the Quintet was in such fine form, those albums including Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’ went on to become stone-cold jazz classics.  For evidence that this was indeed a well-oiled machine, listen how Davis and band groove on Sonny Rollin’s “Oleo,” then turn in a gorgeous version of “My Funny Valentine.”  They’ve left in a little of the studio banter, so you get Davis saying “I’ll play it, and tell you what it is later,” at the beginning of “If I Were a Bell.”   Miles Davis became a towering force in jazz and this collection shows just how he got there.

The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy:
Pianist Bill Evans was nowhere near as brash as Art Tatum, or as aurally challenging as Thelonius Monk, yet he was just as crucial to the development of modern day jazz. The Definitive Bill Evans opens with his first solo recording, “Speak Low,” dating from 1956.  It’s a bop-influenced track, with little hint of the freer music to come.  The very next recording, “Peace Piece,” a solo piano track recorded right before he embarked on the landmark sessions with Miles Davis that produced Kind of Blue, has a much more loose feel, hinting at what was to come.  “Woody ‘n You” actually features bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, both who were a part of the Kind of Blue recordings.  Next, Evans would form the greatest trio of his career, featuring drummer Paul Motian and an up and coming bassist Scott LaFaro.  The six tracks featuring that group show some of the greatest interplay among three musicians in the history of jazz; the band had an uncanny ability to communicate with each other’s instrument.  The final track featuring that band comes from Evans’ finest moment, Sunday at the Village Vangard, one of the all-time great jazz albums.  Sadly, LaFaro was killed right after that live performance, and the tragedy sent Evans reeling.  He would never again find a group of musicians capable of such dizzying heights.  But, Evans did go on to create more fine music.  Disc two is highlighted by the impressive eight-minute piano solo “Medley: Spartacus Love Theme / Nardis.”  There is a ten-year gap in this collection where Evans signed with Verve until 1973, when he inked a deal with Fantasy, where this collection picks back up.  Notable from this era is his teaming with legendary vocalist Tony Bennett on “Young and Foolish.”  Although Bill Evans blazed a trail of a freer kind of approach to the piano in jazz, you don’t have to be a student of the music to enjoy his airy, melodic playing throughout this collection.

The Definitive Albert King on Stax:
An excellent anthology from one of the most influential bluesmen of all time.  Albert King’s unique playing style (he played a standard guitar left-handed – meaning upside down – allowing him more control over the higher, “crying notes” in blues).  This set actually grabs an early single from his King records days (“Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong”), then jumps right into the crème del a crème of his career: “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Crosscut Saw,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and “Cold Feet,” are all bona fide blues classics from his early years on Stax, presented here in their punchy mono form.  As much as we all seem to understand the blues, no one has ever mapped it out so plainly as King does in the live “Blues Power” recorded at the Fillmore West.  Also of note on disc one is the teaming of Albert with greats Pop Staples and Steve Cropper on several tracks, including the eerie “Tupelo Pt. 1”  His cover of the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” showed just how much crossover appeal he was beginning to receive.  Disc two shows King still in top form, but beginning to add funkier elements to his music, as in the searing “Angel of Mercy,” or “I’ll Play the Blues For You” which features a wah wah guitar.  “Matchbox Blues” recorded live at the Wattstax concert really shows just how much modern day rock guitarists have aped from King – it could be any number of hot-shot guitar slingers, but it is in fact, the originator, King himself.  As the Seventies wore on, some of the material wasn’t always as good, but his playing continued to be strong.  –Tony Peters