Several years ago Fantasy records launched one of the most extensive reissue campaigns in jazz history. The "Original Jazz Classics Series" today totals nearly 300 budget-priced recordings, the vast majority of them drawn from the Riverside and Prestige catalogues of the mid-'50s and early '60s.
Now comes the first batch of CDs from the collection -- 30 in all. Like the records, the compact discs come complete with the original artwork and liner notes. They have a suggested retail price of $14.98 each, but you're likely to find them much less expensive than new releases once they're discounted in stores.
For all their clarity and crispness, the CDs do have one obvious drawback: Most of these albums have a running time in the 40-minute range, far short of the 70-minute CD capacity. In a couple of cases, one or two "bonus" tracks have been added to the original recording to help compensate.
Fortunately, even the briefest of these CDs -- saxophonist Sonny Rollins' "Moving Out" (OJCCD-058-2), which is barely 30 minutes long -- isn't likely to disappoint anyone interested in modern jazz. Though the recording is more than 30 years old now, Rollins' robust tone, pianist Thelonious Monk's cryptic harmonies and drummer Art Blakey's unrelenting drive endure and inspire.
Not that Rollins towers over the other saxophonists in this collection. The competition is stiff. The depth of the Fantasy vaults is easily appreciated when you consider that this initial series of CDs contains recordings by both Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, musicians who at the time personified the origins and future, respectively, of the jazz saxophone.
In addition to Rollins, Hawkins and Coltrane, these CDs comprise an all-star sax section, including Benny Carter, Gene Ammons, Lucky Thompson, Paul Gonsalves, Cannonball Adderley and Eric Dolphy. The rest of the collection is split largely among pianists (Monk, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck and Vince Guaraldi), trumpeters (Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and Chet Baker) and guitarists (Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel).
On Sax, Benny Carter
While it's tough to pick favorites from each category, some of these albums deserve special mention. Among the saxophone sessions, Carter's 1958 album "Jazz Giant" (OJCCD 167-2) is an unmitigated joy, a rare and surprisingly intimate showcase featuring Kessel, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, trombonist Frank Rosolino, pianist Jimmy Rowles and others. Actually, it's a bit misleading to call this a saxophone date, since Carter plays trumpet here as well, displaying his typically bright, inviting tone on "I'm Coming Virginia."
Still, the real pleasure lies in hearing his alto sax elegantly embrace the beat on "Old Fashioned Love" or turn deeply expressive on his own blues "How Can You Lose." With its emphasis on standards, "Jazz Giant" isn't as daring as the albums Carter would make for Impulse a few years later, but it's a splendid example of his small group recordings, and displays the talents of both Rosolino and Kessel particularly well.
On Piano, Thelonious Monk
Of the piano albums, "Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington" (OJCCD 024-2) is one of the most revealing and underrated. Recorded in 1955, its eight tracks -- all of them Ellington standards -- illustrate not only the affection Monk held for Ellington but also their stylistic similarities. James P. Johnson's stride style, always an Ellington favorite, can be discerned in Monk's left-hand figures, just as Ellington's economy and apt accents characterize Monk's right-hand performances. This recording isn't great Monk -- it was an obvious attempt to make his quirky style and image more palatable to the public. But it is telling and quite moving at times, particularly on "Solitude."
On Trumpet, Clifford Brown
"Clifford Brown Memorial" (OJCCD-017-2) is just that -- a tribute to the young trumpeter who died in an auto accident in 1956 at age 25. Brown possessed just about everything you look for in a trumpeter -- an exciting range, a singing tone, expressiveness and a sense of daring. All of those qualities are evident on this collection taken from two separate recording dates. The first side, featuring the Tadd Dameron Orchestra, was recorded in 1953. Though Brown had just recently arrived in New York, his potential couldn't have been more obvious, as his fiery solo on "Philly J.J." and the muted "Theme of No Repeat" attest. The second side is devoted to another sterling 1953 session in which Brown is heard playing with fellow trumpeter Art Farmer and a fine cast of European all-stars.
And on Guitar, Wes Montgomery
A couple of albums by guitar great Wes Montgomery round out this first installment of CDs: "The Wes Montgomery Trio" (OJCCD-034-2) and "So Much Guitar" (OJCCD-233-2). Like most of the dozen or so recordings Montgomery made for Riverside before the label folded in 1964, these albums rank among his best work. The first is an earthy organ trio session featuring Montgomery's original Indianapolis group; the second, a more sophisticated quintet session with pianist Hank Jones and bassist Ron Carter, among others. In each case, Montgomery demonstrates his mastery of the guitar, artfully blending Charlie Christian-like single-note runs, melodies spelled out in shimmering octaves and a colorful array of extended chords.