Berkley, California-based Fantasy records has been in the music business for more than half a century. Formed in 1949, the first artist they recorded was pianist Dave Brubeck. In short order they had Chet Baker and Cal Tjader on board. That they’ve developed one of the most impressive jazz rosters in the business is an understatement. The label is umbrella to Prestige, Riverside, Milestone, Contemporary and Pablo, as well as R&B and blues labels Stax, Takoma, Kicking Mule and Specialty. They are home-base to Eric Alexander, Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Scott, among others, but most impressive to these ears is their exquisite reissue program. Starting with the wonderful "Two-fers" program in the 1970s (Miles, Trane, Rollins, etc.), they expanded and re-named the program in 1982. Original Jazz Classics (OJC) now boasts over 1000 titles (!). Astounding as that fact is, the more impressive is that they keep mining the vaults two decades later and continue to come up roses. Over the past few months, the OJC catalog has release the following:
**** Ron Carter/Hank Jones/Sadao Watanabe/Tony Williams: Carnaval (OJC 1070-2). Originally released on Galaxy in 1978, this five-tune set was recorded live in Tokyo. Alto player Watanabe offers a heartbreakingly tender read on Billy Strayhorn’s "Chelsea Bridge," and incites the house on his burning "I’m Old Fashioned." The highlights here are the takes on Bird’s "Confirmation" (on which Jones brilliantly flies through the changes) and "Moose the Mooche." Williams and Carter are as exciting as you’d expect.
**** James Clay & David ‘Fathead’ Newman: The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces (OJC 1075-2). This 1960 Riverside disc with the cowboy-sounding title is a nod to Clay’s Texas roots. The Cannonball Adderley-produced date was marked by the dual tenors’ spirited playing on the 12 minute-plus title cut and four other cookers, including a gorgeous "What’s New" with Clay on flute. Wynton Kelly (piano), Sam Jones (bass), and Arthur Taylor (drums) provide a superb platform.
*** ½ Arnett Cobb: Movin’ Right Along (OJC 1074-2). The epitome of the hard-blowing Texas tenor, Cobb was cookin’ with gas on this 1960 Prestige session. The man who took Illinois Jacquet’s place in the Lionel Hampton band is sometimes reminiscent of Jacquet, particularly on the opening "Nitty Gritty." The inclusion of the great Bobby Timmons on piano is a bonus, though Buck Clark’s conga is sometimes in the way. The rhythm section of Sam Jones (bass) and Arthur Taylor (drums) is superb and the guest spot from pianist Tommy Flanagan is a treat.
**** Bill Evans: From The 70s (OJC 1069-2). Not strictly speaking a re-issue, five of the nine tunes here, all duets with bassist Eddie Gomez, are previously re-issued alternate takes. Drummer Marty Morrell sits in on the final four. Even on electric piano, as heard on two cuts, Evans was a force to be reckoned with, though certainly he shone brightest on the acoustic. The opening take on "Gone With the Wind (Take 3)" is exemplary and the version of Scott LaFaro’s "Gloria’s Step" is a tour de force for the trio.
***** Ella Fitzgerald: Dream Dancin’ (OJC 1072-2). Recorded in 1972 and 1978, this is the most exquisite Ella disc of them all. Not that matching one of the greatest singers of all time with one of the cleverist lyricists could have turned out otherwise. Nelson Riddle’s orchestra, driven by Louis Bellson, kicked as hard as Basie’s. J.J. Johnson and Bill Watrous were on board, as was the exquisite pianist Paul Smith and bassist John Heard. From the title cut through "I’ve Got You Under My Skin," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "Down In The Depths," "I Get A Kick Out of You" this is a Desert Island Disc of the first order. Give this 20 or 30 stars!
*** ½ Hampton Hawes: The Sermon (OJC 1067-2). This previously very difficult to locate 1958 Contemporary session didn’t see light of day the first time around until a decade after the overlooked pianist’s death. With a touch sometimes reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s, he is backed on this gem by Leroy Vinnegar and Stan Levy to good effect. This, as the title suggests, is an often moving collection of songs from the black church. "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" is the standout, though the bluesy version of "Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen" is nearly it’s equal for evincing the soul of Hawes. Having had this album for many years, it’s an absolutely delightful treat to hear it again without the pops and scratches.
*** Woody Herman: King Cobra (OJC 1068-2). This 1975 version of the Thundering Herd is rooted in the punchy playing, sharp arrangements and tasty song selection that Herman and company were noted for. Tom Scott, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Andy LaVerne and John LaBarbera compositions dominate, though the chestnut "Come Rain or Come Shine" is given a delicious reading, particularly in Woody’s alto. Bassoon, flute, electric piano, flugelhorn and percussion are spotlighted on a fine version of Chic Corea’s "Spain," showing that the big band continued to grow while catering to contemporary audience tastes.
**** Barney Kessel’s Swingin’ Party at Contemporary (OJC 1066-2). This exciting disc was recorded and produced by label owner Lester Koenig, as indicated, at the company party. Groovy psychedelic album cover art aside, this is no "Austin Powers" soundtrack. Kessell was one of the greatest guitarists in jazz throughout his long career. Bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Ron Lundberg lay the foundation and pianist Marvin Jenkins adds filigree to a program heavy on chops. Milt Jackson, Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker compositions are given brilliant readings, and the take offered on "Love Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)" is gorgeous. Since being idled by a stroke a decade ago, Kessel’s absence on the scene has been deafening. This addition to compact disc is a welcome one.
*** The Modern Jazz Quartet: Topsy: This One’s for Basie (OJC1073-2). This 1985 recording is typically dominated by John Lewis compositions, though the first three numbers on the program come from other impressive pens. A mild-manner version of Milt Jackson’s "Reunion Blues" opens the set. Eden Ahbez’s "Nature Boy" is played by Jackson, though it sounds like an intro waiting for a body. On the title cut, the only Basie-related number on the set, the snappy tune is given a reserved rendition. Lewis’ "D And E" is a clever blues given two interesting readings. MJQ always struck me as a polite jazz combo. This is a polite record.
**** ½ McCoy Tyner: Sama Layuca (OJC 1071-2). Tyner had been recording under his own name for nearly a decade when Milestone cut Sama Layuca in 1974. A critical and popular success when it was released, it still has a brilliance that stands it apart from much of the music of it’s time. It is dynamic and texturally rich, both as a result of his pianistic and compositional genius as well as of the musicians he surrounds himself with: Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Bartz, Azar Lawrence, John Stubblefield, Buster Williams, Billy Hart, Mtume, and Guilherme Franco. From the dynamism of the title cut to the sprite lines of "La Cubana," this is classic Tyner.