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Savoy Jazz Classics

You truly need a score card to keep up with the distribution end of the Savoy label over the past five to ten years or so. Going as far back as this reviewer can remember, Muse was reissuing the catalog on vinyl and then CD, usually with re-done covers. A bit further down the road, things changed and Denon Japan got a hold of the inventory and the direction they took, not surprisingly, was one of facsimile reissues with original graphics and often woefully short playing times. Just at the tail end of this phase, we were seeing more of the same, but packaged in those five by five cardboard covers that made the discs look like mini vinyl albums. Now following a bit of a lull, it looks like the compilation approach is back with distribution being handled by Atlantic Records (see how confusing it is?) and the first few releases hit the shelves just prior to the end of 1999.

Founded by notorious miser Herman Lubinsky in 1942, Savoy Records, under various independent producers and leased sessions, documented a flourishing music scene for several decades that took in jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel. During the late '40s, be-bop was the order of the day and the Savoy catalog was home to such greats as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Fats Navarro. Trumpeter Navarro is featured on a assortment of his Savoy works dubbed GOIN' TO MINTON'S and which covers five sessions recorded between 1946 and 1947. All the master takes from the period are included and although not "complete" in an extremist sense, there's still a good deal of boppin' music here to satiate the soul. Key soloists include Sonny Stitt, Leo Parker, Tadd Dameron, and Bud Powell, while classics such as "Ice Freezes Red," "Fat Girl," "Webb City," and "Boppin' a Riff" abound. Taken in tandem with his Blue Note works of roughly the same era, GOIN' TO MINTON'S is stellar bop and indispensable.

The title EARLY MODERN really says a lot about the precocious stylistic approach that vibist Milt Jackson had already cultivated on these early recordings. Cuts from two 1949 sessions feature tenor man Billy Mitchell and jazz French horn player Julius Watkins (!!), the performances sounding highly evolved but with that "blues base" that was so much a part of the Jackson persona. Another dozen tracks from 1951 and 1952 find Milt with various quartets that put John Lewis and Kenny Clarke into the mix, suggesting the MJQ at times. The concluding four cuts are actually under Kenny Clarke's leadership and were done on the West coast. With dependable sound and Bob Blumenthal's detailed liners, this disc serves as a valuable prelude to Jackson's full-fledged involvement with the Modern Jazz Quartet while standing on its own as an early glimpse of genius.

As we leave be-bop and usher in the next wave of jazz, often collectively billed as hard bop, so do we see Savoy instrumental in nurturing many of the young players of the time. THE SUMMER OF '55 is a resourceful 2-CD set that compiles the first recorded works of the Brothers Adderley- alto saxophonist Cannonball and the late trumpeter Nat. Literally cut during three sessions in June and July of 1955, we have the masters and alternates, the former being spread across the original albums CANNONBALL ADDERLEY: SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, NAT ADDERLEY: THAT'S NAT, and KENNY CLARKE: BOHEMIA AFTER DARK. Although these would be the first commercially-produced sides by the brothers, there's never an inkling of naiveté with the solid performances captured on tape. Of course, with the Savoy house rhythm team of pianist Hank Jones, bassist Wendell Marshall, and Kenny Clarke on a good deal of the cuts, how could you miss?

Also from the mid-'50s and cut at Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack studio (essentially the living room of his parents' home), THE COMPLETE SAVOY SESSIONS OF WILBUR HARDEN AND JOHN COLTRANE introduce us to the underrated Harden, while adding to the Coltrane legacy. All the material, including alternates, from three 1958 recording dates is assembled here for the first time ever on CD and in one package. This music has been reissued ad nauseam over the years (and with both Coltrane and Tommy Flanagan listed as the leaders), making for some confusion, but this is the definitive version. And it takes nothing away from Coltrane to suggest that Harden is the real star here (after all, the original Savoy issues advertised these as Harden's records), both in terms of his strong writing and his characteristic trumpet work, which is touched by a hint of melancholia and not unlike that of fellow brass man Booker Little. Strongly recommended!

The final piece as part of this survey is actually not a Savoy-produced set at all, but one that somehow ended up in their holdings. THE DISCOVERY SESSIONS bring to light the very first recordings of legendary alto man Art Pepper. Originally released on the Discovery label, we get all the masters and alternates from three Los Angeles dates in 1952 and 1953. Some of the consummate sidemen include Hampton Hawes, Larry Bunker, Russ Freeman, and Jack Montrose. Although his Contemporary albums will always remain the pinnacle of his recorded legacy, these early glimpses of certified talent reveal a startlingly confident player not yet past his 30th birthday. Sound quality is also extremely strong and attractive, making this package a sleeper that ought to belong in any comprehensive Pepper collection.

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