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The Boston Phoenix The Third Story

Four Sides of Riverside Jazz

By Richard C. Walls

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  The Riverside Records Story (Fantasy) is a four-CD compilation documenting the history of one of the three New York-based jazz labels that dominated the post-bop heyday of the '50s and early '60s, that period when the radicalism of Charlie Parker had settled into being the genre's lingua franca and the avant-garde was still avant-garde. The other two labels had very distinct styles. Blue Note's signature duality developed from the standards set by the polished vigor of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and the insinuating funk of Jimmy Smith. Prestige, known without malice among musicians as the "junkies' label," stockpiled pick-up blowing sessions and bequeathed to history reams of John Coltrane's first-draft transcendentalism. But Riverside never had a solid identity. Some greats passed through, a couple dozen acknowledged classics were made, but mostly it was mainstream, very tasty product that fell somewhere between Blue Note's well-oiled presentations and Prestige's ad lib excesses.

The two relatively long-term and ranking stars of the label were Thelonious Monk and Cannonball Adderley. Although Monk's most innovative sides were done for Blue Note in the late '40s and early '50s, Riverside is the label where he made his bones, evolving from a striking curio to an acclaimed artist worthy of joining the mighty Columbia roster. Riverside producer and auteur Orrin Keepnews was determined not merely to record Monk but to put him across to the audience; to that end he first introduced him playing standards and Ellington songs and then showcased him in a variety of (sometimes cross-generational) contexts, including solo. This way the listener could hear how Monk's personal conception both adapted and persisted, the way his own rules of logic interlocked with the more "normal" musical world. Keepnews didn't set out to compromise Monk, only to show that the pianist could be one of the guys (sort of). And it worked.

Cannonball, of course, didn't need any help getting across; and of all the Pantheon figures who passed through Riverside, he alone left behind his undisputed very best. Guitarist Wes Montgomery was another label regular, establishing his personality on a variety of straight-ahead sides before moving on to more-commercial settings at Verve and finally superstardom at A&M. Likewise, pianist Bill Evans made his debut as a leader for the label, and that was followed by a series of landmark albums, but he didn't really become an essential playboy-pad accessory till after he signed with Verve.

Keepnews himself has put together and annotated the Riverside box, dividing it into four sections that he admits are rather arbitrary. The first, "Some Magic Moments," is an inexplicable combination of some of the label's more commercial efforts -- Mongo Santamaria's version of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man," Adderley disappearing into the big-band kitsch of "African Waltz," Johnny Lytle's loungy "The Village Caller" -- with classics like Evan's "Waltz for Debbie," Cannonball's "This Here," and Monk's playfully sinister "Brilliant Corners."

The second section, "Some Major Players," makes more sense. It offers three by Monk featuring, respectively, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, and Gerry Mulligan; one by Clark Terry featuring Monk; two apiece by Wes and Cannonball; Evans's extraordinary "Peace Piece"; and "The Freedom Suite," an expansive work by a major player who had a spotty association with the label, Sonny Rollins.

After a trio of tracks called "The Art of Collaboration" we come to "The Heart of the Matter," 37 cuts that make up most of disc three and all of disc four (around two hours), in the process illustrating the elusiveness of Riverside's identity. If there's a theme (a big if), it's little-sung heroes. Keepnews often gave leads to artists who had made careers as supporting players. Pianists Elmo Hope, Kenny Drew, Don Friedman, and Bobby Timmons are placed front and center to shine. Alto-saxophonist Ernie Henry and bassist Sam Jones get leading roles. But there's also a clutch of biggies -- Milt Jackson, Coleman Hawkins, Art Blakey, Chet Baker -- and stars-to-be, notably singers Mark Murphy and Abbey Lincoln. Meanwhile Budd Johnson and Zoot Sims bring up the rear guard while George Russell (Eric Dolphy in tow) hacks a path in the avant.

Keepnews is to be congratulated for maintaining his label from its official beginning in '54 to its demise in '63 and for having now devised this appropriate tribute. The Riverside story seems to have been largely improvised, and this scattershot collection of talent reflects that. Jazz fans, of course, will already have much of this material, but for others it's a good introduction -- not just to a variety of players but to an era when singular voices -- singular personalities -- were the rule in jazz rather than the exception.

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