By Devon “Doc” Wendell
The jazz on the Prestige label of the ’50s and ’60s shaped the way I thought recorded music should sound like when I first heard albums by Red Garland, Gene Ammons, Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Arnett Cobb, Miles Davis, Gigi Gryce and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis when I was in high school. Its purity, rawness and blatant sense of anti-commercialism spoke to the way I fit into my own little niche of the planet as well. The poetry of those mono recordings influenced my writing, musicianship as well as my erstwhile ambitions of being a sound engineer. Every instrument could be heard clearly and with a strong sense of dynamics. Philly Joe’s drums would occasionally distort Rudy Van Gelder’s microphones but it was a beautifully primal glimpse into Philly Joe’s then youthful rebellion and sense of impulsive risk.
Blue Note’s Alfred Lion got a taste of commercial success by the mid ’60s with Boogaloo, Hula-Hoop dance craze bop that eventually turned me off. I’m not a craze type of guy. Too many attempted facsimiles of Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” seemed cruel to put Lee and Hank Mobley through. They might have had more room to breathe creatively on Prestige but who knows? Of course musicians got more bread from Blue Note but that’s how it almost always works.
Bob Weinstock (The president of Prestige Records) didn’t get too hung up on over production and pre-planning. He’d even rewind and erase takes he thought needed re-doing. Those classic Gene Ammons All-Stars sides were perfectly structured but spontaneous jam sessions, whose only requirements were the collective virtuosity of each player. Miles and Sonny weren’t ones for doing multiple takes. Some of the most influential records on the label were made over a span of one or two days tops. Refreshingly no one was trying to become a star. It was all about swinging. No flashy images or radio- friendly time restraints either. The artists had the freedom to experiment with different band settings and to push beyond traditional and newly emerging genres of modern jazz.
The ones that initially got me were Miles Davis’ “Dig,” Sonny Rollins’ “Moving Out,” The Red Garland Trio Featuring John Coltrane “Tranin’ In,” Eric Dolphy’s “Outward Bound” and Gene Ammons’ “The Happy Blues.” In the bandleader department, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Jackie Mclean, Oliver Nelson, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy all made their bones on Prestige.
As a writer, I could always find a pristine and perfect partner to isolate with in the Prestige sound. It’s a sacred, clean space with one chair, one desk and one tiny flickering lamp. Sublime.
The music on Prestige leaps out of the speakers with a seductive” take it or leave it” quality like riding the D Train to King’s Highway after 1:00am or an unforgiving and unexpected tidal wave made of mercury. But the Zen-like, in the moment quality of the label’s music washes away all worries and pain, for now anyway and that’s all there is.