Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Listening to Prestige 203: Gene Ammons

1957 began as a year of Fridays with Rudy, and a year of all stars. The Prestige All Stars had kicked off the new year's celebration, and before 1957 was out, there would be 15 albums by one configuration or another of All Stars, two by the Art Taylor All Stars, and three more by the Prestige Jazz 4. If that sounds like a rather static year, it was anything but. As we know, the All Stars were never exactly the same aggregation, and as we also know, Prestige was capturing a core group of musicians who were evolving and growing over one of the great decades in jazz, as noted for innovation as it was for pleasure. And on top of that, there were to be plenty of new names, new sounds, new surprises.

This Gene Ammons album, although not labeled as such, was certainly an all star outing, and would later be repackaged as the Gene Ammons All Stars. Art Farmer, Jackie McLean and Kenny Burrell would make anyone's list of most important musicians of their era; Gene Ammons is probably more remembered as one of the good guys who made a contribution.

But Ammons made music that people liked to hear. This would be his 18th session for Prestige, either as leader, co-leader with Sonny Stitt, or sideman with Stitt. He would go on to record 45 more, and to be the only artist to continue to make new music for Prestige after the label's 1972 sale to Fantasy. So he must have been doing something right, and he was.

I don't completely understand why "Prestige All Stars" became what today would be called a brand in 1956-57. Was Weinstock trying out a theory that the label's name would sell more records than the individual artists? If so, Gene Ammons certainly would seem to be the exception.

Weinstock certainly knew what he had in Kenny Burrell, both as player and composer. He's responsible for the title cut on this album, "Funky." Funk would loom larger and larger as a musical concept in the next couple of decades, but it had always been around.

Ammons generally had his own ideas of what to play. The tunes for a session were worked out between leader and producer, and Ammons quite likely chose "Stella by Starlight," probably with very little discussion. He loved standards, and Prestige artists did record a lot of standards. He may have caught Weinstock a little more by surprise with his other two selections. Record company owners in those days were very much aware of the value of publishing rights, which is why so many rock 'n roll and rhythm and blues artists got screwed. So here are two songs, "Pint Size" and "King Size," that have neither the name viability of a standard nor publishing rights in the family. They were written by Jimmy Mundy, a swing era veteran best known for his work as an arranger for Benny Goodman and Count Basie--and most recently as the composer of the score for a 1955 Broadway musical,The Vamp, which starred Carol Channing and ran for only 60 performances, but 60 performances on Broadway isn't nothing. Anyway, Ammons liked the tunes, and they sound good--although the phone book would sound good if these guys played it.

I have a test for music called the Shopping List Test, which is, if you're driving a long listening to an album and thinking about what you need to pick up at Sam's Club, what suddenly seizes you out of your reverie and says "You've got to listen to this part right now!" This is not a test that particularly proves anything, because with music of this caliber it could be almost anything, but for me, yesterday afternoon, it was Mal Waldron on "Funky" and Art Farmer on "Stella." This is, of course, a meaningless test, because on the drive home it could be something completely different, but it makes me feel good.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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