Jumping into the world of jazz can be a daunting task, even where legendary artists are concerned. Big names such as Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins have such extensive discographies, it’s hard for the neophyte to know where to begin. Concord Music Group has taken some of the guess work out with their new series. Modestly priced and containing around an hour of well-chosen music each, these five single-disc collections are designed to provide a gateway to each artist's body of recorded music.
The Very Best of John Coltrane: The Prestige Era includes ten tunes from almost as many albums, all featuring the tenor saxophonist at the peak of his early mature period. The earliest track dates back to a November 30, 1956 date led by pianist Tad Dameron, “Soultrane,” from the album Mating Call. Coltrane shares billing with guitarist Kenny Burrell on “Freight Trane,” a tune written specifically for the sax titan by pianist Tommy Flanagan. Thelonious Monk’s “Nutty” is pulled from a 1957 session for Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, an album that didn’t surface until ’61. The rest of the collection finds Coltrane fully in the role of leader, though his compositional skills aren’t reflected here. Only “Traneing In” is an original, as he hadn’t done much composing for the albums from which this set is culled from.
The Very Best of Sonny Rollins also boasts ten tracks, also by one of the most important tenor saxophonists in jazz history. Though Coltrane was gone well before the ‘60s closed, Sonny Rollins is still playing today at age 81. The selections here begin with “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” from 1955’s Work Time, only Rollins’ third album as a leader. A pair of Rollins’ most memorable melodies—“St. Thomas” and “Pent-up House”—make an accessible one-two punch to begin the set. The monumental meeting of artistic minds, “Tenor Madness,” is among the most essential of these tunes, a 12-minute blues workout that finds Rollins and Coltrane trading solos. The remaining tunes are primarily interpretations of trusty Great American Songbook standards.
The Very Best of Wes Montgomery serves up 11 tunes by the incomparable guitarist. Unlike the four mostly ‘50s-based collections among this batch of Very Best Of sets, Montgomery’s music here is firmly rooted in the early ‘60s. Whether it’s Carl Perkins’ “Groove Yard,” Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” or originals like “Four on Six” or “West Coast Blues,” all the performances here are essential listening. My favorites are the trio tracks taken from the 1963 classic, Boss Guitar, featuring Mel Rhyne on Hammond B-3 organ and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Rhyne’s organ (which also turns up here on “’Round Midnight”) sounds so great behind Montgomery’s guitar. All in all, a very well-programmed introduction to the guitar great’s sound.
The Very Best of Chet Baker presents 14 tunes by the cool, West Coast jazz trumpeter. Unique among this batch of releases, Baker provides vocals on four tunes. His unaffected singing—something Baker was quite popular for—is a highlight, immediately agreeable. Of course, his horn playing is even better, displayed predominantly on standards here. The earliest tune is the Gerry Mulligan-led “My Funny Valentine,” recorded live in 1952. Baker played in Mulligan’s quartet in those days, and “Moonlight in Vermont” comes from the same piano-less group, this time recorded in the studio in ’53. The last two tracks on the collection were both recorded in August of 1965, giving Baker the widest (by far) time span of recordings collected in Concord’s new series.
Lastly, we have The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet. There are ten tracks, all featuring the sterling lineup of John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums) and, of course, Miles Davis (trumpet)—with the exception of a quartet version of “My Funny Valentine” (Coltrane sat that one out). This was the lineup known, justifiably, as Davis’s First Great Quintet. Seven of the ten tunes come from the landmark 1956 sessions that produced the string of classic albums, Workin’, Steamin', Cookin', and Relaxin’. Each of those albums is represented here by at least one tune, with three coming from Cookin’, including an early original signature tune of Davis’s, “Tune Up.” Davis went through many stylistic changes throughout his long career. Had he been limited to any one of those styles he would’ve still been remembered as an important artist. The straight ahead jazz found here is among the most accessible music he produced, making it a great starting place.
Concord’s Very Best Of releases all have remarkably good audio quality, given the age of the recordings. Each album features a brand new and informative essay about the subject of each collection, as well as track-by-track recording dates and personnel listings.