April is Jazz Appreciation Month, and Craft Recordings has given us a lot to appreciate as they celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Prestige label with a hefty reissue and playlist campaign. The cornerstone is Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings (out April 26), an eight-LP set that presents John Coltrane’s 1958 sessions for the label in chronological order for the first time.
There’s a lot more though. Being a one-time home to other bonafide legends like Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and many others, means that Bob Weinstock’s label has a deep and wide catalog to explore.
To help make sense of the wide array of sessions and albums, producer Nick Phillips sifted through the entire discography, selected titles for reissue (which will be announced soon), and curated several playlists. This includes an almost-eight-hour overview, Prestige 70: Jazz Classics.
During a recent phone conversation, Phillips discussed the birthday campaign, the Coltrane box, and some things he learned along the way.
When did you get involved in the conversation about celebrating the 70th of Prestige?
Pretty early on, because I suggested the whole Coltrane ’58 idea. The thinking there was that last year was the 60th anniversary of when that whole collection was recorded, so that idea was discussed a while ago because it takes a considerable amount of time for a box set like that with all the research and remastering, and everything with manufacturing.
When we were talking about the fact that it was also Prestige’s 70th anniversary, that seemed like a logical no-brainer cornerstone release to celebrate the anniversary.
One of the “problems” is that Prestige was an important label in the history of the genre, which means there’s a lot of good stuff to choose from and dig through. So how do you decide what makes it in and what doesn’t, whether that’s playlists or actual reissues?
One thing I look at in general is the impact of the artist in general historically, as well as looking at what albums are considered all-time classics. When you’re talking about the Prestige label, there are many artists and albums that fit in there. Miles Davis is obviously is one of those, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk. In terms of track selections of playlists, you have to include stuff that’s been a huge hit. You have to. Other than that, it really comes down to trying to put together a sequence that’s interesting.
There are certain objective factors you can use in terms of creating a playlist, but a lot of it comes down to using my experience as a producer. I’ve been a jazz record producer for over 30 years, and I’m also a musician. So creating a playlist for me is about finding something that flows and can be listened to over and over, just like I would if I were sequencing an album that I produced. There’s no way to separate subjectivity in a playlist, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
I’m gonna put you on the spot: As far as records from the Prestige catalog, what’s number one for you?
That’s a tough question, but I’m a jazz trumpet player, so I always go back to Miles Davis’ Relaxin’ album as one of my all-time favorites from the Prestige catalog. In fact, the first track in the Prestige 70 playlist is If I Were A Bell from the Miles Davis Quintet.
The fortunate reality is that I don’t have to choose one album! There are just so many greats. Take the Sonny Rollins album Saxophone Colossus. That’s one of the greatest saxophone albums of all time.
What’s the most “important” record in the catalog then, whether that’s because of popularity or influence or some other intangible factor?
That I can’t narrow down. I just can’t. But I can point to a handful of super important records in the catalog. I can definitely mention Saxophone Colossus album for sure. Many would regard that as Sonny Rollins’ crowning achievement. You also look from a historical perspective, the title track from Rollins’ Tenor Madness is the only known recording of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane together, so that is incredibly significant.
Looking at specific Coltrane albums in the catalog, Soultrane and Lush Life were particular standouts. Probably the best album Kenny Dorham was the one he made for Prestige, Quiet Kenny — and he made some great albums. And those are just a few of the many examples.
Going back through the catalog, was there anything that jumped out at your or presented itself to you in a new way?
You know, because the Prestige catalog from the ’50s and early ’60s is really that sweet spot of the classic hard bop, that it’s easy to overlook the funkier soul jazz stuff that came later. But there is some really cool funkier soul jazz stuff there. I put some of those selections at the end of the playlist, like Rusty Bryant’s Fire Eater or Boogaloo Joe Jones’ Brown Bag.
Another thing that struck me as I was going through and putting together the Gene Ammons playlist was that he was one of those guys whose style of playing really evolved and changed. He started as a bebop player, then got more into a hard bop/soul jazz thing, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he was being a really influential player in terms of R&B music. It’s interesting to look at his career from the early ’50s to the ’70s and see all the eras of his music — all represented on Prestige — and just look at how great he was all these different styles. That is especially interesting, because for many artists you only get a slice of what they did on one label, and then they were off recording for another label.
Is there anything else while going through this process that you’ve learned in general about what’s here and what makes it special?
In producing the Coltrane ’58 box set, I find that really fascinating because you might say, “Why focus on that one year?” But when you look at Coltrane in ’58 and see the way Prestige had released his albums, there’s something there. He might’ve recorded a session that year, but it wouldn’t come out until ’61, or Bob Weinstock tended to take tracks from multiple sessions and put them on one album. Even when Coltrane was on Atlantic in the early ’60s, Weinstock was still releasing Prestige Coltrane albums.
So when you take his material from 1958 and listen to it the way we’re presenting it in the box set from January all the way through, you really get a sense of how Coltrane’s style evolved — and how rapidly it evolved, even in the span of one year. That’s something you don’t get when you listen to the individual albums, because they’re combinations of a bunch of dates.
This article was produced in partnership with Craft Recordings.