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Old Flames

THE RIVERSIDE RECORDS STORY

The year Charlie Parker died, 1955, Riverside Records founder Orrin Keepnews signed Thelonious Monk, who would stay for six years and record much of his definitive music for the label. It’s a mark of jazz’s post-bop desperation that Keepnews was able to buy out Monk’s contract with Prestige for $108.27 and shanghai one of modern music’s most brilliant lights to an outfit that had existed only two years and had previously done nothing but reissues. Until 1964, Riverside built on that bedrock foundation by showcasing most of jazz’s premier talents.

Listening to the four CDs of The Riverside Records Story (follow-up to the equally fine The Debut Records Story, released earlier last year) is like tuning in to a really, really good jazz radio broadcast from about 1962. There’s a generous hunk of material from the label’s superstar roster, which included Monk, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans. But the real education grows from Keepnews’ selection of unrepeatable moments. Kenny Dorham threads his trumpet through the exquisite arrangements and silk-knotted tenor of Benny Golson, and strokes out "My Old Flame" with Rollins and a harp (not a harmonica). Johnny Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis scramble through a torrid tenor battle. Yusef Lateef uses oboe to carve out some clean Ellington. Eric Dolphy and Don Ellis are the ideal soldiers for George Russell’s individualist army. Clark Terry, Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn sound as if they’re playing for the last two dancers in a chandeliered ballroom. Two opposite approaches (Milt Jackson’s, Junior Mance Big Band’s) extrapolate on Bronislau Kaper’s gorgeous movie theme "Invitation." Young Bobby Timmons, who would burn out at 38, jumps with life on a soul number.

Amplifying every track with wry reminiscences, Keepnews makes the text nearly as enjoyable as the music. He even addresses, obliquely, the dual role every jazz producer acted in those days: creative partner and addiction enabler. "I learned, sometimes the hard way," he writes, "who could function with great effectiveness despite whatever substance problems and who could not." Of Chet Baker, he recalls that the trumpeter’s balladry could make his employer "almost overlook the personal anguish of dealing with him."

Keepnews is charming, and he endured a lot, but the note borders on callous. Many of these performers died without getting much more than fix money in return for the art we now appreciate at a 40-year remove — a hard fact that makes their legacy all the more amazing.