photo by Douglas Quackenbush

LAND OF THE FREE. YEAH, I ALWAYS COMPLAIN about the limitations of that description. And a lot of ghetto dwellers, victimless criminals and political prisoners would spit on it. But as I was knocking through the year-end jazz releases, I couldn't help marveling again at how many reckless and unexpected characters have clawed to the surface of this nation's culture. So let's pretend this is the Fourth of July instead of Xmastime, and celebrate the spirit of independence.

One original was Bob Weinstock, who was 20 in 1949 when he embarked on the business that would become the subject of the four-CD The Prestige Records Story. Naive enough to start his own label, weird enough to eventually come out, in 1988, with “the most far-out erotic romance ever published” (personally dubbing his innocent beatnik-throwback novel “wacky,” “serious” and “bad”), Weinstock showcased the bluesy improv he favored, and his taste became ours. With the gutty saxist Gene Ammons as the perennial Prestige artist from 1950 to 1971, the label churned out often unrehearsed sessions by most of the era's top talent: Eric Dolphy, Stan Getz, Etta Jones, Thelonious Monk, George Benson, Sonny Rollins and a ton more. Needless to say, the box's pace is unflagging, and the booklet's copious eyewitness interviews splash vivid color on the New York scene.

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“The story of Prestige Records is largely the story of Bob Weinstock.” “The story of Savoy Records is largely the story of Herman Lubinsky.” Those booklet quotations aren't the only parallels between the Prestige box and the three-CD The Savoy Story: Volume One — Jazz, though Lubinsky was less a fan than a money man who relied heavily on the ears of Teddy Reig. The labels shared the services of producer Ozzie Cadena, and also of writer Bob Porter, who composed the notes for this lean-and-mean Savoy box. And, oh yeah: Both organizations employed musicians such as Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis. Under the perspicacious guidance of another label entrepreneur, Orrin Keepnews (who put together his own The Riverside Records Story a couple of years ago), Atlantic has gone reissue crazy with the monumental Savoy catalog, which had been previously treated in fragmentary, un-CD-friendly fashion by the Denon label. Charlie Parker's live broadcasts minus host Symphony Sid's chatter; John Coltrane's complete sideman work with low-simmering trumpeter Wilbur Harden, who subsequently disappeared; Dexter Gordon's conversion to blazing bop in 1945­47; thorough minings of Kenny Dorham, Erroll Garner and Art Pepper — the discs are pouring out faster than your paychecks are trickling in. Especially worth the coin, though, is the triple-CD Little Jimmy Scott: The Savoy Years and More, which includes rare and previously unreleased material. Despite some cornball arrangements, it clarifies why Scott's anguished, womanlike voice lit up the phone lines when it first pierced the airwaves at the turn of the '50s. Possibly, thanks to the almost unbearable drama Scott's delivery has gained from the decades of neglect he experienced prior to his '90s Warner epics, he's an even greater artist today. But when a record man of Keepnews' stature says, “I'm especially happy” with this box, one is inclined to pay attention.

I can't think of any singer who really reminded me of Jimmy Scott before I heard Fruit by Marie Bergman, on the Danish label Stunt (just introduced to U.S. distribution). It's not the rhythm — she's usually on top of the beat, not miles behind like Scott — so it must be that fabric of naked emotional honesty. Almost every other jazz vocalist is theatrical or technical or stylized or detached. But when Bergman's rough-silk soprano frays a little on the high notes of Irma Thomas' “Wish Someone Would Care” . . . I do. (29 W. Maple Ave., Bellmawr, NJ 08031; 609-931-6441)

Also out of Northern Europe (Munich's ECM Records) via North America (the players and a New York studio) comes Not Two, Not One by pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. Trying to imagine why this successful and influential trio hadn't recorded together since 1970, I could only guess that the group was too perfect: Maybe three players with this level of mutual understanding and common aesthetics didn't find it challenging enough. The nearly rhythmless sensuality and balance they achieve through most of this record — Bley lightly discursive, Peacock sparse and big, Motian whispery — would've been enough, but the 9:34 opening track, “Not Zero: In Three Parts,” invents a whole new world of subliminal drive and texture that you won't want to end.

Someday the members of The Los Angeles Jazz Quartet might start thinking their arrangement is overperfect, too. Five-plus years in, though, tenor saxist Chuck Manning, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz and drummer Kevin Tullius are still involved, and involving. Without breaking much new ground, their new Conversation Piece, on Naxos Jazz, shows precisely why they stick together. From the first note, you're in dreamland, swept downstream by the warm beauty and unforced intelligence of the members' compositions — and they also pull off a rare feat: a credible (and original) cover of “'Round Midnight.” If it's possible to get rich by playing only for people who like good music, these guys can go to the bank.

FROM A PERSONALITY STANDPOINT, READING about jazz is almost as much fun as listening to it, the latest evidence being John Kruth's Bright Moments: The Life & Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, published by Welcome Rain. To be sure, Kruth had the advantage of writing about a blind guy who could play three saxophones at once, which talent has also been the greatest obstacle to Kirk's receiving his historical due. The fact that Kirk (who was solidly documented on Prestige, by the way) was much more than a freak show — an affirmation belabored herein by umpteen musicians, friends and writers, nearly to the point of refuting itself — is easily demonstrable to anyone with operational sonic receptors, and a reissue program by both 32 Records (abetted by Kruth) and Rhino has raised the ingenious musician's profile to frightening heights. What's new here is the image of Kirk as an exponent, promoter and encyclopedic repository of jazz. All his sirens and bells, raving and showboating are revealed as inevitable, explosive effluent, as if African-American musical history were billions of gallons of water and Kirk's mouth were the only hole in the dam. In this overintellectualized era of jazz, acknowledging that kind of passion hammers Kirk's early paralysis and death into an infuriating metaphor.

Surprisingly little of Reading Jazz, edited by Robert Gottlieb for Vintage Press, is duplicated from David Meltzer's 1993 book of the same name. And at more than 1,000 pages, this “Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage and Criticism From 1919 to Now” is over three times as long. So there. I was prepared to be enlightened by Sidney Bechet protesting against the cliché of jazz being born in brothels, by Jean-Paul Sartre's obsession with the ugliness of American jazz and jazzmen, by Ralph Ellison musing on “why, during a period when most jazzmen were labeled 'cats,' someone hung the bird on Charlie [Parker].” But naturally I went straight to the end, where I could enjoy the aforementioned Orrin Keepnews, once a music journalist himself, wondering how to get rid of “the hordes of shallow, opportunistic and virtually unidentifiable newspaper and magazine hacks.” He soon realizes, of course, that you can't.

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