May 1998

Label Watch: Verve’s Ultimate Series

Verve’s new Ultimate series offers a novel twist on the “Best of” concept. Each CD from the Ultimate series features a musical overview of a particular artist chosen by another artist. The first set, released last October, included the music of: Ella Fitzgerald selected by Joe Williams; Billie Holiday by Shirley Horn; Nina Simone selected by Dianne Reeves; Sarah Vaughan by Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Dinah Washington selected by Abbey Lincoln.

The latest batch, just released, includes the music of: Bud Powell selected by Chick Corea; Oscar Peterson selected by Ray Brown; Clifford Brown selected by Nicholas Payton; Lester Young selected by Wayne Shorter, and Wes Montgomery selected by George Benson.

Projected releases include the music of: Ben Webster selected by James Carter; Dizzy Gillespie selected by Roy Hargrove; Bill Evans selected by Herbie Hancock; Stan Getz selected by Joe Henderson, and Coleman Hawkins selected by Sonny Rollins.

Verve’s Senior Vice President of A&R, Richard Seidel, conceived the Ultimate series because “we’re always trying to come up with inventive ideas for new recordings and the catalogs and here, we were able to put a different spin on the “Best of” concept, which has been around for a long time.”

Seidel, a lifelong listener, can’t recall another series that has attempted to “select the greatest work of a given artist where the selections were made by another artist, particularly by an artist who was influenced or inspired by, or had a close connection to the artist being compiled.”

The artists make the final decision on track selection and in some cases, Seidel reports he has “been surprised by their choices. In fact I continue to be surprised because artists have their own views and sometimes they differ from people who work for record companies and even jazz writers.”

Thus far, it has taken very little convincing to get the artists involved. “They all seem to immediately embrace the idea,” Seidel explains, “probably because no one has ever asked them to do something like this.”

Plans call for ten releases a year in the Ultimate series. In addition to focusing on past legends, Seidel plans on having “current Verve artists compiled by other artists, maybe even other Verve artists. There’s no real limitation here with the Ultimate concept, as long as we continue to come up with creative combinations.”

Although he conceived the Ultimate series, Seidel is quick to offer credit where credit is due for the comprehensive Verve reissue program, more than 15 years in operation now. “There was a time when I was the only person at Verve,” he remembers, “and that’s all we did was reissues but as you know, the label has grown significantly and the person who has spearheaded the reissue program since early 1992 is Michael Lang. He deserves the lion’s share of the credit.”

Verve reissue plans are developed by a committee that includes Chuck Mitchell, President of Verve Records, Lang, who is now Senior Vice President and General Manager of Verve, and Seidel. In addition to the Ultimate series, other recent Verve reissues programs have included Master Editions, Elite Editions, Talkin’ Verve and Jazz Masters, which now includes over 60 releases.

The founder of Jazz at the Philharmonic, Norman Granz, established Verve in 1956, and brought his earlier label efforts, Clef and Norgran under the Verve banner. Although he sold the label to MGM in the early ’60s and has long since retired from jazz, Lang occasionally consults with Granz and reports that Verve’s founder is upbeat on the label’s latest offerings. “Norman doesn’t like to give interviews,” Lang explains. “He’s retired from talking about his career but all the reports of him being somewhat of a curmudgeon just aren’t true. He’s really a sweetheart.”

Granz positioned Verve as the Rolls Royce of jazz labels and today, it maintains its Tiffany-like status, with a regular program of new artist releases, as well as mining its comprehensive catalogue. Yet in today’s CD marketplace, with over 3300 CDs released last year alone, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.

Seidel acknowledges the obstacles but admits that “we persevere with as much optimism and creativity as possible. Today, you just have to be more creative than the next guy in terms of concepts and packaging. Of course you have to have something strong to begin with and know what to do with it. We’re fortunate to have a very, very strong catalog. Accordingly, we’ve actually been able to package and repackage some of the same material over and over again, each hopefully a fresh angle. I think there always is a new audience coming to jazz for the first time and the Ultimate series, in some degree, is designed with that in mind.”

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