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Various Artists: The Riverside Records Story

As a listener new to jazz and college in 1959, I gravitated to the brainy, saucy, all-blue Riverside label for my East Coast sounds, rather than the brawny, established blue-and-white Blue Notes. (I was getting my West Coast hits largely from Lester Koenig’s affably mellow-yellow Contemporary label.) The Riverside label’s stable had appealing breadth of scope, a palpable swagger that eschewed the hard-bop hammerlock, a slew of pianist/ composers of infinite-and again, wide-appeal (R. Weston, T. Monk, G. Russell, B. Evans, B. Timmons, E. Hope, D. Friedman, K. Drew, W. Kelly).

The packages themselves boasted thorough liner notes (complete with composers, timings, recording dates), hip cover art with color photos…an endless list of attractions. The recordings were usually strong and clear, the pressings decent. Monk, particularly galvanizing in his prime, set my logic processor doing loop-de-loops. I never imagined then that the “feisty kid brother” Riverside, run by Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews, had reached the halfway point of its meteoric lifecycle.

Perennial favorite sides from the Riverside vaults appear on this five-hour compilation: Sonny Rollins’ magnificent “Freedom Suite” (trio with O. Pettiford and M. Roach), Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear” (here the C. Hawkins and J. Coltrane collaborations, back to back), Blue Mitchell’s euphoric “Smooth As The Wind,” Evans’ austere paean “Peace Piece.” Artists who’ve weathered the decades make the cut: trumpeters Clark Terry, Nat Adderley and Kenny Dorham; titans of lyric saxophony Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Griffin, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Harold Land and Ernie Henry; vibrant vocalists Abbey Lincoln, Eddie Jefferson and Mark Murphy; yang and yin guitarists Wes Montgomery and Charlie Byrd. Too briefly caught in this action are the killer sextet sides of George Russell, with E. Dolphy and S. Swallow.

In all, 43 of the roster of 150 leaders get a taste in Keepnews’ pleasantly willy-nilly collection: it’s neither chronological nor thematic, just 53 tracks of personal faves cherry-picked, with the producer’s own witty and historically fascinating personal asides peppering the 50-page booklet. Not merely a trip down memory lane, the music still makes an impact, especially on tracing blues evolution, from Yusef Lateef’s incisive oboe on “Lucky So and So” to Cannon & Nat’s feel-good “Dis Here” to Philly Joe Jones’ disarmingly wacky “Blues for Dracula.” This fine cross-sectional collection re-introduces a ripe era in New York post-bop history and one brief candle’s shedding of light on it. Give it to some buddingly hip teenager for Christmas!

Originally Published