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Fantasy digs into the vaults

Original Jazz Classics Sampler - Prestige
Original Jazz Classics Sampler – Prestige
By various artists

Prestige / Fantasy Records: 2002

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Original Jazz Classics Sampler - Debut
Original Jazz Classics Sampler – Debut
By various artists

Debut / Fantasy Records: 2002

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Original Jazz Classics Sampler - Pablo
Original Jazz Classics Sampler – Pablo
By various artists

Pablo / Fantasy Records: 2002

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Original Jazz Classics Sampler - Riverside
Original Jazz Classics Sampler – Riverside
By various artists

Riverside / Fantasy Records: 2002

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Original Jazz Classics Sampler - Fantasy
Original Jazz Classics Sampler – Fantasy
By various artists

Fantasy Records: 2002

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Original Jazz Classics Sampler - Contemporary
Original Jazz Classics Sampler – Contemporary
By various artists

Contemporary / Fantasy Records: 2002

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This review first appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of Turbula.

At the same time Blue Note and Verve are combining forces for their new Verve/Blue Note Definitive Series, Fantasy Records is digging deep into its vaults for a new series of jazz samplers.

It's an interesting contrast between the two series – while Blue Note and Verve have organized their series around specific artists, Fantasy is building its around the different jazz labels it has acquired through the years.

There's a rich heritage here, and one that Fantasy has been mining for years. Their Jazz Giants Play series drew on all their collections for a set of CDs dedicated to various American composers (Jerome Kern, Harlold Arlen, Cole Porter). There have also been some outstanding box sets dedicated to specific jazz artists from the Fantasy library – Thelonious Monky and Sonny Rollins, for instance.

This new series also differs from the Blue Note/Verve effort in that while those recordings are being marketed as the "definitive" distillations of various artists, the Fantasy set are samplers – intended to be no more than in introduction to the many artists its various labels (plus the still-independent Debut, which Fantasy distributes) offer.

And those labels are just as rich in jazz history, lore and great music as any jazz label.

While Fantasy Records itself is best-known as the label that handled (and ultimately alienated) Creedence Clearwater Revival, it was founded in the early 1950s as a vehicle for pianist Dave Brubeck to distribute his own recordings. Its early years were firmly focused on jazz – rock 'n' roll didn't even exist yet – and it was a major player on the West Coast.

Among those who recorded for Fantasy in the 1950s heyday of West Coast Jazz were Vince Guaraldi (famed for his soundtracks to the animated "Peanuts" TV specials), Chet Baker, Stan Getz and Cal Tjader. The label has remained active in jazz even as its made millions in rock, and much of the material on this album comes from the 1960s and '70s.

Prestige Records has as rich a stable of jazz recordings as any label, bar none. Among the artists who passed through were Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins, Etta Jones, Gil Evans, Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet. And the tracks from here aren't throwaways from before or after these artists hit their creative peak. Rollins' defining work, "St. Thomas," was cut for Prestige, as was Annie Ross' "Twisted." Etta Jones recorded "Don't Go to Strangers" for Prestige as well. This sampler has more outstanding jazz than some box sets from lesser labels.

Not far behind Prestige in, well, prestige, is Debut. Founded in 1952 by Charles Mingus and Max Roach as a way to record themselves and their friends, Debut was able to draw in some of of the heaviest players in that fertile era: Miles, Bud Powell, Kenny Dorham, Oscar Pettiford, Charlie Parker. There's even a cut from one of the all-time jazz dream combos: Mingus, Roach, Powell, Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Riverside Records was founded by a couple of young jazzhounds in the early 1950s, and unaccountably grew into another one of the best jazz labels on the scene. Trusted by jazz musicians, Riverside counted everyone from Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk to Wes Montgomery and Duke Ellington as its recording stars. Bobby Timmons, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Byrd, Cannonball Adderley and Chet Baker are also featured on this disc, all recorded during the peak of their creative years.

Showing just how fluid things were in the 1950s is the collection on the Contemporary disc. Here's Sonny Rollins again, along with everyone from Hampton Hawes and Art Pepper to Shelly Manne and Benny Golson. Another California-based label, Contemporary didn't focus so much on the West Coast "cool" sound as on whatever caught the ear of founder Lester Koenig. So you get the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and the big band vocal stylings of former Basie singer Helen Humes.

Pablo Records was the only label in this series not founded in the 1950s – although its heritage is among the very richest in all of jazz. Some years after jazz impressario Norman Granz had sold his Verve and associated labels (Clef, Norgran) to MGM and moved to Europe he got the itch to record again. Founding Pablo in 1973, Granz showed he'd lost none of his touch. He assembled old musical clients like Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, hooked up with Count Basie, pulled in jazz giants like Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims and Sarah Vaughan, and even "discovered" an unheralded guitarist name of Joe Pass that Granz would make into a star.

And the founder of the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series of the 1950s and '60s, and producer of Verve's famed Jam Session recordings of the same era, showed himself to remain master of the unscripted jazz event. Granz had an unerring ability to match seemingly different musicians in informal settings and get tremendous, often startling playing out of the combination. Milt Jackson and Oscar Peterson are one example included here (Basie and Peterson also recorded together for Granz several times, but no examples of that are on this disc), and Duke Ellington and Ray Brown also form an unlikely but rewarding pairing.

As mentioned, these are simply samplers – with no claims of gravity or import or comprehension attached.

Nevertheless, this is as rich a series of discs devoted to jazz as you'll find.