History-altering record producer and label head honcho Orrin Keepnews passed away on Sunday, 1 day short of his 92nd birthday. We as a society talk little enough about the great jazz musicians of the 20th century, and we certainly don’t talk much about the other contributing figures. But Keepnews, particularly as the visionary head of Riverside Records, left such a mark on modern jazz that I really can’t imagine the history of the music without him. Fortunately he was appreciated in his lifetime (winning a NARAS lifetime achievement award and the NEA Jazz Master fellowship).
Lately my Top 10 lists have been song/track based, but the continuity and conceptual brilliance behind the great records Keepnews oversaw lend themselves better to full albums. And while there are some historically monumental records here, this isn’t an attempt to necessarily measure his “most important” records, though I did try to think in terms of his impact on the process. The number of records I had to omit from the list is pretty staggering, including some of my favorite work by Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Drew, Jimmy Heath, Barry Harris, Wynton Kelly, Abbey Lincoln, Yusef Lateef, Elmo Hope, Red Garland (gasp), not to mention later, post-Riverside classics by Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner and others. So with no further ado:
1 ) Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk, 1956
Monk obviously wrote the music and led the band here, but to me the MVP goes to Keepnews the strategist, in that he a) lured Monk away from Prestige records, b) started off with an Ellington record and a standards record and c) dropped this classic once the audience had been given a point of entry. And so began a relationship that produced easily enough classic music that it could’ve populated this whole list.
2 ) Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans, 1961
There is limited documentation of Evans’ classic 1959-61 trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, and save for some bootlegs, it’s all on Riverside. Keepnews couldn’t have known the importance of recording this live date (given that less than two weeks later LaFaro would be dead in a car accident), but the music herein profoundly impacted the course of many musicians to follow.
3 ) Incredible Jazz Guitar by Wes Montgomery, 1960
Another major coup for Keepnews was his trip to Indianapolis to sign Montgomery to a contract. This was not the first Riverside session for the great guitarist, but it’s arguably the first classic, and this is another record that changed the course of things for many musicians to follow.
4 ) Power to the People by Joe Henderson, 1969
Recorded for Milestone after the demise of Riverside, this amazingly powerful album shows that Keepnews’ ear for modernism was not left behind at Riverside. The rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette plays with an unusual degree of vitality even by their lofty standards, coaxing some of JoeHen’s best playing on wax.
5 ) Caravan by Art Blakey, 1962
Blakey and the Jazz Messengers are rightly known best in this era (the Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton sextet with either Reggie Workman or Jymie Merritt) for their work on the Blue Note label, but mixed in there are several classic albums for Riverside. This one features the gorgeous “Skylark” and the moody Shorter tune “This Is For Albert” alongside two utterly burnin’ rave-ups in “Caravan” and Hubbard’s “Thermo.”
6 ) In San Francisco by Cannonball Adderley, 1959
It’s hard to pick one Cannonball record here, as his groups were so synonymous with the Riverside sound in a lot of ways and, arguably, his most influential years as a recording artist came for the label, not to mention some classic work as a bandleader by his brother Nat. I picked this great, ebullient live record in part to represent the great pianist Bobby Timmons, himself an important Riverside artist.
7 ) Freedom Suite by Sonny Rollins, 1958
Rollins had already recorded important work for multiple labels (including Blue Note and Prestige) by this point and had already done work in a piano-less trio. Nonetheless, this amazing album and especially its epic title track.
8 ) Duke with a Difference by Clark Terry, 1957
While Riverside became known for both the hard-swinging and progressive sides of hard bop, he also got started with more traditional forms of jazz. This delightful swing-era throwback features a band of Ellingtonians playing buoyant, joyful interpretations of the maestro’s music.
9 ) Cole Porter – In A Modern Mood by Randy Weston, 1954
Even before Monk’s signing to Riverside, the progressive elements were evident. This record represents the beginning of that for Keepnews and the beginning of a then-young Randy Weston’s long career as a bandleader. These angular interpretations in the form uets with bassist Sam Gill (later packaged with other sessions of this era and reissued as Solo, Duo and Trio in A Modern Mood)
10 ) Ezz-Thetics by George Russell, 1961
There are few albums like this – we get to hear Russell’s piano playing (of which there is too little documentation) alongside great solo work from trombonist David Baker (yet another major composer/educator inadequately documented as a player – but check out his solo on Ezz-Thetic), trumpeter Don Ellis and reedman Eric Dolphy, on a program of extremely progressive yet equally soulful music.