The Chartbusters

Prestige Records has been among the most vital forces in jazz since 1949. The impact of the label was particularly profound during the Fifties, when it served as a springboard for the innovations of Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and countless other cutting-edge musicians.

It is fitting that Mating Call—the second album by the Chartbusters, a band comprised of tenor and soprano saxophonist Craig Handy, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, and drummer Idris Muhammad—should be issued by Prestige. Handy (the group’s nominal leader, as well as co-producer, with Todd Barkan, of Mating Call) and Harrison are young lions who were weened on Prestige platters, while Smith and Muhammad are veterans whose associations with the company date to the Sixties. First-call trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist David Fiuczynski (leader of the avant-funk band Screaming Headless Torsos) make guest contributions to the album.

The group’s first disc, the critically acclaimed Chartbusters! Volume 1, paid homage to Blue Note Records and was released in 1995 on the tiny NYC label. Now Mating Call mines classic material from the Prestige catalog and appears on Prestige itself. Liner notes are by Esmond Edwards, the producer responsible for the original Prestige versions of “Don’t Go to Strangers” and “Kirk’s Works,” both of which are given new treatments on Mating Call.

The title selection, by composer-pianist Tadd Dameron, is taken from a 1956 Dameron quartet date that featured John Coltrane. Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Kirk’s Works” was the title tune of a 1961 album by the late saxophonist. “Mambo Bounce,” “Oleo,” and “Doxy” are all from the pen of Sonny Rollins; “Mambo Bounce” comes from a 1951 Rollins session, while “Oleo” and “Doxy” appeared on a 1955 Miles Davis album that featured Rollins. Eric Dolphy’s “245" was included on the late multi-instrumentalist’s Outward Bound from 1960. Jackie McLean’s “Minor March” is from a 1955 album by Miles Davis and Milt Jackson. The ballad “Don’t Go to Strangers” was recorded by vocalist Etta Jones in 1960 and became the biggest-selling single in the history of Prestige, busting all the way to no. 5 on Billboard’s R&B chart and peaking at no. 36 on the pop list.

Mating Call also features two new compositions. “Back on the Farm” was written by Dr. Lonnie Smith and Idris Muhammad as a tribute to Mose Allison, whose enduring recording career was launched at Prestige. Craig Handy conceived “Jugsville” as a memorial to the late tenor saxophonist Gene “Jug” Ammons, one of the most prolific and popular of all Prestige artists.

“I never heard Jug live,” Handy says, “but in listening to his recordings, I got a sense of his ability to command a room with just the sheer force of his sound. He had to be subtle enough in his phrasing and his ideas and his execution to keep you interested in what he was playing. Younger players tend to Trane-out, so to speak, to play as many notes as fast as possible. Jug could just sit, there with one note and relax everybody.”

Born in Oakland, California, on September 15, 1962, Handy was drawn to the saxophone by Dexter Gordon, Ammons’s stylistic soulmate (and fellow member of Billy Eckstine’s fabled mid-Forties bop orchestra). After participating in the renowned Berkeley High School jazz program, Handy continued his formal jazz studies at North Texas State University. Since settling in New York City in 1986, he has worked with Roy Haynes, Abdullah Ibrahim, Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Big Band, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and Betty Carter, and cut two albums of his own for the Arabesque label. He also scored and performed the music for NBC-TV’s 1994 series The Cosby Mysteries and plays a character based on Coleman Hawkins in Robert Altman’s forthcoming motion picture Kansas City, which includes a tenor battle between Handy and fellow Berkeley High grad Joshua Redman.

The Chartbusters’ other saxman—alto player Donald Harrison—was born in New Orleans on June 23, 1960, and met trumpeter Terence Blanchard while studying with Ellis Marsalis. After attending Southern University and the Berklee College of Music and working with Roy Haynes and Jack McDuff, Harrison resumed his association with Blanchard in 1982, when the two musicians replaced Branford and Wynton Marsalis in the Jazz Messengers. Harrison and Blanchard formed their own band in 1984 and recorded albums for Concord Jazz and Columbia before pursuing separate paths. Harrison has albums of his own on the Candid label.

Hammond B-3 organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith was born in Buffalo in 1942 and played locally with such R&B artists as the Coasters, the Impressions, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Dionne Warwick before becoming a charter member of George Benson’s group in 1965, the year he made his Prestige debut on a Red Holloway album that also featured Benson. Smith went on to record over a dozen albums of his own for labels like Columbia, Blue Note, Groove Merchant, and Music Masters. Now living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he has been a member of saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s group for over a decade. Dr. Smith’s title is honorary. “Through the years,” he explains, “musicians would always say, ‘You doctor up the music.’”

Mating Call reunites Smith with Idris Muhammad, the famous New Orleans– born drummer who now lives in Austria. Smith and Muhammad were first teamed in 1967 on Donaldson’s best-selling Blue Note album Alligator Boogaloo. “It’s like we never left each other,” Smith says. “We strike a groove right away.”

Born on November 13, 1939, Muhammad is a pioneer of the New Orleans style of funk drumming. He played locally with Art Neville’s Hawkettes before hitting the road with such R&B artists as Larry Williams, Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, the Impressions, and Lloyd Price. Muhammad made his debut as a Prestige sideman on a 1969 album by Harold Mabern and cut an album of his own for the label two years later. He also recorded albums for Kudu and Fantasy and toured with Roberta Flack, Johnny Griffin, Pharoah Sanders, and John Scofield.

The concept of having an all-star group perform compositions associated with classic jazz record labels came from Milan Simich, the Chartbusters’ manager. “The idea of doing a lot of these tunes which meant a lot to me was not to try to recreate ‘em,” he explains. “You just change the instrumentation around and put in a little extra flavor.”

Craig Handy, Donald Harrison, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Idris Muhammad succeed in bringing fresh, vibrant flavors to vintage Prestige material on Mating Call and, in the process, carry the label’s long, honorable legacy into the present era.