Bedside Jazz

Sometimes You Want It All—But Usually You Don’t

Just how much of a boost jazz gets from Ken Burns's great film (I'm tired of reserving comment) remains to be seen, but he goes to jazz heaven if for no other reason than that he used his clout not only to get Columbia and Verve to participate in an extraordinary series of 22 retrospective discs, but to enable them to lease material from RCA, Blue Note, Fantasy, and anywhere else the compilers' eyes wandered. Producer Sarah Botstein apparently effected this considerable sleight of hand, and savvy anthologists (Michael Brooks, Bob Belden, Ben Young, Michael Cuscuna, others) selected the material. If asked, I can now, for the first time in 20 years, comfortably recommend a single Armstrong disc—in fact, this is the best Armstrong starter ever, covering the waterfront from "Chimes Blues" to "What a Wonderful World." Other subjects (each CD bears the artist's name and the Ken Burns Jazz logo) are Ellington, Bechet, Goodman, Vaughan, Rollins, Davis, Monk, Henderson, Brubeck, Coleman, Mingus, Hancock, Parker, Gillespie, Basie, Coltrane, Blakey, Fitzgerald, Holiday, Hawkins, and Young. You can wrestle with the choices, if you like; I am happy to surrender my speakers to the editors.

Some collections cover entire careers, others focus on peak periods. Some are surprising—Miles Davis ignores his greatest quintet, yet offers a heady and persuasive joyride from "Donna Lee" to "Tutu." The Bechet falters slightly, with too much Noble Sissle and none of his later work, and you may want to skip the two fusion epics on the Hancock, which is otherwise a Blue Note special. Yet the Hawkins outdistances the superb RCA Vintage of the '60s; the Young is sublimely without peer, past or present; the Holiday rivals Lady Day and may make just as many converts; the Henderson is a more inviting introduction than the multi-volume A Study in Frustration; the Monk is wittily impeccable, and so on. Even if you have all this material, the pleasure of hitting the high spots is not to be denied—and if you didn't know the first names of those mentioned above, you're in luck. I just hope the labels keep it up with or without the Burns imprimatur.

Other recent reissues are worth seeking out. Volume one of Duke Ellington's The Treasury Shows (D.E.T.S.) is out from Denmark and consists of complete 1945 broadcasts, including a unique memorial tribute to FDR (excerpts from "New World A-Comin' " and Black, Brown and Beige are woven into it). Sarah Vaughan's Linger Awhile (Milestone) is not, strictly speaking, a reissue, as it combines previously unreleased performances from 1957 through 1982, but it is a superb chance to follow the blooming of her voice, and "All of Me" is a miracle of concision. JVC has been releasing an excellent series of audiophile masterings of classic (and obscure) albums, and Thelonious Himself has never sounded so good; it includes a 25-minute running tape as he nails down "Round Midnight." The five-disc Sonny Rollins carton, The Freelance Years (Riverside), doesn't make a lot of sense, since most of his freelancing is absent, but it's a convenient catchall for his Riverside, Contemporary, and Period sides, and an opportunity to discover or rediscover Abbey Lincoln's That's Him!, one of the great neglected vocal albums of the 1950s. Monk's three-volume Complete Prestige Recordings is weighed down by the surprisingly laborious 1953 date with Rollins, but contains his 1944 session with Hawkins, the superior 1954 Rollins date, the entire 1954 Miles Davis encounter, and "These Foolish Things," perhaps the most rollicking piano solo he ever recorded. You may choose not to believe this, but Rudy Van Gelder's remastering of Davis's Birth of the Cool (Blue Note) is a revelation. Armstrong's The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings has a botched "Willie the Weeper" and an awful lot of vaudeville shading the sunbursts (anyone who thinks vocalizing and comedy entered his music in the '30s might count the ratio of vocals to instrumentals, not to mention the percentage of novelties)—but it's complete, and in this instance more is more.

I must close by noting that a great year for jazz classics was followed almost immediately by the death of one of the idiom's heroes: Charlie Lourie, who cofounded Mosaic with Michael Cuscuna. No company has done more to slake the thirst for completeness: Instead of bedside companions, Mosaic produced living-room monuments. But in addition to memorializing the great, it has—as with Mildred Bailey—triggered second thoughts about a wide range of music, from the Nat Cole Trio and Ike Quebec to Gerald Wilson's big band, Capitol's archival obscurities, and Columbia's overlooked mainstream. He will be missed.

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