A Ken Burns Xmas

As the frugal know, this annual gift guide disdains boxes for one- and two-CD best-ofs, which got hard to come by as rock history was plumbed. So along comes the devil inscribing a definitive series of jazz best-ofs with his infernal name. Some are redundant (Louis, Miles, 'Trane) or not for me (Hancock, Brubeck, Vaughan). Others mix periods too much. Others I'll get to next year.


ERIC B. & RAKIMThe Best of Eric B. & Rakim: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection
(Hip-O) One more once, I played the six other titles on the legendary 1987 Paid in Full. They're pure, innovative, in-your-face—no doubt. But they're also turntablism with spoken decoration, of small use to anyone who hasn't internalized the "real" hip hop aesthetic. Adding seven songs from their three excellent later albums to the debut's four groundbreaking masterworks, this is where the rest of us go with their flow; I don't know another hip hop album that sweeps by so easily and rapidly. Not that there are no bumps—in a way, the terrain is all bumps. Sometimes the effect is mountain-hopping the rooftops, more often kayaking through Hell Gate. Always the mind is quicker than the beat. A

COUNT BASIEThe Best of Early Basie
(Decca) It was the sure shots of the Basie Ken Burns Jazzthat enabled me to go back and hear this 1996 budget item. Late Basie is as springy as brass plush gets. But though Orrin Keepnews's big-band focus is purist—this would still have been a unified record if he'd made room for Helen Humes pop and gone out on a terse piano feature like "Hey Lawdy Mama"—jazzbos don't divide Basie into Old and New Testament just because he's a god. Not all 21 tunes here are as indelible as "One O'Clock Jump." But most are close enough, and deliver the prime pleasures of Basie at his most original: Bill's uncannily understated theme, Lester's insouciant honk, and a bandleader's dozen of superb musicians in the service of volume and beat. True, amplifiers soon achieved a similar effect with less fuss. But the amplifier has never been a solo instrument. A

THE DOORSThe Very Best of the Doors
(Elektra) Shaman, poet, lizard king—believe that guff and you'll miss a great pop band. Ass man, schlockmeister, cosmic slimeball—that's where Jim Morrison's originality lies, and he's never been better represented. Right beneath the back-door macho resides a weak-willed whine as El Lay as Jackson Browne's, and the struggle between the two would have landed him in Vegas if he hadn't achieved oblivion in Paris first. Compelling in part because he's revolting, Jimbo reminds us that some assholes actually do live with demons. His three sidemen rocked almost as good as the Stones. Without him they were nothing. A

JOE ELYThe Best of Joe Ely
(MCA) Also the best of Butch Hancock, who wrote seven of the first nine songs here, until he ran dry, Joe got a big head, or both. You want to feel how fluently Hancock rolls out narrative metaphor, compare Ely's "Honky Tonk Masquerade"—title song of his second and best album, a well-turned set piece as good as said title and no more—to "Boxcars": "Well there's some big old Buicks by the Baptist church/Cadillacs at the Church of Christ/I parked my camel by an old haystack/I'll be looking for that needle all night." Some believe you can get all the ex-Flatlanders you need from Ely's first two albums, now available on a single convenient CD. But the 13 later tracks here complete a far stronger package, leaning hard on Ely's less poetic songs in a high-flying country-rock occasionally emulated—by Rodney Crowell, Charlie Robison, in their way the Dixie Chicks—but never equaled. Not even by Jimmie Dale Gilmore. A

ELLA FITZGERALDKen Burns Jazz
(Verve) Suffering and subtlety may be the way of truth, but though I've revered Billie Holiday for 40 years, they're not the only way. First time through this rocket ship of an argument for Fitzgerald as blithe spirit and improvising musician, I was put off by the opener, her first and biggest hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." It was so silly, so girly. But as she floated through the closer—the almost as flighty "Shiny Stockings," once again with words by the artiste—it dawned on me that she sounded just as girly at 45. And that was 1963, by which time she had outscatted everybody this side of King Louis, defined the pop canon, and ebulliently declared to her impeccably credentialed jazz combo, "I wanna rock, I wanna roll." Girly was so much her gift that it's too bad there isn't anything later—she was still making young records past 60. There were many things she didn't understand—that's why the token "blues" is a pop song about blues. But there was plenty Billie didn't understand too. Ella outlived her on the difference. A PLUS

MARVIN GAYEThe Very Best of Marvin Gaye
(Motown) Gaye was so rhythmically and dynamically astute that his albums sustained whether he was a Motown matinee idol (try In the Groove) or a self-actualizing nut (Let's Get It On). But that doesn't mean they were perfect, which goes double for the inflated What's Going On. His first not-too-big/not-too-small since the long-departed Anthology puts 19 songs on the idol disc (including six key duets) and 15 on the nut disc (including one solid previously unreleased). Gaye makes much more than most out of waving his dick, expanding his mind, and proving that jazz needs him more than he needs jazz. But in the end, the airy grit, hip innocence, and invention-within-stricture of his clean-cut period are more magical and probably deeper. A

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