A Ken Burns Xmas

(Verve) Hawkins's sensual largesse and easy legato delivered the saxophone from vaudeville novelty. He was so deft with chords that he progressed unimpeded from swing to bebop and beyond, and along the way he launched the first solo saxophone track, which took off from the most famous solo in jazz history, his original improvisation on "Body and Soul." For all these reasons, this five-decade selection declines stylistic consistency. No problem. The big, breathy, paradigmatically Southwestern sound of his tenor doesn't dominate its harmonic trappings, or cut through them. It pervades them, from preswinging Fletcher Henderson to protégé-turned-auteur Thelonious Monk. And to finish off there's an unforced, unnostalgic Ellington-Hodges-Carney session that returns Hawkins to his youth in a graceful parabola. A

(Verve) You won't be sorry if you spring for a matched set of two-CD sets: Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years and Columbia's belated Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday. But beyond a label-bridging perfection spoiled only by the unavoidable "Strange Fruit," the advantage of this disc is how vividly it establishes the organic unity of a career customarily bifurcated into girl-singer and fallen-woman phases. Early on she digs fibbing about the moonlight, while in the end she's too ravaged to fake how far fine-and-mellow has and hasn't gotten her. But in hindsight we can hear that her commitment to good times was provisional either way. That distance was what made her singing meaningful. What made it great was a musicality that instead of transcending pain affirmed its primacy. A PLUS

(Rounder) This 20-song megacomp steals three songs from 1976's impregnable Have Moicy! and four from 1999's vulnerable Too Much Fun. But I'm too big a fan to blame it for cramming two secret coded messages into one package proving that, as the Bard once put it, age cannot wither nor custom stale their infinite variety. The variety part came with an indelible classic cut on no money and less forethought by whoever dropped in, the age and custom part with a career album cut in their dotage and rural Quebec or vice versa. "Friends" include the ageless Michael Hurley and the late Jeffrey Frederick, fully credited cocreators of Have Moicy! who chime in here from their own stubbornly inconsistent solo albums, and Steve Weber, the not unholy rounder who's been Peter Stampfel's opposite number for 40 years. But Stampfel's spirit dominates, as it should. It's he who discovered that Henry Clay Work's 1862 "Kingdom Coming" was the first true pop song. And it's he who put one of 20 otherwise awful-I-bet songs called "Nova" on the Rounders' spotty-I-know 1975 Alleged in Their Own Time: "Time is on my side/Slime is on my tide/I ride my time slide all the time/I'm a lazy [ellipsis in original]." A

ROGER MILLER Oh Boy Classics Presents Roger Miller
(Oh Boy) Includes remakes and demos, apparently, but still, who better than John Prine to finally do right by this extremely professional Nashville eccentric the Ramones had nothing on—16 songs in 35 minutes, half of them comic and half of the rest lighthearted? You know "King of the Road" with its "rooms to let 50 cents" if not the even more dated "England Swings," plus maybe two unlikely Top 10 pop hits from 1964: the underage drinker's how-de-doo "Chug a Lug" and the hairy-ass new dad's lament "Dang Me." But there are plenty of others. A Kansas City star, you oughta see his car, Miller was a singer as well as a songwriter, and he could also hiccup and gargle and yodel and flap his lips. He couldn't rollerskate in a buffalo herd. But he could be happy when he'd a mind to. A MINUS

(Verve) Epitomized in 11 flawless 1954-1966 tracks is jazz's greatest living improviser as questing modernist, before he settled into his seigneury at Milestone. Almost every player is a titan trying: Davis and Gillespie and Brown, Hawkins and Stitt, Silver and Flanagan and Bley, Clarke and Roach and Jones. Yet Rollins owns every track. On straight bebop and postmodernism crossing the bridge, "Body and Soul" and "St. Thomas" and "I'm an Old Cowhand," his fluid, muscular, sardonically confident sound justifies his omnivorous appetites and vitalizes his twistiest abstractions. I'm not literate enough to explain what "Alfie's Theme Differently" has to do with "Alfie." But I bet Burt Bacharach thought about it for a good long time. A PLUS

MARY WELLS The Best of Mary Wells: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection
(Motown) The first six tracks here are the same six tracks in the same order that Massa Gordy put on his little runaway's Greatest Hits in 1964. From the calm, hurt "The One Who Really Loves You" to the blissful, confident "My Guy," they're Smokey Robinson's portrait of the heroine as a nice girl: a vision of female sensitivity balanced by female pride, all plain poetry and subdued sexual promise. The Shirelles themselves never said it better. Only then, starting with a Marvin Gaye duet and proceeding on the simple strength of compiler Harry Weinger's taste, the less canonical numbers sustain the illusion that Greatest Hits turns to filler. There's even a song written by the artist, who proved what a fool she was to desert Motown—and what a construction her modesty was—with every piece of forced soul and adult pop she turned out for Fox, MGM, Atlantic, etc. This is all the distinction Wells had in her. It was epochal, and it was over before she passed 21. A

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