Who Needs Boxes 2004

That's not counting Ray Charles, of course, or the entire history of rock and roll's roots

Pick Hits

King of the Tenors

Less adventurous than Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins but equally august, the Duke Ellington star turned Norman Granz fixture has been overlooked by compilers. So having absorbed the big-band Cotton Tail and the three-albums-by-three-different-leaders Soul of Ben Webster double, I'll be reaching for this simple 1954 combo LP plus three bonus cuts—including an alternate take of a self-penned blues that bypasses Oscar Peterson and Sweets Edison to give Ben more room, which he fills like the elephant he is, half honk and half heavy breathing. Yet believe it or not he wasn't a blues specialist—what made him famous was grand, intimate, sexier-than-Don Byas ballads like "Tenderly" and the twice-told "That's All." A professional and a man of his time, Webster liked brass and strings. But he was at his best helming pre-bop small bands. That this one happens to feature Benny Carter is a lagniappe. A PLUS

The Best of Chet Baker

Baker was the genius journeyman for whom Dave Hickey devised the freelancer's epitaph: "If This Dude Wasn't Dead, He Could Still Get Work." He recorded some 60 albums, and although I know I slightly prefer this 15-track '50s selection to Hickey's "all-time favorite record" Chet Baker Sings, and much prefer it to Bluebird's jazzier 1962 Chet Is Back!, I'm not about to explore them all. His adore-the-melody trick has its limits unless his white Oklahoman affect touches you like it does Hickey, the white Texan son of a swing musician with bebop dreams. So this is ideal. As someone who's always preferred Baker's singing to his trumpet, I was surprised to find that three vocals were only one short of what I would have preferred (words on "It Never Entered My Mind" later on, please), and surprised to swoon for the instrumental opener, a 1952 "My Funny Valentine" the notes claim was a hit. I was also surprised to hear more romance—and less "cool"—in this "My Funny Valentine" 's lyricism, sensuality, and bassline than in the contemporaneous version that opens Miles Davis Plays for Lovers. Thank Baker's smooth, soft, full, breathy sound. Thank Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, and (on the two jazz compositions) Johnny Griffin. Thank Paul Chambers. Thank the melodies. A

The Best of Black Uhuru: 20th Century
Masters: The Millennium Collection

The finest reggae group of the '80s—maybe ever, behind the obvious, or until somebody with ears and all-label access does a Culture comp. In two decades solo, Michael Rose has never approached the spirit groove he hit regularly with Duckie Simpson, the great Puma Jones, and the greater Sly & Robbie, who in turn peaked with this band. Its best album was its last with Rose, 1984's Anthem, and its only previous comp, 1993's Liberation double, is mucked up with dubs and 12-inch mixes aimed at some combination of the ganja/dancehall markets. Only one such here, and only two Anthem tracks—just songs as songs, inextricable from S&R's thick, echoing rhythms, Jones's female principle, and Rose's exultation in his own powers. There's lots of exultation on this record. But even "Sponji Reggae" and "Happiness" proceed explicitly from suffering. A

Genius & Soul:
The 50th Anniversary Collection

Although I admit that if he was still alive I still wouldn't have gotten through this five-disc behemoth, on my shelves since 1997, the selected schlock at the end is as powerful as the seminal G-word at the beginning, and the size of the thing suits him. Of course it overlaps unconscionably with the classic Birth of Soul box, which does the same with the pretty damn good Blues + Jazz double. That's the way Ray planned it. Buy this in remembrance of him. A

The Definitive Collection
(MCA Nashville)

In tone, timbre, and timing, Cline was the best-equipped female country singer ever. Where Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy are all downhome in their own ways, her swinging drawl still evokes the fleshpots—Raleigh! Richmond! Washington, D.C.!—and it's hard to imagine a more intelligent document of her 15 months of fame. "Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces," "She's Got You," "Half as Much"—these are perfect songs perfectly sung, now remastered to eliminate the echo that once dulled them. But though she survives Owen Bradley's strings and Nashville cats, his choruses remain, and unless you're focused, forgiving, or a sucker for kitsch, their hmms and oohs and doo-doo-doos do her in. Essential singing and history in an economical package that was long overdue. Fans will love it. But except in research mode, I bet I still play her live stuff. A MINUS

A Centennial Anthology of
His Decca Recordings

Three years late, I downed Gary Giddins's biography, and thus armed found it easy enough to access these 50 songs. Giddins rewrites history to make room for Crosby, an aggressively pan-ethnic everyman with a Jesuit education and a wild-oats past who had the confidence and the sense of rhythm to put his big voice to modest uses—and dominate our mass culture, movies and music both, for longer than FDR was president. Urged to be all things to all Americans by Decca's Jack Kapp, he avoided the fancy songs beboppers would soon sing changes on and the ambitious arrangers who started Frank Sinatra on the road to Art. But he never condescended to his tunes, and he picked good ones. Credit his decency and intelligence and you can comprehend the attractions of an American dream that deserves better than the exploitation to which it's still subjected by ruling-class cynics he would have seen through in a minute. A

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