A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: August, 2005

Recycled Goods (#22)

by Tom Hull

A couple of months ago I noticed that I had accumulated such a pile of jazz compilations that I started worrying about how to work them in without skewing my columns even more toward jazz than usual. Then I decided to clear them out in one swell foop. So this column is all jazz. Next one will return to normal, which given my inbox means about one-third jazz.

Compilations are useful in several cases: for singles-oriented artists, or just marginal ones, they consolidate scattered high points; for major artists, and for whole genres, they provide a low-risk introduction or overview; in rare cases the compiler may come up with an interesting way of looking at a subject; also rarely, completism might pay dividends. Compilations are necessary in one case: before the early '50s advent of the LP, artists only released singles, so their work can only exist on compilations. The single most important criterion for whether you should start with a well-regarded album or a compilation is whether the artist is singles-oriented. This hints at the big problem with jazz compilations for artists working from the '50s onward: no singles, ergo no process to sort out legitimate best-ofs. A second problem is that instruments don't dominate consistently like voices, and this problem gets worse with the less dominant, less voice-like instruments.

But the labels crank out jazz comps anyway, with most of the majors cranking out whole series of similarly packaged items every 3-5 years, whether they're needed or not. Verve, for instance, released a series called Compact Jazz early in the CD era, then had a series of Essential best-ofs, then one called Finest Hour, as well as running sidelines like For Lovers and contributing to Ken Burns Jazz and many non-series compilations, such as book tie-ins on Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie. The four majors plus Fantasy (err, Concord) are mostly catalog shops these days, and they know that comps make for cheap development with obvious name recognition, which spells easy profits. They also know that most people know very little about jazz -- maybe a few names -- so they're desperately angling for newbies and dabblers, where comps often suffice.

The most obvious problem with these comps is that they almost never pay extra to license outside material, and most artists' work isn't evenly distributed. It helps to know that Blue Note's catalogs of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins are negligible, while their Horace Silver and Art Blakey are definitive. It helps to know that Thelonious Monk had three important phases on three different labels (Blue Note, Riverside, and Columbia), each distinctive. It helps to know that John Coltrane's important work came out on Atlantic and Impulse, but other labels will try to sell you his also-rans as a best-of -- his Bethlehem recordings are flat-out awful. It also helps to know that none of the labels are at all scrupulous about making this clear. Still, knowing all these things makes me a rather jaundiced critic of jazz comps: with few exceptions, they're not intended for people who already know their way around. I make some allowances for this below, but it still crops up in my comments and the thoughts behind them. Blue Note's Lee Morgan, below, is a fine introduction, but really you'd be just as well served with The Sidewinder or Search for the New Land or Cornbread.

The situation before 1952 is different in two respects. One is that almost everything recorded was singles-length, mostly 78s, so some form of compilation is inevitable -- the main choices being best-ofs and completist sets. The other is that in Europe these recordings are in the public domain, so they can be economically collated by any label that cares to do so. The Jazz Legends series, imported by Allegro from the Austrian label Document, is a good example of inexpensive best-of intros. Several other labels do similar things (EPM and ASV are two), while others, especially the French label Classics, go for complete series. This leads to its own set of problems, but it fills in a major hole, inasmuch as few pre-WWII jazz artists are consistently in print on U.S. labels. (Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday are two who are well covered, but Duke Ellington heads a list of virtually everyone else who isn't.)

In addition to Jazz Legends, the main compilation series covered here are:

  • Blue Note: The Very Best: A new series (2005) of relatively short (40-45 minutes) sets, some obvious, some off the wall. A list of artists not chosen could easily rival those selected, and at this length there are more obscure artists who might make for interesting sets.
  • Fantasy: The Best Of: These are packed to the gills (average about 77 minutes), but tend to be limited to a single one of Fantasy's many labels (so noted) -- e.g., Chet Baker on Riverside but not Prestige, Sonny Rollins on Prestige but not Milestone; Art Pepper stradles Contemporary and Galaxy, but mostly the former. I've sampled about half of two or three rounds in this series (which, by the way, is due for reissue later this year, with a bonus sampler of some sort).
  • Sony/BMG/Legacy: Jazz Moods: This is the second batch of themed compilations, and shows signs of scraping the barrel. Presumably the first batch was better, but the idea of matching an artist to a mood rarely works well.
  • Mosaic: These are encyclopedic compilations for hardcore, or at least well-heeled, fans -- available by mail order in limited editions (typically 5,000 copies; i.e., more than the average jazz record sells). Their box set series typically collects everything an artist did in a limited period of time (e.g., Dinah Washington on Roulette 1961-62, below). Their Select series are 3-CD sets which either cover a minor artist (Curtis Amy and Dizzy Reece are two good examples) or a narrow slice of a major artist (Art Pepper and Andrew Hill, below).

A few more odds and ends worked their way into this column, including the Miles Davis breakout from last year's box set. Next month will return to the usual mix.

Chet Baker: Career (1952-88 [2005], Shout! Factory, 2CD). Two good ideas here: one is to put the instrumentals and vocals on separate discs; the other is to document Baker all the way to the end of his career. He recorded prolifically throughout his career but never stayed on one label long -- the Pacific Jazz records that established him as a star cover a mere four years, and even then he also recorded elsewhere -- and during the '70s and '80s most of his records were cut for small European labels. Shout! Factory doesn't chase them all down -- nothing from his well regarded Criss Cross releases, nor from Philology or Red, but they did manage to license prime material from Enja and Steeplechase, and they make good use of widely scattered pieces on U.S. labels. The wide range of band contexts and material would trip up the flow of the record for anyone else, but Baker was such a steady trumpeter and such a preciously limited singer that he's able to hold together everything from quartets to the NDR Big Band and Creed Taylor's megaproductions. A-

Cab Calloway: The Hi-De-Ho Man (1930-33 [2003], Jazz Legends). A flamboyant song-and-dance man, Calloway took over a first rate hot band called the Missourians in 1930 and developed them into one of the most successful jazz orchestras of the era. His later work is easier to find, especially the late '30s period with tenor sax great Chu Berry, but his biggest hit, "Minnie the Moocher," came early, and it set the stage for all the "Hi-De-Ho" that followed. (Like Peggy Sue, Minnie spawned a marriage day sequel.) Classics and JSP have more exhaustive compilations, but this is the basic starter package. A

Duke Ellington: The Essential Duke Ellington (1927-60 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). The word "essential" has no definition that allows one to reduce Ellington to just two discs. RCA made an admirable attempt in 1994 with a small box called Beyond Category -- limited to their own catalog, but that included crucial material from the late '20s, the '40s, and '60s. Columbia owns most, but nowhere near all, of the rest, including Ellington's grossly neglected '30s and a mixed bag from the '50s. The Sony-BMG merger promised to bring these catalogs together, but this first post-merger release is overwhelmingly Columbia-based, with just five RCA cuts and two licensed from other sources. Columbia's been down this road before, and never with very satisfactory results -- partly because the expansive and idiosyncratic '50s cuts never sat well with the tight singles of the '30s, partly because the canonical versions of Ellington's most famous songs were cut for RCA. There are some interesting tradeoffs here: I'm happy to hear the 1937 versions of "Dimuendo in Blue" and "Crescendo in Blue" instead of the famous Newport version -- allowing Newport to be represented by "Jeep's Blues" -- and the punched up 1953 "Satin Doll" instead of the more familiar versions. On the other hand, in the imposed scarcity of a mere 2-CD set there are scores of other pieces that could have cracked this lineup. A-

Coleman Hawkins: The King of the Tenor Sax (1929-43 [2003], Jazz Legends). This skips past Hawkins' early work with Fletcher Henderson and others, where he established the tenor saxophone as the central instrument in swing orchestras -- two cuts with the Mound City Blowers and one with Red Allen already look forward -- and focuses on his improvisational ideas within small groups. Hawkins' key innovation was his ability to improvise around the melody and finally to posit wholly new melodies based on the changes to old ones: the definitive example was his 1939 recording of "Body and Soul" -- completely novel, brilliantly formed, nothing short of majestic, a challenge for the listener to reassemble into something familiar. That performance sits midway here, whereas all other early Hawkins comps end with it, and all modern Hawkins comps begin with it. It's presaged by Benny Carter's famous arrangement to "Honeysuckle Rose," where Hawkins' solo leaps into the stratosphere, and a sax-piano duo of "Stardust" nearly as clever. The second half follows Hawkins through the development of modern jazz as the art of improvisation, up to a singular version of "The Man I Love." If you tried to simplify jazz sax to a model as simple as a tree, the trunk would be Hawkins, with Sonny Rollins standing on his shoulders. Everyone else is just a branch. A

Andrew Hill: Mosaic Select (1967-70 [2005], Mosaic, 3CD). One of the most important pianists to emerge in the '60s, Hill recorded extensively for Blue Note from 1963 to 1970, but as the label declined he increasingly found his recordings stuck on the shelf. After many years of quietly recording on European labels, Hill re-emerged with Dusk (2000, Palmetto) gaining accolades for his arrangements. Blue Note soon came out with the previously unreleased Passing Ships, which in its intricate arrangements for a six piece band was the perfect bookend opposite Dusk. This box answers the question of what else by Hill is in Blue Note's basement. It leads off with a 1970 sextet session featuring Charles Tolliver in brilliant form and closes with a 1967 sextet with Sam Rivers in chronic breakdown. In between are a basic trio session from 1967 and an intriguing strings session from 1969. B+

Jackie McLean: The Best of Jackie McLean (1956-57 [2004], Prestige). McLean appeared in Ken Burns' Jazz documentary, but only to talk about Charlie Parker, and most of the stories made McLean out to be nothing more than Parker's go-fer. McLean was very young when he was chasing Bird, but he was hardly an imitator. He was slower and bluesier than Parker from the start, as shown by this useful sampler of a half-dozen Prestige quickies, with a tone uniquely his own. Nothing here qualifies as important, at least not compared to his later work on Blue Note, where he quickly emerged was faster and even riskier than Ornette Coleman -- so much so that when the two of them did an album together Ornette retreated to trumpet. But Burns isn't the only one who sells McLean short. Downbeat keeps a Hall of Fame which has not only bypassed him thus far -- McLean's name isn't even on the ballot. Which makes him something like the most underrated jazz musician of all time. A-

Glenn Miller: The Essential Glenn Miller (1939-44 [2005], Bluebird/Legacy, 2CD). I had one of those moments when you realize you're getting old back in the late '80s swing band craze when I ran into two teenagers gushing about Glenn Miller, their latest discovery. Miller had died before I was born, but not so far back that his immediate influence had waned much. The pre-rock pop of the '50s could trace roots back as far as vaudeville, but Miller was the point where big bands tipped from jazz to pop. In the '50s big bands had been reduced to little more than backdrops for crooners, and much the same could be said about Miller, except that the name you know wasn't Ray Eberle or Tex Beneke -- it was Miller, the trombonist-leader. Miller's jazz standing is almost nil: his band could play hot and swing hard, but nobody soloed, with most songs set pieces for pop singers. Well-crafted pop, of course, and the harmonic sophistication of "Moonlight Serenade" is wondrous, but I can't help but wonder what Miller's newfound teenybopper fans might make of Jimmie Lunceford or Chick Webb. B+

Art Pepper: Mosaic Select (1956-57 [2005], Mosaic, 3CD). Pepper never got comfortable. He spent most of his adult life in jail, and each time he got out he kicked his music up another level. The bushel of records he cut in the last four years of his life, after a long stretch in Sing Sing, are among the most amazing in jazz history. But these sessions, cut for Aladdin following a year in the Fort Worth slammer for narcotics, and followed quickly by his more famous Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, were his first career peak. His previous recordings for Savoy revealed a sweet-toned Charlie Parker disciple, but here he recasts Parker in his own voice, much as he would later incorporate Coltrane. This box adds a couple of alternate takes to the three volumes that Blue Note previously released as The Complete Art Pepper Aladdin Recordings. The additions are minor, but the music is so vital it's unfathomable how it ever slipped out of print. A

Art Pepper: The Best of Art Pepper (1957-80 [2004], Contemporary). Too many riches to do justice to. Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (1956) was a slapdash studio date with the back end of the Miles Davis Quintet that turned to magic. Art Pepper + Eleven (1959) was Marty Paich's bible for west coast arrangers. Smack Up (1960) and Intensity (1960) were two quickies, the former sparring with Jack Sheldon, the latter just intense Pepper. Gettin' Together (1960) met up with another Miles Davis rhythm section. This sampler picks nine cuts from those five albums, making it a fair survey of Pepper's second period, but each of the albums stands perfectly straight on its own, and mixed together they get jumbled. But the last four cuts, from Pepper's final period (1975-82), barely scratch the surface, with two cuts from Winter Moon (1980) -- the most sublime sax plus strings ever recorded -- and none of his work with George Cables. Unbalanced and insufficient, but no complaints about any of the music. A-

Horace Silver: The Very Best (1954-66 [2005], Blue Note). The opening bars to "Song for My Father" will be familiar to any Steely Dan fan: it's where "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" came from. That's just one of eight pieces of pop, not just jazz, genius collected here. Silver called one of his later albums The Hard Bop Grand-Pop, but even that claim short-changes him. He was the first leader of the Jazz Messengers, and while drummer Art Blakey kept the name, Silver's quintets over the next dozen years kept a tighter, more distinctive sound than Blakey's bands ever had -- even though the trumpets and tenor saxes changed at least as frequently. The secret was that Silver wrote while Blakey depended on his band for compositions. Also that Silver had an amazing knack for pulling blues and gospel hooks out of thin air. Bebop freed the musician to ply his tricks outside of the musical matrix; hard boppers like Silver brought the tricks back down to earth, to serve the music. A+

Dinah Washington: The Complete Roulette Dinah Washington Sessions (1962-63 [2004], Mosaic, 5CD). Ruth Lee Jones got her start with Lionel Hampton's early '40s big band, recorded extensively for Mercury, moved on to Roulette in 1962, and died from an accidental pill overdose in 1963, not yet 40. She was a totally self-possessed singer. It's often said that she could sing any kind of music, and she did, but she made it all sound much the same -- a reflection of her own magnificence. She worked hard for eighteen months at Roulette, singing pop songs and delving back into her blues songbook -- always backed with big bands, more often than not with strings, toiling skillfully but anonymously. Only once in these five-plus hours was I moved to look up a guitar (Billy Butler) and saxophone (Illinois Jacquet), but there was never any doubt about the voice or the singer. The completism is remarkably consistent, but it's also the dead end of big band singers. One can only wonder what she might have done had she lived into the era of black power and feminism. B+

Briefly Noted

  • Louis Armstrong: Jazz Moods: Hot (1926-29 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): fourteen run-of-the-mill picks from the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, the mother lode of jazz; if you're at all serious go straight to the 4-CD complete set (also on Legacy or, cheaper, on JSP) rather than settle for this teaser. A
  • Chet Baker: The Very Best (1954-56 [2005], Pacific Jazz): Baker never really changed but he got old surprisingly fast -- his pretty face turned craggy, the freshness and naivete of his first music taking on an air of nostalgia if never self-parody; of all the slices of his discography, this is where it starts, at least without dragging Gerry Mulligan in; the six vocals cover his range, and a couple are classic; the instrumentals are smogless. A-
  • Chet Baker: The Best of Chet Baker (1952-59 [2004], Riverside): aside from two early cuts led by Gerry Mulligan, this sticks to Baker's 1958-59 tenure with Riverside even though Fantasy had other options; the three vocal cuts are deeper and smoother than his earlier work on Pacific Jazz; the trumpet is slower and sometimes more poignant, showing that to the extent he evolved at all, which wasn't much, he got old young. B+
  • Chet Baker: Jazz Moods: Cool (1974-75 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): Sony owns a tiny sliver of Baker couresy of Creed Taylor International, which means Don Sebesky orchestration, and even there they had to slip in a 19:14 cut from Jim Hall and two live cuts with Gerry Mulligan to fill this out; it's surprisingly lovely, with Baker's trumpet filling in rather than standing out, and two of his usual puny vocals. B+
  • Bix Beiderbecke: Young Man With a Golden Horn (1924-30 [2003], Jazz Legends): white, played cornet, dead at 28, such a storybook legend he's come to overshadow his bandleaders Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman and his underrated sidekick, C-melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer; he may be a bit overrated, but that's partly because his unique sound had to contend with less supple bands and singers (not to complain about Bing Crosby); compares to Louis Armstrong like Clifford Brown compares to Dizzy Gillespie. A-
  • Tony Bennett: Jazz Moods: Cool (1957-67 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): not my idea of a cool singer, but after Chet Baker who is? here they go for swing tunes with a little snap to them, like "I Get a Kick Out of You" or "That Old Black Magic" -- the latter with Dave Brubeck, more upbeat than Bennett's work with Bill Evans -- giving the impression that he could've been a pretty decent jazz singer. B+
  • King Cole Trio: Hit That Jive (1936-46 [2004], Jazz Legends): obvious choices, but then Cole's light jive trios recorded so many indelible hits that compilers find it easy to choose but hard to distinguish themselves, even though there are hundreds of fine songs to choose from; "I'm an Errand Boy for Rhythm" is one unobvious cut that lets them jam. A-
  • John Coltrane: The Best of John Coltrane (1956-58 [2004], Prestige): a late bloomer, Coltrane was fast but indistinct during his yeoman years at Prestige, where his collected works fill sixteen discs of a big box few take seriously; boiled way down to a single disc this is warm and flavorful but hardly suggestive of the giant steps only a year away. B+
  • John Coltrane: More Coltrane for Lovers (1959-65 [2005], Verve): two albums provide six of ten cuts, Ballads and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, as they have for every "gentle side" Coltrane compilation ever issued, but they are anomalies, sidesteps from an urgent and troubled path; Hartman was a soft, almost affectless crooner who left little room for Coltrane's Quartet, but Ballads holds up nicely if you want to hear Coltrane at his most civil; the rest of the padding only makes sense where it came from. B
  • Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis: The Best of Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis (1958-62 [2004], Prestige): Davis worked big bands from Cootie Williams to Count Basie to Oliver Nelson, but mostly raised hell in small organ groups, with Shirley Scott present on eight of twelve cuts here, and Don Patterson on two more; what's missing are his multi-sax jams like The Tenor Scene with Johnny Griffin and Very Saxy with Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb, and Coleman Hawkins. A-
  • Miles Davis: The Very Best: The Early Years (1949-58 [2005], Blue Note): spoiled rich kid moves to New York to hang with Charlie Parker and shoot skag; catches break fronting for Gil Evans, getting credit for inventing cool jazz. Fronts band for Art Blakey and Horace Silver, getting credit for inventing hard bop; his early years were 70% dumb luck, and he never stopped getting credit for other folks' genius, but his own genius was never to be far from the spotlight, and never to be so undeserving of his fame that he could easily be dismissed; ends with a great Davis song issued under Cannonball Adderley's name. B+
  • Miles Davis: 'Round About Midnight (Legacy Edition) (1955-56 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): his first album for Columbia played off his reputation as the coolest cat in bebop, a mid-tempo showcase for what was soon recognized as one of the all-time great quintets, and it's still a marvel; the extra disc is a short live set for Gene Norman plus a Newport take of the title cut with an all-star pickup band -- inessential, but amusing when Norman introduces the saxophonist as Johnny Coltrane. B+
  • Miles Davis: The Best of Seven Steps: The Complete Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964 ([2005], Columbia/Legacy): the inevitable sampler for the 7-CD box set, now (less a few alternate takes) also available separately; this was a period of transition when Miles returned to the road from a hiatus and assembled his famous late '60s quintet -- Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, all stars not least due to their association with Miles and each other; the box is a detail study, much of its interest historical, although the music holds up fine, and there's nothing wrong with the sampler except, perhaps, that it blurs the transitions. A-
  • Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven (1963 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): a restart after a dead spot in Miles' career, with George Coleman, Victor Feldman and Ron Carter -- the latter the first step toward the second great quintet; tentative is the word, with tinny ballads and undeveloped songs. B
  • Miles Davis: Miles Davis in Europe (1963 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): Herbie Hancock and 17-year-old Tony Williams add two more pieces and get to show their wares, with the whole band cohering on older pieces like "Milestones"; a good show, done fast and loose, not fancy. B+
  • Miles Davis: "Four" and More (1964 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): six months later, half of a New York Philharmonic concert that also yielded My Funny Valentine; a much tighter group, state of the art hard bop, and a fine showcase for George Coleman. A-
  • Miles Davis: Miles in Tokyo (1964 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): George Coleman gave way to Wayne Shorter, but for this one trip Sam Rivers took over the tenor sax slot, giving Davis an experience with a much freer player, an intriguing path not taken; Rivers is on his best behavior, coming up with an attractive performance. A-
  • Miles Davis: Miles in Berlin (1964 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): the arrival of Wayne Shorter marked the emergence of Miles' second great quintet, which went on to produce major albums for the rest of the decade; the band meshes elegantly on the usual songbook here, the chemistry of the rhythm section fully formed, with Miles in particularly fine form. A-
  • The Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Jazz Moods: Hot (1987-92 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): credits would help here, especially as they like to sneak guests in the back door; Kirk Joseph's sousaphone is their link to old New Orleans, but they try hard to be progressive, including "Moose the Mooche" (Charlie Parker) and "Eyomzi" (Johnny Dyani) in their repertoire, with a result that's neither here nor there. B
  • Eric Dolphy: The Best of Eric Dolphy (1960-61 [2004], Prestige): started late, died young, giving him a carrer span of five years; played bass clarinet or flute as often as alto sax; most famous as a sideman for Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, with few albums under his own name (especially if you weed out the concerts uncovered after his death), but universally recognized as a major figure; this early selection leans to his bop roots, with half the cuts featuring ill-fated trumpeter Booker Little. A-
  • Tommy Dorsey: The Early Jazz Sides (1932-37 [2004], Jazz Legends): the trombonist was a popular bandleader of the era, best known today for his 1940-42 association with Frank Sinatra; his early big band and the slightly smaller Clambake Seven played urbane, upbeat swing, with Bud Freeman's tenor sax a delight and Edythe Wright's occasional vocals an amusing diversion. B+
  • Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: For Lovers (1956-57 [2005], Verve): three albums -- two utterly charming classics and a less compelling Porgy and Bess -- have generated scads of compilations, but the slice-and-dice options are finite, and concentrating the slow ones is the lamest configuration yet; of course, even this keeps a few of those utterly charming classics. B
  • Aretha Franklin: Jazz Moods: 'Round Midnight (1961-69 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): the low repute of her Columbia recordings has nothing to do with her voice, as awesome and soulful as it was when she moved to Atlantic and became a star; the problem is everything else -- the songs, the arrangements, the strings. B
  • Dizzy Gillespie: Career (1937-92 [2005], Shout! Factory): it's harder to stuff Gillespie into a 2-CD box than Baker, not just because there's more undeniable Gillespie: the intense joy and pure excitement of the music defies containment; they missed an opportunity to spin separate small group and big band discs, but the flow isn't hampered much, and the big band tracks convincingly expand on the ideas while driving home their magnatude; my only complaint is how much they missed. A
  • Dexter Gordon: Jazz Moods: 'Round Midnight (1976-85 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): a little too rough for ballads, although he connects mightily with "'Round Midnight"; pretty uneven for a comp, mixing barebones quartets with big band atmospherics and a singer on one cut. B-
  • Lionel Hampton: Founder of the Jazz Vibes (1930-44 [2003], Jazz Legends): not just the first major vibes player, Hampton was a networker who parlayed connections to Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman into a legendary series of late-'30s all-star sessions -- how does a one-song lineup with Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Ben Webster, and Charlie Christian grab you? -- and in the '40s led his own r&b-flavored juggernaut, represented here by both the Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb versions of "Flying Home"; this touches on all the bases, but leaves out some obvious ones. A-
  • Coleman Hawkins: The Best of Coleman Hawkins (1958-62 [2004], Prestige): an inconsistent series of albums, poorly organized and indifferently recorded, but especially on ballads Hawkins breaks through with his usual brilliance; the best-of samples but scarcely improves on the best of the albums, which I make to be Soul, At Ease, and The Hawk Relaxes. A-
  • Shelly Manne: The Best of Shelly Manne (1953-61 [2004], Contemporary): one of the few drummers to make the transitions from big band swing to bebop to Ornette without the slightest hitch, Manne's drumwork was inconspicuous but his ability to drive a band, keeping them light and fleet but together, was uncanny; with the leader in the background this sampler seems more arbitrary than most, starting points on paths worth pursuing separately, but together a quick glimpse of the diversity of the music Manne was most identified with -- west coast cool. A-
  • Glenn Miller: Jazz Moods: Hot (1939-42 [2005], Bluebird/Legacy): hot and heavy, like a train barrelling around the bend, going where you expect because it wouldn't dare jump free of its rails; seven of fourteen tracks are dupes from Essential, but the mix is less vocal, more brass. B+
  • Thelonious Monk: The Very Best (1947-52 [2005], Blue Note): it doesn't surprise me that the most consistent of the samplers of Monk's early works features Art Blakey and/or Milt Jackson on 12 of 13 tracks -- Monk's always been a genius, but it took the world a while to get the hang of him, and Blakey and Jackson were the first to figure out where he was going, and help him get there. A
  • Thelonious Monk: The Best of Thelonious Monk (1955-60 [2004], Riverside): Monk's second stage expanded to include horns -- he famously chided Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane for their failures to follow his notoriously difficult music; the box fills twelve discs, so omissions are easy to pick on -- this completely misses my two favorite albums from the period -- but otherwise it's redoubtable, as it should be; like many samplers of major oeuvres, its utility depends on your budget. A-
  • Lee Morgan: The Very Best (1957-65 [2005], Blue Note): one could quarrel, but I wouldn't leave out his star turn in Bennie Golson's "I Remember Clifford" even though he was born to burn, not just smolder; two classic hard bop anthems, no real blowouts, nothing from Search for the New Land either. A-
  • Art Pepper: The Art of Pepper: The Complete Omega Sessions Master Takes (1957 [2005], Fresh Sound): same as disc three on Mosaic Select, except omits three alternate takes but finds two cuts that Mosaic and Blue Note missed: "Blues Rock" and "Rock Blues," fair titles with Carl Perkins (the jazz pianist, not the rockabilly great) in full-tilt boogie mode; booklet and artwork are superior, music is magnificent. A
  • Esther Phillips: Jazz Moods: Hot (1972-75 [2005], Epic/Legacy): well into a career that started as teenage Little Esther, this sticks to three out of nine albums she cut on Kudu, probably because those were the ones Creed Taylor powered with his facsimile of a jazz orchestra; an exceptionally strong singer with occasionally strong material. B+
  • Bud Powell: The Very Best (1949-58 [2005], Blue Note): three or four cuts each from the three most amazing volumes of The Amazing Bud Powell -- classic bop singles from 1949-53 and a 1958 session that proves that even if he had lost it by then he could still find it on occasion; only the first two cuts have horns: Fats Navarro and a teenaged saxophone colossus named Sonny Rollins. A
  • Lou Rawls: The Very Best (1966-92 [2005], Blue Note): a mild-mannered soul singer, whose 21 Capitol albums from the his '60s prime yield two cuts, the rest coming from three 1989-92 Blue Notes, the last steady work of his career; sidemen include jazz notables, but only Steve Khan and Hank Crawford sent me to the credits; Rawls can impress as a singer, but the best songs remind me that someone else has done them better. B-
  • Sonny Rollins: The Best of Sonny Rollins (1951-56 [2004], Prestige): a sequence of records that culminates in the aptly named Saxophone Colossus and his signature calypso "St. Thomas," this is young Rollins full of fire but adaptable and still willing to please others; still, an odd and somewhat unsatisfying selection, with early MJQ and an Earl Coleman vocal that gives Rollins little to do but schmooze, but nothing from Plays for Bird; Prestige's 7-CD box is a reasonable alternative, not an extravagance. A-
  • Sonny Rollins: The Very Best (1956-57 [2005], Blue Note): two sessions with Rollins struggling to overcome a second horn, one with just piano interfering, and one cut from his legendary trio performance at the Village Vanguard; a thin slice still early in his career. B+
  • Artie Shaw: His First Three Bands (1936-40 [2003], Jazz Legends): his career, both as clarinetist and bandleader, follows Benny Goodman's model, but more wreckless, because he was both more cerebral and more passionate; he never built up the talent reservoir that Goodman enjoyed, possibly because the the speed with which he assembled and discarded his bands -- three in these five years, with more to come, until in a snit he hung up his clarinet, never to play again for the last fifty years of a remarkable life; closes with all 9:40 of the pretentiously named but otherwise wonderful "Concerto for Clarinet." A-
  • Artie Shaw: Jazz Moods: Hot (1938-45 [2005], Bluebird/Legacy): in accordance with the "hot" theme, these tracks were picked more for their shiny, pounding brass than for the leader's plucky clarinet, but Shaw's bands could play in Woody Herman's league as well as in Benny Goodman's; the overlap from the earlier comp is the inevitable "Begin the Beguine." B+
  • Artie Shaw: The Essential Artie Shaw (1936-53 [2005], Bluebird/Legacy, 2CD): two pre-1938 and three post-1941 offer just a taste of where he came from and where he went, but the concentration on his 1938-41 Bluebirds isn't just the usual corporate chauvinism -- it's where the focus should be; whereas his early bands weren't much different than others, his use of strings in the 1940 band that released "Frenesi" and "Temptation" was unprecedented and unmatched. A-
  • George Shearing: The Very Best (1955-69 [2005], Capitol Jazz): the blind British pianist worked most often with a quintet, adding vibes and guitar to the usual trio, sophisticated wrinkles which if anything leavened the loaf, as did his fondness for latin rhythms; cuts with extra strings or big band add a sour note but not much gravity; even his famous bop anthem, "Lullaby of Birdland," was meant to put you to sleep. B
  • Jimmy Smith: The Very Best (1956-86 [2005], Blue Note): two trio pieces with guitar show how the organ master could pump up the excitement; five with a saxophone show how he could duck and weave with another lead instrument; the latter three with Stanley Turrentine are more subtle than you'd expect from Mr. T, and more soulful than you'd expect from a guy whose first name was Incredible. A-
  • Bobby Timmons: The Best of Bobby Timmons (1960-64 [2004], Riverside): a hard bop pianist much in demand in the late '50s/early '60s, not least because he wrote songs like "Moanin'" (when he played for Art Blakey) and "Dat Dere" (which Oscar Brown Jr. added a lyric to); this picks from his seven Riverside albums, mostly trios -- just two cuts with a horn, Blue Mitchell, and two solo cuts. B+
  • Stanley Turrentine: Jazz Moods: Cool (1971-75 [2005], Epic/Legacy): he's the poor man's Ben Webster -- less vibrato, but a whole lot of soul; Creed Taylor's fancy backgrounds are an unnecessary complication for someone who did his best work in front of little more than wife Shirley Scott's organ, but he rarely fails to soar away. B+
  • Fats Waller: A Handful of Keys (1922-35 [2003], Jazz Legends): his fleet fingerwork is much admired by formalists who never warmed to the humor of his songs or his sly, jiveass way of singing and wisecracking on the fly; fans of the latter find the pianistics to be a diversion; the compilers here try nobly to cover all the bases, including some of his early organ jams, inevitably disappointing both camps, especially since his prime songwriting years came after the cutoff; the obvious thing would be for Sony/BMG/Legacy, which now owns the catalog, to do a 2-CD Essential with one disc of each; me, I'm ticked off that Bluebird deleted their complete series before I picked it all up. B+



In an infinite universe, all the music you'll ever need already exists somewhere. We find more each month, but this month is all jazz comps: Chet Baker, Cab Calloway, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Andrew Hill, Jackie McLean, Glenn Miller, Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins, Artie Shaw, Horace Silver, Dinah Washington, many more (56 records).

Copyright 2005 Tom Hull.