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Holiday Gift Guide 2008

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Various Artists
Jazz Icons Series 3
Naxos

With their first two batches, the Jazz Icons label set the standard for DVD issues of vintage jazz concerts. Back in the '50s and '60s, US television networks studiously avoided presenting any black art for fear of offending their Southern audiences. However when these artists toured Europe they were frequently fêted with their own television shows. Jazz Icons began scouring for the original tapes of these programs and has been restoring the audio and video quality. Additionally, they're handsomely packaged, containing 20-30 page booklets with informed essays and commentary about artists and the individual broadcasts.

Jazz Icon's third series contains a number of gems. They include Sonny Rollins (Live in '65 & '68), Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Live in '63 & '67), Cannonball Adderley (two 1963 programs), Bill Evans (five programs spanning 1964-1975) and Nina Simone (Live in '65 & '68). Additionally, if purchased as a boxed set, there is an otherwise unavailable bonus disc with two further Rollins broadcasts (Sweden/ Holland 1959), another Kirk concert from Belgium and a Swedish Nina Simone program.

There are plenty of highlights. Simone delivers incendiary readings of "Four Women" and "Ballad Of Hollis Brown" from a 1965 Dutch show. (You wouldn't have seen those on US TV.) The Rollins 1968 Danish broadcast is particularly valuable since this was a period (1967-72) when Rollins wasn't recording and he delivers a particularly stellar "On Green Dolphin Street" with lengthy unaccompanied interludes. The full 71-minute show from 1963 by the Cannonball Adderley Sextet has never been shown since its initial broadcast and had to be compiled from several sources. Any jazz fan that receives this as a present may start believing in Santa Claus.

Blue Notes
The Ogun Collection
Ogun

Though located in England, the veteran Ogun label has long been homebase for the musical and cultural synthesis created when Europeans and South Africans join forces. With this release, it has put back into circulation some of its finest offerings, no mean feat with a fantastic roster and a catalogue full of stellar projects. This collection brings the Blue Notes recordings for Ogun back into print, most of which were never previously available on CD.

We are given a live date from 1964, just before the original Blue Notes left South Africa and the music brims with the post-Ornette dissonances and overall discovery of those formative years. The sound is surprisingly good and the audience is enthusiastic. Another concert set, this time from 1977, often heads full tilt into free jazz territory, the music nevertheless rife with modality and polyrhythm that belies the groups intervening experiences with the trans-continental collective Brotherhood of Breath. The other two releases are tributes, a 1975 date in memory of the group's recently deceased trumpeter Mongezi Feza and a 1986 homage to bassist Johnny Dyani.

Of these, For Mongezi hits hardest; heart-breaking vocalizations drive grief and celebration home with devastating power throughout these two discs, Dudu Pukwana's rasping alto cries almost unbearable in their raw beauty against the rhythmically-driven polyphony.

This is an absolutely essential tribute to this criminally underappreciated quintet, quartet and trio, depending on which era is represented. It tells the story of an evolving sound, one that should please lovers of traditional and adventurous improvised music.

Art Tatum
Live Performances: 1934-1956

Storyville

Art Tatum was widely acknowledged by most critics during the height of his career as the top jazz pianist, yet he was recorded erratically. His virtuoso technique tended to overwhelm all but the very best instrumentalists, while the extended studio bans during the '40s also kept him from making commercial recordings. This 10-CD set collects broadcasts, transcriptions and private recordings from throughout his career.

The solo performances include show-stoppers like "Yesterdays," "Willow Weep For Me," "Taboo," "How High the Moon" and "Begin the Beguine" and home recordings on his own Steinway. His various trios include either Tiny Grimes or Everett Barksdale on guitar and Slam Stewart or Bill Pemberton on bass, though his meeting with the phenomenal guitarist Les Paul's trio creates greater fireworks.

A previously unissued private session with guitarist Tal Farlow (then at the beginning of his career) and two live tracks recorded in an after-hours club with bassist Chocolate Williams that couldn't fit on the Onyx LP God is in the House (which won a Grammy) make their first appearance. The audio varies in quality but the sound restoration is excellent.

The bonus DVD includes two selections from the otherwise forgettable film The Fabulous Dorseys and a superb video of Tatum's dazzling solo interpretation of "Yesterdays," played on a television broadcast of The Spike Jones Show.

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