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Holiday Gift Guide 2008

By Published: December 6, 2008
Various Artists
Jazz Icons Series 3

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

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


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.

Considering the wealth of material included in this sizable boxed set, this should be an essential gift idea for the jazz fan on your Christmas list, an economically-priced import that lists for under $100.

Anthony Braxton
Complete Arista Recordings

This box documents the most quixotic signing by a major label in the rock era. From 1974-80 Anthony Braxton, a multi-reed playing musical omnivore, was signed and given incredible artistic license by Arista. Braxton made nine albums during that time, including double and triple LPs. This eight-disc box is the material's first complete digital issue.

Creative Orchestra Music 1976 is the one LP that was a complete success, critically if not quite commercially, winning the Downbeat Critics Poll for Record of the Year. Comprising most of Disc Five here, it holds up remarkably well as complex yet visceral, multiphonic big band jazz. And though half of this box can't be considered jazz at all—notably an almost two-hour piece "For Four Orchestras" and the 50-minute "Opus 95 for Two Pianos"—the quartet recordings are some of the finest post-bop jazz to come out of that decade. The studio sides feature Braxton with Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), Dave Holland (bass) and Jerome Cooper or Barry Altschul (drums). Trombonist George Lewis replaces Wheeler in a live Berlin concert recording, a highlight of this box. In its own quirky fashion, the quartet could generate incredible swing momentum, even with the oom-pah of "Opus 6C". And Braxton's creativity, virtuosity and command of everything from sopranino sax to contrabass clarinet (used occasionally for comic effect) alone makes him a major jazz figure. As do the surprisingly listenable solo alto sax sessions. The big band and quartet sides, if nothing else, should be made available in single CDs so more jazz fans can hear how good they are.

The Thing
Now and Forever
Smalltown Superjazz

In eight years, The Thing—saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love—have become Europe's most dynamic improvising ensemble. The group has released nine albums including collaborations with Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark and most of their output has come through the efforts of the Smalltown Superjazz (STSJ) label. Two of the three albums that preceded that affiliation have now been reissued as part of STSJ's first foray into the Boxed Set. Now and Forever brings together the trio's first two albums for Crazy Wisdom—2000's The Thing and 2001's She Knows...—along with an unearthed 2005 recording and a DVD documenting a 2005 Norwegian festival set.

The Thing extrude a remarkable level of vehemence and did so from the very beginning, as demonstrated on their debut, a tribute to Don Cherry that gave rise to their moniker, and their second disc, done with McPhee, which established the model of drawing music from a wide array of sources like PJ Harvey and Frank Lowe. The 30+ minute DVD is part of a concert with one of four tracks featuring guest guitarist Thurston Moore. The Thing are one of the more visually appealing groups out there, whether it be their matching Ruby's BBQ t-shirts or onstage histrionics, so the the visual record is a valuable one.

It was far too early to have The Thing's early work out of print so Now and Forever allows the full arc of the group's development to continue to be appreciated. An accompanying booklet, light on text but heavy on visceral photographs, including a reproduction of a Ruby's BBQ menu, is a congenial addition.

Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Gary Giddins, Nadine de Koenigswarter
Three Wishes:An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats
Abrams Image

For the jazz junkie who thought they had everything but still needed more here's a suggestion for a great, affordable holiday gift. With more than 300 pages of photos and text Three Wishes by the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter is the perfect coffee table addition. Shaped like a cinder block, nearly as heavy yet easy to manage, this book contains the Baroness' polaroids of all the musicians she knew in clubs or when they came calling at her "cat house" in Jersey as it was known: she kept more than 100, cats that is, and jazz cats as well.

Where else can the jazz voyeur/voyager see Monk bare-chested on the telephone or in a fur coat, Miles in a chair with his crotch up in the air, greats like Sonny Clark, Horace Silver, Newk, the list goes on and on. Also many lesser-known folks, some forgotten and plenty of surprises.

It also contains answers to a simple question she asked all of her visitors—"If you had three wishes what would they be?" The answers ranged from Miles simply saying "To be white" to Trane wishing for "immunity from sickness and three times the sexual power I have now." Most answers were for health, wealth and the hopes that on an individual and historic level the music they produced would one day be recognized. Sadly many in the book never lived to see that day. All, whether funny, warm or heartbreaking, came from the guts of these folks and help provide hints into the difficult lives they led.

Maybe too heavy as a stocking stuffer and more pricey than Chanukah gelt but a real treasure that's worth its weight in moments.

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