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Various Artists: The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions (2004)

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Various Artists: The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

This handsomely packaged five-CD box combines all of the Norman Granz Jam Session LPs in one place for the first time. The sound is improved from earlier packagings through 24-bit digital transfers, and a big booklet penned by Bob Porter explains the music in a workmanlike manner. How you assess the value of the box has everything to do with what you think about Norman Granz—but I can't imagine any jazz fan not finding a lot to enjoy here.

The Jam Session music here conjurs up the Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings as a basis of comparison, particularly since the Proper label has just issued a cheap version of the JATP recordings as a box that costs a sixth of the pricey Verve box of the series. Both the Jam Session and the live Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings use essentially the same roster of stars (Oscar Peterson, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Flip Phillips, et al). Both are blowing sessions based upon blues and standards. Both Granz projects reflect the producer's penchant for hysterical drama—though the studio-based jam sessions keep the hysterically repeating high notes under better wraps.

The evidence here is that Granz conceived as jazz as a sophisticated form of vaudevillian showmanship. The constant cutting contests among soloists that Granz favored reflected a desire perhaps to make jazz concerts a bit of carnival. In my younger days I thought Granz hopelessly vulgar for turning jazz events into a three-ring circus. Now, in my greying years, I actually think he promoted a lovely degree of humor and sentimental bonding among ace players missing in today's scene.

I don't hear the musical heart of this box in the noisy competitive joustlings among hornmen. The real deal is the ballad melodies in which each star does a brief cameo, a well crafted solo for a few minutes, before passing the torch to a brother in the wings. Highlights include Ben Webster's silky "Someone to Watch Over Me," Eldridge's subdued "She's Funny That Way," and Benny Carter's "I Hadn't Anyone Until You." The only soloist who sounds strangely disinterested and uninspired throughout both ballads and up-tempo jams is Johnny Hodges. Charlie Parker is erratic, but his justly famous and baroquely convoluted solo on "Funky Blues" is stunning.

This is extroverted jazz. Even the most tender ballad solos are unshy assertions of wanting to strut and grab an audience by the heartstrings. Granz wanted that from his musicians. No deep spiritual musings, no inner psychological reveries, just swinging playing. The selections led by Count's Basie piano and organ exemplify the Granz sensibility. There is something simply good-natured and pleasing about such swing with bop trimmings. A lovely set to serve as a primer for the best of jazz in the '50s.

Track Listing: Jam Blues,Ballad Medleys, What Is This Thing Called Love?, Funky Blues, Jamming for Clef, Rose Room, Stompin' at the Savoy Parts I and II, Blue Lou, Just You, Just Me, Jam Blues, Lullaby in Rhythm

Personnel: Roy Eldridge, Charlie Parker, Harry "Sweets" edison, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Shavers, Bill Harris, Buddy DeFranco, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Willie Smith, Stan Getz, Wardell Gray, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, Ben Webster, Lionel Hampton, Herb Ellis, Freddie Green, Coiunt Basie, Oscar Peterson, Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, et al

Record Label: Verve Music Group

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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