March 29, 2011

When you cover over a century of music, even one genre, even six CDs doesn’t seem like it would be enough. However, it stands as a fine way to preserve a smorgasbord of styles and sub-genres. By no means is six a magic number, but it’s more than plenty to test the waters.

As a counterpoint, I was at Half Price Books recently where I saw not one, but five different sets of one-hundred disc box sets on jazz covering all of the various styles that this anthology. Each of the sets I saw at Half Price Books ran an affordable $2 per disc, but to get the whole series of sets would cost you a cool grand. Unless you’re a super collector or haven’t been hit hard by the economic woes, that’s a tough check to write. So why not save yourself 90% of that cost and treat yourself to a wide-spanning collection that was selected by an extensive group of jazz aficionados?

From an education standpoint, the liner notes are just as important and just as impressive as the music it covers. Per the press release, notes have been written by no less than 35 experts on the subject and totals 200 pages. That’s an outright book by most standards. Meticulous and thoughtful in their layout, you get the important factual information including the personnel, recording date, first issue information, and even the matrix number, where available. For the extreme collector or discographer, that’s vital information. Beyond those historical notes, you get a photograph of each group/artist and nearly a page per track to learn its significance along with other nuggets like this one:

“By the time (Tatum) made this recording (of “Tiger Rag”) in 1940, he had not only refined his arrangement but also increased the tempo to an astonishing 176 half notes per minute.”

Astonishing is certainly the word. In a measurable world, that number hardly even computes if you’ve ever played piano. And if you haven’t, then just hearing it still makes you dizzy.

Big players such as Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and John Coltrane are plentiful on the set, but the panel also chose to include numerous lesser-known and sometimes rare performances of sought-after music. For example, Mary Lou Williams’ “Virgo,” part of a bigger suite, is featured in a New Year’s Eve performance from 1945 that expands upon the trio concept that was put to wax, and instead includes an expanded orchestra.

“Virgo” by Mary Lou Williams

Virgo – Mary Lou Williams (Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology Disc 2, Track 14) by Smithsonian Folkways

Women in jazz are most often remembered for their singing. Williams, however, is an oft-forgotten arranger and pianist. Fortunately, two works on the set are helmed by Williams.

In a further effort to promote the set, Folkways has even put together a short- and long-form “Name That Tune” quiz, which you can see on the pre-order site. In addition to giving you an idea what all the set encompasses, you can also test your mastery of jazz listening knowledge. Be warned, the full set quiz is an enormous challenge… you better know Dixieland to Afro-Cuban jazz to bop and more to have any passing success!

To preserve the legacy, this set is only being offered in a physical format (at least at the current time). Do yourself a favor if you want to expand your horizons or gift it to someone who would enjoy delving into one of America’s finest musical forms. Think of it as a time capsule of some of the best and most varied styles that have spun from jazz’s web.

Words by Eric Luecking


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