Talk about choices. The eclectic array of reissue packages pouring out of the record companies provides something to put under the Christmas tree for even the jazz fan who has everything.
Many of the reissues are meticulously done, with great care given to providing accurate recording data and to producing the best representation of the original sound. Others seem focused only upon cashing in on the easy availability of material that is no longer controlled by copyright by releasing collections that are deficient both in historical information and audio reproduction.
The message is obvious: Buyer beware. Take a close look at the album notes for any prospective reissue purchase. Less information generally--although not always--means less quality.
A selection of some fairly recent boxed jazz sets reveals that careful, knowledgeable compilations can result in valuable and enjoyable additions to anyone's library. The items listed below will make desirable entries on a Christmas jazz list.
**** DUKE ELLINGTON, "The Original Decca Recordings, Early Ellington," GRP. This three-CD set covers Ellington's complete Brunswick and Vocalion recordings from 1926 to 1931. Numerous alternate takes are included, and there is one previously unreleased version of "Wall Street Wail." The key pieces, of course, are the original readings of "East St. Louis Toodle-o," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "The Mooche," "Mood Indigo" and "Creole Rhapsody"--invaluable items in the Ellington lexicon. What is most remarkable about the collection, however, is the broad picture it affords of a young, still-inexperienced Ellington just beginning to discover his immense talent as he responded to the unique attributes of his players and the special demands of his musical circumstances. The impact of Bubber Miley's trumpet and Joe Nanton's trombone on Ellington's musical thinking are clear from the beginning, as is the creativity Ellington applied to the atmospheric "jungle" sounds and dance accompaniments required by his ensemble's longtime gig as the Cotton Club house band.
**** LOUIS ARMSTRONG, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1923-1934," Columbia Legacy. Ah, yes. Here's the fountainhead, the music that revolutionized the jazz scene of the '20s and early '30s. Columbia's superb five-CD anthology includes Armstrong's work with King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson, as well as his classic solos on "West End Blues," "Weather Bird," "Potato Head Blues" and the inventive scat singing on "Heebie Jeebies" and "Hotter Than That." Listening to this amazing burst of originality is almost like hearing Armstrong lay out the essential elements of jazz--rhythmic swing, harmonic improvisation, blues-tinged melodies and an irrepressibly joyous pursuit of imaginative creativity. The collection also chronicles Armstrong's refusal to be pigeonholed into a single category. Leading small groups, big bands, playing for blues singers such as Bessie Smith, playing trumpet, singing, introducing pop songs to the tradition-bound jazz repertory, Armstrong was the first true "crossover" performer. (No better proof exists than the rarely heard 1930 track, "Blue Yodel No. 9," in which Armstrong accompanies country music singer Jimmie Rodgers.)
*** 1/2 FRANK SINATRA, "The Song Is You," RCA. Sinatra may not exactly deserve the mantle of jazz singer, but there is no doubt that his phrasing, from the very beginning, owed far more to Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday than to Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. This comprehensive anthology of Sinatra's recordings with the Tommy Dorsey band documents the gradual emergence of his ability, even in the dreamiest ballad, to find the natural rhythmic flow of a song. All the Sinatra/Dorsey hits are here--"I'll Never Smile Again," "There Are Such Things," "I'll Be Seeing You," etc.--as well as a number of alternate takes and the first four tunes recorded by Sinatra (with Axel Stordahl) after he left Dorsey. It's all marvelous stuff, but it will take a real Sinatra fanatic to appreciate the final CD, which showcases excerpts from a 1940 radio show featuring songs submitted by Dorsey fans.