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RCA Takes a Look Back

**** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "RCA Victor 80th Anniversary," RCA Victor

January 04, 1998|Don Heckman and Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

RCA Victor was the first jazz record label. And the company's 1917 recording of the "Livery Stable Blues" by the Original Dixieland Jass Band is generally considered to be the first jazz recording.

Although there have been both fertile and dry periods in the 80 years since, RCA has continued to have a significant presence in the jazz world. The eight CDs--one for each decade--in this impressive collection offer an extraordinary overview of jazz history, with at least one performance from virtually every significant artist in the music's lexicon.

Several interesting aspects emerge over the course of the albums. The first is that RCA, despite its pioneering recording by the Original Dixieland Jass Band (which sold over a million copies), failed to immediately follow up its opening gambit. Apparently intimidated by a conservative campaign against jazz--which then was viewed by many clerics and politicians as an immoral music--the company backed off for several years, devoting its catalog to sweet-sounding dance bands until the mid-'20s, when it began to record artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Moten and Fletcher Henderson. And, at that point, even the more conservative groups such as Paul Whiteman and Jean Goldkette featured such jazz supplements as the soaring cornet work of Bix Beiderbecke.

Technical elements had their impact as well. The Original Dixieland Jass Band recording was made acoustically--that is, with the musicians playing, awkwardly, into a large, megaphone-like recording horn. By the mid-'20s, electrical recording with microphones became common, expanding the sound spectrum and allowing drummers, for example, to use their full kits. The resulting enhancement in sound is obvious in Vol. 1 in the audio quality differences between the 1917 Original Dixieland Jass Band recording and the Morton and Beiderbecke tracks of the mid-'20s.

The arrival of long-playing recordings in 1947 introduced another engineering change that would dramatically affect the music, with 25 minutes of recording time available on a side--instead of the three to four minutes of 78 rpm discs, which had been the standard for the previous three decades. As a result, Vol. 3, which covers the 1940-49 period, offers 25 selections, while Vol. 4 (1950-59) has only 13 tracks (including a 14-minute rendering of "Moanin' " by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers).

The impact of rock shows up in Vol. 6 (1970-79) and Vol. 7 (1980-89), when RCA's jazz program largely lost its focus. There are isolated moments of interest in the '70s from the Toshiko Akiyo-hi-Lew Tabackin Big Band, Gil Evans, Nina Simone and Carmen McRae. But it was not until the mid-'80s and '90s, with the arrival of such young lions as Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts and Steve Coleman, that the company got back on track.

There's no arguing with the quality of the first five volumes, however. The highlights are jazz at its finest: Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Henderson, Morton and Beiderbecke in Vol. 1; Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Coleman Hawkins in Vol. 2; Sidney Bechet, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Art Tatum, Count Basie and Erroll Garner in Vol. 3; Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims in Vol. 4; and Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Terry Gibbs, Jackie McLean and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in Vol. 5.

And, in between the classic tracks, there are fascinating small gems: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Ellington trumpeter Bubber Miley recording as a backup band for Hoagy Carmichael; Gillespie, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro as the trumpet section for the 1949 Metronome All-Stars recording; the opportunity to hear Armstrong, Hampton and Hawkins over several decades; a young Bill Evans playing an astonishing, career-establishing solo on George Russell's 1956 "Concerto for Billy the Kid."

Are there other tracks that should have been included? Probably. But that's an inside-baseball argument in the face of what has been included in this stunning compilation--a constantly captivating, mini-history of jazz in one, eight-CD package.

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