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JAZZ | Spotlight

A Trio of Trumpeters in Firm Control

August 20, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is the Times' jazz writer

There's an opening segment in Ken Burns' "Jazz," the epic, 19-hour documentary scheduled to air in January, in which Wynton Marsalis speaks of his great admiration for Louis Armstrong. And the symbolism of the moment is clear--a historical jazz arc that reaches from the seminal trumpet playing of Armstrong to the contemporary work of Marsalis.

Many will be bothered, of course, by any such implication of creative parity between the two, and Marsalis undoubtedly would be the first to insist upon Armstrong's superiority. But there is no denying the fact that--for reasons that extend beyond his purely musical skills--Marsalis is, as Armstrong was in the 1920s and '30s, a dominating presence in the jazz world of his era.

Another trumpeter who figures prominently in any reasonable overview of the jazz century is, of course, Miles Davis. And here too there is a Marsalis connection, in the sense that rumors of discontent between the two provided frequent grist for the rumor mill when Marsalis was very young and Davis was in his later years.

So it's interesting, in that context, to check out a few new releases that have arrived this month.

Louis Armstrong. "Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings" (****, Columbia Legacy). There's a serious temptation to add an extra star to our usual four-is-the-best rating for this incomparable collection. Armstrong's work in the period between 1925 and 1929 essentially amounted to the creation of jazz as an art in which soloists, rather than ensembles, became the focal point.

The four-CD set encompasses 89 sides made for Okeh (subsequently purchased by Columbia), mostly by the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, but also via what Columbia describes as "attendant material"--recordings with Butterbeans and Susie, Johnny Dodds, Lil Armstrong (Satchmo's wife at the time) and Earl Hines. Virtually everything present has been included in a variety of previous reissues. But this is the first time, according to Columbia, that the material has been combined in one package.

And what a collection it is. The initial recordings include such genre-defining pieces as "Heebie Jeebies" (featuring Armstrong's first scat vocal), the extraordinary "Cornet Chop Suey" and the debut of Kid Ory's "Muskrat Ramble." Disc 2 includes five original Hot Five outings ("Struttin' With Some Barbecue" among them) and a few tracks with guitarist Lonnie Johnson as a guest artist. Disc 3 introduces the Hot Seven recordings starting in May 1927 in a sequence that includes such classics as "Wild Man Blues" and "Potato Head Blues." And Disc 4 displays a six-man Hot Five, featuring Hines, in such magnificent efforts as "West End Blues," "Muggles" and "Weather Bird." In sum, it is a set of material that belongs in even the most minimal jazz collection and should easily rank in the top five of anyone's list of recordings to take to a desert island.

Armstrong is also present on two other new releases, each of which also merits a four-star rating: "Louis Armstrong: The Ultimate Collection" (Verve), a three-CD box spanning 1924-68, including recordings done for the Vocalion, Brunswick, Decca, Verve, Kapp and Paramount labels; and "Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Great Summit/Complete Sessions" (Blue Note), a two-CD box chronicling a 1961 studio meeting between the two legendary jazz icons, including outtakes and between-take conversations.

Miles Davis. "On the Corner," "Big Fun" and "Get Up With It" (****, Columbia Legacy). Davis' music from the early to mid-'70s--with its emphasis on electronics and rock rhythms--raises hackles for many fans who struggled to embrace his classic work from the '60s. But his history up to that point provided clear evidence that he would continue to explore new territory until the very end.

Like many jazz artists of the period, he was affected by the bursts of creativity taking place at the time in rock and rhythm & blues--in part by the unusual sound textures available via electronic instruments, in part by the energizing qualities of the funk grooves associated with groups such as Sly & the Family Stone.

Nearly 30 years later, "On the Corner," arguably one of Davis' most controversial albums, sounds considerably less revolutionary. But it also sounds--as does so much of Davis work, in so many different ways--like art that transcends its era. Yes, it clearly presaged much of the trance music, hip-hop and funk rhythms, fusion electronics and free improvising over repetitious vamps that have become commonplace today. More than that, "On the Corner"--along with "Big Fun" and "Get Up With It" (both originally released as double LPs, now issued as two-CD sets)--undoubtedly influenced many of the post-'70s musical developments that took place in both pop and jazz.

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