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JAZZ | Spotlight

Building a Library From the Burns-Related Releases

November 05, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Ken Burns' mammoth, 19-hour-plus documentary "Jazz" won't show up on PBS until January, but the music that was gathered for the film--either for inclusion in the soundtrack or as reference material--arrives over the next two weeks in several packages, all of them extraordinary. It may be, in fact, that the greatest long-term benefit of "Jazz"--aside from its inherent value--is the subsequent availability of this remarkable collection of recordings.

The albums represent an unprecedented partnership between independent recording companies. In the past, large overview compilations have generally been limited to product either recorded or controlled by a single company. For this effort, however, the Verve Group and Columbia Legacy joined forces to produce a five-CD boxed set, a single "best of" CD, and 22 individual albums (11 from each company), each dedicated to a major jazz figure. In the process, other companies were persuaded to make material available from their catalogs. The result is a set of recordings that can serve either as the basic foundation for an extensive jazz collection or a mini-collection in themselves.

"The Best of Ken Burns Jazz" (****, Verve/Columbia Legacy). This collection of 20 tracks personally chosen by the filmmaker is intended to serve as a broad view of the music from the documentary. It actually does a bit more. The arc from the opening track, Louis Armstrong's "Stardust," to the closing piece, "Take the 'A' Train" by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, makes the film's orientation clear: that Armstrong is the most essential jazz artist, and that Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center jazz program represents the most legitimate contemporary extension of the music's historical essence.

There are those who will disagree, of course, but there's no denying the quality of what Burns has chosen, even though one may quibble about its inclusiveness, especially in the post-'60s period--which is barely addressed in the documentary. Among the many classic items are the Duke Ellington Orchestra playing "The Mooche" and "Cotton Tail," Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer with "Singin' the Blues," Benny Goodman's version of "King Porter Stomp," Count Basie's "Jumpin' at the Woodside," Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser," Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Miles Davis' "So What." Conservative choices? Yes. Still, as an almost full glass of jazz, its appeal is irresistible.

"Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music" (****, Verve/Columbia Legacy). A five-CD boxed set, arranged in chronological order, with 94 performances spanning the 20th century and paralleling the documentary. Everything from the single CD set is included, but with all the in-between gaps filled in--with the exception, again, of the post-'60s styles that are omitted from the single CD.

The pre-'60s period, however, is handled superbly. Disc 1, which basically covers the '20s and earlier, includes numbers from Jelly Roll Morton ("The Pearls"), Clarence Williams ("Wild Cat Blues"), Fletcher Henderson ("Sugar Foot Stomp"), Duke Ellington ("Mood Indigo") and Louis Armstrong ("Potato Head Blues" and "West End Blues"), among others.

Disc 2 embraces the swing era, concentrating primarily upon the large groups of Ellington, Armstrong, Jimmy Lunceford (his stirring "For Dancers Only"), Benny Goodman ("Sing, Sing, Sing"), Count Basie (featuring the Kansas City Seven playing Lester Young's "Lester Leaps In"), Billie Holiday ("Strange Fruit"), Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald ("A-Tisket, A-Tasket"), and tracks from Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt and Sidney Bechet.

Disc 3 includes some of the big swing band hits--Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," Tommy Dorsey's "Well, Git It!" and Gene Krupa's "Drum Boogie." (Stan Kenton is inexplicably missing here and elsewhere.) Most of the tracks, however, are devoted to the bebop revolution, with Charlie Parker ("KoKo," "Scrapple From the Apple," "Embraceable You"), Dizzy Gillespie ("Groovin' High" and "Salt Peanuts"), Monk ("Epistrophy"), Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan ("Walkin' Shoes") and the inclusion of more Armstrong and Holiday.

Disc 4 moves quickly through the '50s and early '60s via individual tracks from Horace Silver & the Jazz Messengers ("Doodlin' "), Clifford Brown and Max Roach ("I Get a Kick out of You"), Sonny Rollins ("St. Thomas"), the Modern Jazz Quartet ("Django"), Cecil Taylor ("Rick Kick Shaw"), Charles Mingus ("Original Faubus Fables"), Ornette Coleman ("Chronology") and John Coltrane ("Acknowledgment"). But neither the sounds of soul jazz nor the adventurous work of Lennie Tristano and his associates, nor the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaborations, are present.

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