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JAZZ | Spotlight

Awash in Reissues That Rate Four Stars

March 11, 2001|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

A quick look at the top-selling jazz albums reveals the remarkable impact of Ken Burns' "Jazz" documentary. Half of the Top 10 entries on Billboard's current jazz albums chart are recordings released in association with the PBS series. And a related five-CD boxed set has been resting comfortably at the top of the Amazon jazz charts since it was released.

Most of the recordings on those charts consist of music either created by musicians who are no longer with us, or recorded long ago by players who are still around. Reissues, of course, have always played an important role in the jazz record market, and to a large extent, it is their sales--which often continue over a long period of time, a la Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue"--that help to fund recordings by new, lesser-established artists.

That's all to the good, of course, so long as it doesn't motivate the audience to focus their purchases on older material at the expense of younger artists and contemporary material. But it's not surprising that many labels appear to have accelerated their reissue releases, probably in an effort to get a piece of the increased jazz interest generated by Burns.

Here's a glance at some newly arriving reissues. Since each is a kind of individual classic in its own right, star recommendations have been omitted. To fans of the artists, each of these CDs will be viewed as a four-star outing:

* Blue Note Records Limited Edition Connoisseur Series. Six albums in this continuing series include some especially rare material--some of it by relatively unknown performers. "George Braith: The Complete Blue Note Sessions," for example, includes recordings from the early '60s by a talented but obscure saxophonist who may have been best known for his Rahsaan Roland Kirk-like method of playing two saxophones at the same time. "Don Wilkerson: The Complete Blue Note Sessions" features another saxophonist, a blues-based player with a characteristically big sound memorable for his performances with Ray Charles.

Releases from better-known artists are led by "Andrew Hill: Lift Every Voice and Sing," in which the pianist-composer's adventurous music is performed by a jazz quintet and a vocal ensemble; the CD is enhanced by the inclusion of six bonus tracks. "Hank Mobley: Straight No Filter"--in which the tenor saxophonist is joined in the front line by, variously Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd--was recorded in the mid-'60s but not released until shortly after his death in 1986. The new version is supplemented with bonus tracks from two other Mobley albums, "No Room for Squares" and "The Turnaround."

"Booker Ervin: Structurally Sound," also from the mid-'60s, supplements the propulsively driving original (including trumpeter Charles Tolliver) with two bonus tracks and two alternate takes--all previously unreleased.

It sometimes seems difficult to find a Blue Note album that doesn't include the much-recorded Grant Green. But his initial recording for the label was never released; it was replaced instead by "Grant's First Stand." That, of course, makes "Grant Green: First Session" an unusual rarity--not a reissue but a first release of a seminal guitarist's maiden effort, and a fascinating insight into the work of a still too-little recognized jazz artist.

* Verve Master Edition Series. Four particularly popular albums are being released in this continuing series--all carefully restored, with new liner notes, original cover art and, in some cases, previously unreleased or bonus tracks.

"Bud Powell: Jazz Giant" is a classic, an album that belongs in every collection. Recorded in 1949, initially as an element in Norman Granz's elegant "The Jazz Scene" (another vital release previously reissued by Verve), it was further supplemented by material from a 1950 session and eventually released in both 78 rpm and LP format. The performances (with Ray Brown or Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums) are superb examples of what bebop piano is all about, featuring, among many others, Powell's "Tempus Fugit" and "Celia," as well as his renderings of such classics as "Yesterdays" and "Body and Soul."

"Sing a Song of Basie," by Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert and Annie Ross, virtually invented the notion of ensemble vocalese. Initially intended as a choral rendering of Basie hits, it was reduced to a trio setting, and in the process, one of the archetypal modern jazz ensembles--one that had a surprisingly brief life--was born. This version, which includes transcriptions of the amazingly adroit lyrics to such Basie tunes as "One O'Clock Jump," "Little Pony," "Down for the Count" and "It's Sand, Man," also adds three bonus track and the previously unissued Hendricks original "Standin' on the Corner (Whistlin' at the Pretty Girls)."

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