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GIFT GUIDE | JAZZ

Prime Cuts of Old and New

November 22, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It hasn't been an especially notable year for new jazz recordings, with a few exceptions. But we always know that when there's a lull in the current action, there's plenty in the catalog to revisit. Surveying the high points of 2001, in fact, results in a fairly even split between current material and reissues, all of it first-rate.

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FOUR STARS

**** WOODY HERMAN, "Woody Herman--Blowin' Up a Storm!," Columbia Legacy. Herman was always more responsive to the changing currents of jazz than most big-band leaders, more curious about new ideas than desirous of finding a sound and sticking with it. That artistic openness is fully present in this two-CD set, which chronicles the work of the two Herman ensembles--the First Herd and the Four Brothers Band--that arguably represent his peak musical achievements. Many of the familiar hits are here, as are stunning solo work from a long list that includes Flip Phillips, Bill Harris, Stan Getz and dozens of others.

**** BILLIE HOLIDAY, "Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)," Columbia Legacy. Ten CDs' worth of Billie Holiday performances covering her entire output on the Columbia, Brunswick, Vocalion, Okeh and Harmony labels: heaven on Earth for Lady Day fans. The 230 tracks reveal, with great clarity, her ability to come up with first-rate performances, even while working with superficial pop items. An expensive set, yes, but the hours of music, most of it demanding repeated listening, more than justify the cost.

**** KEITH JARRETT, "Inside Out," ECM Records. The Jarrett group best known as the "Standards" trio for its continuing exploration of material from the great American songbook, arches into startling new territory: the open universe of free improvisation. Recorded live at a London concert, the CD provides stirring testimony to Jarrett's insistence that--regardless of what the Ken Burns "Jazz" documentary may have implied--jazz has always had, and continues to have, an ever-evolving capacity for creative eloquence.

**** JOHN LEWIS, "Explorations II," Atlantic Records. Released a few months before his death, "Explorations II"--like "Explorations"--focuses on Lewis' piano work, this time enhancing it with guitar, bass and drums. Like Picasso's late drawings, the album is the product of a mature and gifted artistic imagination, reduced to its most vital essence. Tone is a constant factor, and one is continually amazed by the sheer airiness of Lewis' harmonies, by his precisely articulated lines--generating swing seemingly out of nowhere--by unadorned expression of jazz in its elemental essence.

**** THELONIOUS MONK, "Thelonious Monk: Live at the Jazz Workshop" and "Monk in Tokyo," Columbia Legacy. Any Monk is worth having, and these two reissues are no exception. The first was recorded in 1964 but not released until 1982, when it was issued as a double LP. This two-CD version adds additional performances and restores some edits, nearly doubling the length of the original version. The second, recorded in 1963, has previously only been available in the U.S. as an import. Much of the same material is covered on both sets, reflective of Monk's tendency to repeat numbers in his various live performances. The difference, subtle to be sure, is in his fascinating solo perspectives, and the manner in which he and his players respond to differing playing environments.

**** ART PEPPER, "Art Pepper: The Hollywood All-Star Sessions," Galaxy/Fantasy. Art Pepper's warm tone and quirky phrasing were always instantly identifiable, a quality that has become increasingly rare in jazz. Although his career was deeply affected by the incarcerations for drug-related offenses, he always managed to sustain his creative energies, a fact dramatically apparent in his performances on this five-CD boxed set. Recorded a few years (in some cases a few months) before his death in 1982, the performances are everything one expected from Pepper's fertile imagination.

**** MICHEL and TONY PETRUCCIANI, "Conversation," Dreyfuss Jazz. Although the late French pianist occasionally performed in duos, he never sounded better than he does on this outing, recorded at a 1992 live concert in Lyon, with his father, guitarist Antoine, or Tony Petrucciani. Michel always credited his father with having given him the opportunity, despite his disabilities, to fully grow and develop as an artist. That growth and development, as well as the often tender, sometimes challenging empathy between father and son, are among the highlights in this collaboration.

**** ARTIE SHAW, "Artie Shaw: Self Portrait," RCA Victor/Bluebird. The length and breadth of one of the most celebrated careers in American music are gathered in a five-CD set of pieces, selected by Shaw. When he elected to put down his clarinet in the mid-'50s, the music world lost one of its most adventurous practitioners. Fortunately, the recordings remain, collected here with associated commentary from the articulate, opinionated 92-year-old.

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