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on August 23, 2011 (August 23, 2011)
Smithsonian LC 9628
What is jazz? There is no concise answer, but this handsomely packaged boxed set offers a wealth of delightful and persuasive answers. It does so over the course of six CDs of wonderful music, along with informative and persuasive essays about jazz history, the artists represented here, and the specific performances included – as well as plenty of classic photographs.
Unlike the previous Smithsonian anthology, assembled by US jazz critic Martin Williams back in the vinyl era, this one is the product of a team effort, with over 100 jazz experts (from the USA and other countries) consulted during a painstaking debate over which artists should be included, and which recordings should be chosen as representative of their best and/or most influential contributions to the jazz canon.
The set runs (for the most part) in chronological order, enabling us to marvel at the sheer zest, power and inventiveness of what must have sounded incredibly new and exotic when the average listener first heard Louis Armstrong in his prime, or Jelly Roll Morton, or Sidney Bechet, or Bix Beiderbecke. The set takes us through the swing era, with the big bands of Basie, Ellington, Shaw and Goodman, and the combos led by Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller and Django Reinhardt.
Bebop, cool jazz, free jazz and jazz-rock are covered via Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Weather Report and many more great artists. Happily, a few non-Americans (like Abdullah Ibrahim, Tomasz Stanko and Martial Solal) get a look-in.
Hardcore fans might want to argue over who should or shouldn’t have been chosen, or which tracks might have warranted inclusion. But the bottom line is, this is an excellent set, almost the “definitive” collection of jazz from way back then until almost now. Newcomers and experienced listeners alike can listen, read and enjoy.