Jazz, if that is the right word to sum up all the disparate works contain on this box set, is not the most inclusive of worlds. Jazz can be a daunting monolith, scaring off the casual passer-by whose grasp of a term like ‘modal tuning’ is on a level with their understanding of String Theory. It’s an exclusiveness that is also perpetuated by the smoky air of cliqueness, like being invited to a particularly intimidating party where everybody refuses to speak your language.
Attempting to fully encapsulate the richness and variation of Jazz history in just 49 tracks is, naturally, an impossible, but enviable task. Not only that, but compiling a collection that manages to avoid sounding lop-sided and asymmetrical is going to prove difficult. For instance, how does one program something as otherworldly as Sun Ra on the same collection as the wine-bar ambience of Ronnie Foster?
It’s a credit to the compilers that they’ve mainly succeeded in overcoming this difficulty with four separate CDs , each detailing particular strands, namely ‘Straight’, ‘Vocal’, ‘Soul ‘n’ Funk’, and ‘Free Jazz’. Each provides high and not-quite-so-highs, but so broad are the strokes of Jazz, that there is unlikely to be a single listener to be charmed by all the jewels on display. No matter.
‘Straight’ sets an agenda of controlled improvisation, with band members devising personal responses to single figures. Many on this set date from 1956 – 1962, and feature Jazz’s upper pantheon of greats from Miles, Coltrane, Monk and Sir Duke himself. Coltrane’s Blue Train remains (how could it not?) a work of scholarly conviction and force, but the Hard Bop of pianist Horace Silver’s Senor Blues and Art Blakey’s Ping Pong are immediate presences. Top billing goes to the Duke’s own Eastern-flavoured Isfahan from his later works, that is the sound of the sun rising on the best day of your life.
Curiously it is ‘Vocal’, the most eclectic of the CD’s that is nonetheless the most fluid. There is of course, scat, and duly-delivered by three-octave Ella Fitzgerald on the Ellington standard Take The A Train, but it’s trumped by the inclusion of an eight minute exposition of Cream‘s Sunshine Of Your Love that is close to definitive. Jean Dushon‘s big boss belter-of-a-voice on Hitchhike actually is definitive over the Motown original while Art Ensemble Of Chicago‘s Theme De Yo Yo demonstrates that Jazz had learned a few lessons from James Brown by the end of the ’60s.
It’s the cracked and brittle stoicism of Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain that is disc 2′s highlight, demonstrating if there was still any doubt, that range is not necessarily indicative of emotive power. Although Don’t Explain was recorded during Holiday’s less-troubled Decca period, one is left wondering whether lines like “You’re my joy and pain / hush now, don’t explain” is being sung to a lover or a eulogy to a more prosaic addiction.
CD 3 claims an allegiance to the conflation of Soul and Funk and brings the collection closer to what became the oft-maligned world of Fusion which brought ecstasy and agony in equal measure to Jazz fans by the early ’70s. The massive success of Herbie Hancock‘s Headhunters album plugged Jazz far tighter into the mainstream than it had been since the early ’60s.
However, the works of Jimmy’s Smith and McGriff acknowledge a closer debt to the Blues, and Gil Evans‘ wide-screen kitchen sink arrangement of Jimi Hendrix‘s Crosstown Traffic doffs a cap to the Blues’ finest amplified practitioner. Whatever the intentions, there are gems aplenty here also. Notable amongst these are Cannonball Adderley‘s electric Walk Tall, the kinetic thrills of Pucho‘s Jazz-Fusion Got Myself A Good Man, and Grant Green‘s riff-full Sookie Sookie.
Some cynics out there might believe that Free Jazz is called such because nobody would pay for it. Sun Ra, perhaps the Twentieth Century’s ultimate loon, hated the term when it was applied to his own arrangements, claiming that every freak-out was the result of careful planning. But then he also said he was from Saturn, so you never know.
Regardless, CD 4 is certainly a tour through exotic locales. Two pieces are understandably handed over to Miles Davis, Jazz’s finest innovator. In A Silent Way and One And One are such distinct entities, it’s hard to believe their complexities had the same guiding hand. Joe Zawinul’s electric keyboard on In A Silent Way is the most sublime of contributions on this whole set (which is saying something), while as Miles’ trumpet ‘sings’ the melody, you’ll believe the breeze itself can talk. One And One is taken from On The Corner where by this time Miles had been listening to Indian music and Sly Stone‘s There’s A Riot Goin ‘On. The jazz purists Miles had left behind with Bitches Brew hated it. Now it sounds visionary.
Many of the tracks collected here could fill a book with their own history, contexts, sub-texts, and semantics. If you have any generous relatives, it’s only 150 shopping days or so til’ Christmas. You can put this top of your list. It’s time to take an axe to that monolith.