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All That Jazz

Various artists
Masters of Jazz: Volumes 1-4

Anyone compiling a CD look-see at the history of jazz is setting himself up for a fall. Especially if the project is stamped with a lofty title like Masters of Jazz. Such an anthology, to be truly representative, would have to include the first stirrings of the art form, all the way back to its roots in the South at the turn of the century. It would have to follow the genre's northern migration to cities like Chicago and Kansas City. It would need to demonstrate various aspects of jazz stylings, delineating the rhythmic and improvisational elements, and it couldn't ignore later, more intellectualized trends such as bebop. Legendary names like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis would need to be mentioned in liberal doses, along with the likes of Bubber Miley, Chick Webb and Clifford Brown--less familiar figures, but "masters" nonetheless.

Most of all, there would need to be corresponding, illustrative cuts of music to flesh out the comprehensive liner notes at every important juncture. Jazz is arguably the most academically analyzed form of popular music, with pages of rhetoric spilled on the most ticky-tack of subtopics. Any approachable CD retrospective on jazz, especially one of an introductory nature, would have to stifle such egghead blather and deliver the goods with an emphasis on the sounds of the music itself.

Rhino Records, a company that's never been afraid to repackage music history as it sees fit, has taken on this considerable task by introducing and assessing the giants of jazz on a four-disc compilation. For the most part, it works. The prose is pithy, the recordings generous, and the names that should be there show up in bold type. It's an engaging and nicely accessible survey of the genre.

The most surprising and refreshing aspect of the Rhino collection is the attention paid to big bands. Two of the four discs chronicle the sometimes forgotten link big bands formed between early, anarchic New Orleans sounds and the smoother, cooler stylings of latter-day jazz. For example, Volume Three of the Rhino set, Big Bands of the '30s & '40s, includes orchestral swing circa 1933 by way of Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra performing Jelly Roll Morton's jumping, rollicking "King Porter Stomp." The disc also includes the recording debut of a young Charlie Parker playing with the Kansas City-bred Jay McShann and His Orchestra on a 1941 recording of "Swingmatism."

Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey also put in appearances, along with Duke Ellington's relentless "Cotton Tail" and the recognizable strains of "Don't Be That Way," recorded in 1934 by the relatively obscure Chick Webb and His Orchestra. Webb, a hugely influential musician of his time, was a frail, hunchbacked drummer who would die five years later of spinal tuberculosis at the age of 30.

The other big-band disc in the Rhino set includes recordings of the 1950s and '60s, highlighted by surprise cuts from Cannonball Adderley and Stanley Turrentine--neither as well-known for leading orchestras as for working in other jazz and R&B formats. There's also a swaying take on "I Can't Get Started" by Charlie Parker and His Orchestra, another reminder that the man called Bird got his start with big bands (see McShann), even though jazz purists often pooh-pooh anything Parker did with more than four supporting players.

The most attractive disc of the Rhino collection, though, is Volume One, Traditional Jazz Classics. Billed in the liner notes as a look at the "big bang of jazz," the CD indeed introduces jazz as a Southern-bred form of musical groupspeak, with early outfits like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band providing lots of peppy pucker work amid the hissing and scratching of recordings from the '20s. This volume also is the most energetic of the set, with the ever-vigorous Louis Armstrong given special attention--his solos on 1927's "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and 1925's "The St. Louis Blues," with Bessie Smith on vocals, are simply amazing. Other impressive efforts are turned in by Bix Beiderbecke, who lets his cornet do the talking on 1927's "Singing the Blues," and trumpet player Bubber Miley of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, who turns in a stunning solo on "Black and Tan Fantasie," a funereal, Dixieland stomp also recorded in '27.

Bebop's Greatest Hits, Volume Two, is almost as fascinating, especially in the many familiar faces who make early-recorded appearances. There's a 19-year-old Miles Davis upstaging his bandleader on the Charlie Parker Septet's "Ornithology," and a young Sonny Rollins with one of his first recorded tenor-sax solos on "Bouncing With Bud," a cut otherwise dominated by definitive bebop keyboardist Bud Powell living up to his legend with a twinkling exhibition of melody and speed. Other highlights include the birth sounds of "cool" with Miles Davis and His Orchestra's 1949 recording of "Move," the song showcasing Miles as a monster soloist, yet also demonstrating the heightened melody and sense of the cooperative that separated cool from hard bop. Also worthy of note is "Joy of Spring," a wonderful single from 1954 by Clifford Brown and Max Roach, with Brown, a 23-year-old trumpeter who would be dead two years later, showing why he was considered a brief but potent figure on the more visceral edge of bop.

Masters of Jazz isn't entirely masterful. The liner notes could have included more mention of racial issues as the sociopolitical underpinnings of the music. And the set's almost complete neglect of jazz singing is a curious oversight considering the text duly notes that the rise of bandstand singers in the '40s and '50s contributed to the death of the big-band sound.

But this doesn't attempt to be a groundbreaking anthology of academic import. Purists and other persnickety jazz buffs needn't bother checking it out. These four discs are instead a layman's introduction--a quick, no-sweat sketch of an American art form that became the world's music.

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Ted Simons