Box sets and jazz history
Every year the box sets reshuffle jazz history. At their very least, boxes — with new sequencing, new liner notes, improved sound — can change how we read that history; at their best they can change how we hear it. Mosaic’s new DUKE ELLINGTON: THE COMPLETE 1936-1940 VARIETY, VOCALION AND OKEH SMALL GROUP SESSIONS (seven CDs) finds material that was originally released under the names of various Ellingtonions (Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart) and then re-released in scattered formats on disparate labels throughout the years and gathers it comprehensively under one roof for the first time. These sessions were cranked out for jukeboxes as a way of keeping the market flooded with budget product — the Duke brand, but different. And in its way, it reveals a kind of secret life of the Ellington band.
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There’s nothing so radical going on in FATS WALLER & HIS RHYTHM: IF YOU GOT TO ASK, YOU AIN’T GOT IT! (Bluebird/Legacy; three CDs). Producer Orrin Keepnews created a more expansive chronological set for RCA/Bluebird in the ’90s — Waller recorded more than 300 sides in his short life (1904–1943). This is the portable Fats: a disc each of his original tunes, covers of Tin Pan Alley, and instrumentals-only. That might not be the best way to hear Waller — since the set isn’t chronological, you might as well load all three discs and hit shuffle. Which is just another way in which the iPod era makes a mockery of the compiler’s craft.
The set — abetted by Dan Morgenstern’s notes and photographs drawn from the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, which he directs — transports us back to an earlier era even as the music punches through with startling immediacy. Here was the jazz musician as comedian/pop star, undercutting sentimental treacle with his winking vocals, trading barbs with the great trombonist Jack Teagarden on “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You,” flying through his own hits (“Ain’t Misbehavin,’ ” “Honeysuckle Rose”) in his smooth stride or unfurling silken cascades of notes on “Numb Fumblin’ ” — the Harlem Dinu Lipatti. What’s more, with a cohort including guitarist Al Casey and the Armstrong–like phrasing of trumpeter Herman Autrey, Waller created some of the best small-group swing on record.
Harvey Pekar helps rewrite some of the history he helped create on STITT’S BITS:THE BEBOP RECORDINGS, 1949-’52 (Prestige; three CDs). In one of the best of Pekar’s old American Splendor comics, he laments the latest batch of records sent to him by Downbeat for review, one that includes Sonny Stitt: “He always makes the same kinda record . . . couple blues, couple standards, couple things based on Rhythm changes.” And yet, who’s providing the liner notes to this three-disc set but Pekar: “Stitt . . . was apparently happy to go into a studio and record standards, blues, and things based on ‘Rhythm’ changes until the cows came home.” (“Rhythm” being the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm.”) So maybe Harvey is making up for past slights — he argues that Stitt (1924–1982), “one of the founders of bebop,” deserves his props.
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And this set is bebop heaven. In later years, Stitt took his knocks as a Charlie Parker clone, and at first you mark every patented Parker lick as it passes by. But soon you’re caught up in Stitt’s originality — his authority on tenor (where you can hear his influence on Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, among others) as well as alto, his daunting speed, but also his soulfulness on ballads. A nine-disc Mosaic set from a few years picked up from where this set leaves off, but here he is as bebop’s first wave was cresting. In the early tracks you can hear the music’s links with swing, in the later its prototypical relation to R&B (sets with Gene Ammons), and the vocal ballads and novelty tunes in between. But this is just informing context for echt bop, especially on choice tracks where Stitt is jamming with Bud Powell, Curly Russell, and Max Roach.
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