A seven-year effort, the six-CD box set “Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” is the most wide-ranging and stylistically diverse jazz anthology ever compiled, but this inclusiveness comes at a price _ and not just its approximately $100 pricetag.
In exposing listeners to nearly 100 artists, the producers had to limit most performers to one cut _ even for such major figures as Jelly Roll Morton, Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk. Only the most important artists whose careers encompassed multiple, distinct styles _ most prominently Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington _ merit more than one track.
The anthology is a successor to jazz historian Martin Williams‘ out-of-print, idiosyncratic 1973 “Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz” that became a mainstay of college jazz appreciation courses. With eight tracks apiece by Armstrong, Ellington and Charlie Parker, Williams‘ collection offers a more in-depth perspective on jazz’s formative pre-1950 years than the current anthology, but doesn’t cover developments beyond the mid-‘60s. And there were glaring omissions _ no Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson or Cannonball Adderley, to name a few, and the dismissive selection of Coltrane’s lesser-known “Alabama” as his only track.
The 2000, five-CD box set “Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music,” a companion to the filmmaker’s PBS series, was also heavily weighted toward jazz’s first half century, with only one CD worth of music dating from after the mid-‘60s. It did include some of the most popular jazz recordings _ Ellington’s “Take the `A’ Train,” Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” and Brubeck’s “Take Five” _ which aren’t included on the new anthology.
The current anthology’s 111 tracks were selected by an executive committee from among more than 2,500 recommendations from dozens of jazz experts, which has resulted in a balanced collection without bias against particular styles like fusion. It fills in most of the gaps from previous anthologies, although it gives short shrift to modern-era vocalists.
The tracks are arranged chronologically, from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s 1917 “Livery Stable Blues” to Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s 2003 “Suspended Night Variation VIII” _ and its accompanying 200-page book includes informative essays on each track by several dozen jazz experts.
The anthology gives such lesser known musicians as guitarist Lonnie Johnson and trumpeter Shorty Rogers their due, recognizes the influence of Latin jazz (Machito, Tito Puente and Cuba’s Irakere), and reflects jazz’s global reach (Japan’s Toshiko Akiyoshi, South Africa’s Abdullah Ibrahim, France’s Martial Solal).
The collection carries jazz’s story as a vibrant, living music into the 21st century, including artists who emerged in the ‘60s and are still going strong _ Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny. The producers also tried to represent some of the main trends in modern jazz, including Chicago’s avant-garde Association for the Advancement of Contemporary Music (Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and the Art Ensemble of Chicago) and Medeski, Martin & Wood’s “jam band.”
The anthology succeeds in meeting co-producer Richard James Burgess’ stated goal of providing a panoramic overview of jazz and a jumping off point for further explorations, and should become an invaluable educational tool.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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