Ducal Delights and Other Last-Minute Gifts

Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

OK, there are six shopping days until Christmas and you still haven’t figured out what to give your favorite jazz lover. Take heart. 1999 was a bumper year for boxed collections--in part because of the Duke Ellington centennial, in part because there’s simply so much marvelous material overflowing the vaults of nearly every record company.

So here, perfectly timed for last-minute shopping, are a few key selections from the year’s cornucopia. And it’s a fair bet that there’ll be something in this select grouping for just about every taste. For the record, every one is a four-star choice:

* “Such Sweet Thunder,” “Black, Brown & Beige,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “First Time! The Count Meets the Duke,” Columbia Legacy. No, this set of recordings dating to Ellington’s tenure at Columbia in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s has not been collected in a box, although it should be. Nonetheless, they group well together, ranging from Ellington’s take on Shakespeare and the remake of his classic “Black, Brown & Beige” to a film score and a hard-swinging encounter with the Ellington orchestra’s alter ego, the Basie ensemble.


* “The Complete Django Reinhardt and Quintet of the Hot Club of France/HMV Sessions 1936-1948,” Mosaic. There’s an odd synchronicity to the arrival of this six-CD collection from the great French Gypsy guitarist in the same month as Woody Allen’s new film, “Sweet and Lowdown,” with its characterization of a Reinhardt-influenced American guitarist. This is magical music, stretching from Reinhardt’s prewar Hot Club (often with violinist Stephane Grappelli) to his bebop flirtations of the ‘40s and ‘50s--an excellent overview of his musically fruitful career. (Available solely through Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902; (203) 327-7111.)

* “Benny Goodman; The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert,” Columbia Legacy. The performance by the Goodman band was historic on several counts: It was the first jazz event at Carnegie Hall, and one of the first events that presented integrated ensembles (a year before Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial). This collection assembles pieces from various earlier releases to present the entire concert in sequence. The sound is a bit scratchy, but the music is prime big-band swing music.

* “The Savoy Story, Vol. 1,” Savoy. One of the pioneer independent labels, Savoy began producing jazz, blues and R&B; recordings in 1942. Although it released a number of hit R&B; discs, its primary legacy is a long list of bebop classics. The three CDs included here are a virtual history of early bop, from Charlie Parker’s “Koko” and Fats Navarro’s “Ice Freezes Red” to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tin Tin Deo” and Miles Davis’ “Half Nelson.” A vital and basic entry in anyone’s jazz collection.

* “The Adderley Brothers: The Summer of ‘55,” Savoy. Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and his brother Nat showed up in New York City in the summer of 1955 as unknowns. But after an epic night in which they sat in with the Oscar Pettiford-Kenny Clarke band at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Bohemia, the word quickly spread that, in Cannonball, a powerful young alto saxophonist had arrived on the scene (ironically, only months after the death of Charlie Parker in March). This compelling two-CD set includes the Adderleys’ first recorded outings, originally released as Clarke’s “Bohemia After Dark,” Cannonball’s “Spontaneous Combustion” and his brother’s “That’s Nat.” And what is most amazing about the performances is the manner in which Cannonball, a still too-little acknowledged innovative jazz artist, arrived on the scene as a fully mature talent.

* “The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions on Verve,” Verve. Young’s recordings for Verve (and Mercury, Clef and Norgran) from the mid-’40s until his last sessions, only a few days before he died in 1959, were far darker than his spirited work from the prewar years. Though he sometimes sounds like a completely different player, there is no denying the appeal of the current of emotions that coursed through his music. At a time when virtually every young tenor saxophonist in jazz was imitating his earlier work, Young continued on his own unique pathway.

* “Mel Torme: A Very Special Time,” Bethlehem Archives/Avenue Jazz. The very special time was the mid-’50s, when Torme was drifting between the Velvet Fog of his early career and the bright, spirited jazz singing of later years. Of the three LPs included here--”Lulu’s Back in Town,” “Mel Torme Sings Fred Astaire” and “It’s a Blue World”--the best are those in which he interacts with Marty Paich’s swinging West Coast group, and especially those in which the program consists of tunes associated with Astaire.


* “Duke Ellington: The Reprise Studio Recordings,” Mosaic. Ellington’s brief tenure at Reprise in the early ‘60s is not generally regarded as a high point in his stellar career. But there’s an undeniable fascination in hearing how this remarkable artist--whose orchestra (with Cootie Williams, Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves and others) was still a major musical force--dealt with the dramatic changes taking place in ‘60s music. And where else can one hear the Ellington orchestra offering its version of the music from “Mary Poppins”? (See Django Reinhardt segment, above, for information on distribution.)

* “Rosemary Clooney: Songs From the Girl Singer,” Concord. There are those who would argue with Clooney’s inclusion in a jazz roundup, and some of the material here is, at best, lightweight pop fluff. But Clooney’s supple voice and inherent rhythmic drive make even the fluffiest numbers, such as “Come On-A My House,” come alive. But even her earlier work--”Tenderly,” for example--revealed skills reaching beyond the pop world. And, on the selections in which she has the opportunity to swing a bit with a small group, her innate jazz understanding is front and center. Appropriately, there’s a lovely, fairly new version of “White Christmas,” and Clooney’s soulful rendering of Dave Frishberg’s “Do You Miss New York?” will surely bring a tear to the eye of every former denizen of the Apple.