A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: March, 2006
Recycled Goods (#29)
by Tom Hull
I thought I'd finally try to tackle some of the box sets I got for the last holiday season (or the one before). Some are here. Some more next month, or maybe later. The stone age of box sets was in the early '90s, when critics routinely treated them as monuments validating the importance of the artist, while glossing over the fact that many were poorly programmed, stuffed with smelly bait, and packaged atrociously. What's shifted since then is the cult factor: now major artists are plied for completism, and the minor artists are often hard to treat as anything but minor. One thing that hasn't changed is that boxes are still hard for critics to score. A couple of years ago I tried to do a fall box set special, and struck out more often than not. After that I tried to reassure myself that box sets don't matter much anyway, and haven't gone chasing after such obvious excesses as the Band's six-disc A Musical History. Still, I wish Rhino was easier to deal with: No Thanks looked like a pretty solid punk/postpunk survey, and I have to wonder about the girl group trivia in One Kiss Can Lead to Another. Maybe some day. Meanwhile, note that the pick hits are more compact.
Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs and Englishmen (Deluxe Edition) (1970 , A&M, 2CD): 35th anniversary edition, my how time flies! Cocker was a minor English pop singer but not a writer -- an interpreter of others' songs, already a rarity in 1970, at least among marquee artists. He needed a band for a US tour, so he hooked up with Leon Russell, who assembled a band from a circle also working with Delaney & Bonnie and/or Eric Clapton (dba Derek & the Dominos), including Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, and Bobby Keys. The result was a combination medicine show and gospel revival, captured on film and in a 2-LP soundtrack that was one of the essential documents of the time. It sounds rather dated now, but the "deluxe edition" does right by restoring the full length and glory of the concert, including two Russell leads that bring out his blackface, and the obvious, over-the-top "With a Little Help From My Friends." A-
Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (1970 , Columbia/Legacy, 6CD): More than anything else, and there are a lot of elses we can talk about, Miles Davis was a guy who could spot a trend and get out in front of it. His late '60s quintet raised him to the pinnacle of the jazz world and made stars out of his band. By 1969 Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams were all pursuing their own fusion projects, but Davis deftly overtook them, recruiting waves of young musicians. By late 1970, when this four-night stand at a Washington, DC club was recorded, the band included Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira, and a teenaged funk bassist named Michael Henderson, whose resume already included Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. The last two sets were joined by John McLaughlin, and they were soon edited and released as part of Live/Evil. This box, like the earlier Blackhawk and Plugged Nickel boxes, tries to find fungible insights by filling in the missing pieces. The last two discs map close enough to Live/Evil to be redundant, but the first four discs, without McLaughlin, are even friskier, with Jarrett's toy keybs most revelatory. A-
Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans (1927-2003 , Shout! Factory, 4CD): Despite a few old songs -- 4 jazz classics predate 1950, 12 mostly r&b classics come from the '50s, 12 more from the '60s and '70s -- this box is severely skewed toward the tourist-trade revivalism that has been an essential part of the city's business since 1980, with 35 songs from 1995 or later. So the first point is that this is not in any sense a primer to New Orleans' notable musical history. Also, there's no effort at subdivision: the four discs are effectively random shuffles, with the old hits senselessly slipped in between the remakes, revisions, and odd wrinkles. The 80-page color booklet is equally unstructured, other than that it follows the disc order. On the other hand, the song-to-song flow on the discs is pretty effective, with all the genre distinctions blurring into a warm, hazy good time vibe where all are welcome. This is not how I would have done it, but it's useful. They miss many classics, but find more worthwhile revivals than I thought possible. And now that the Big Easy is defunct, even its last decade may eventually evoke nostalgia. B+
Donovan: Try for the Sun: The Journey of Donovan (1964-2004 , Epic/Legacy, 3CD+DVD): The packaging is standoffish: a purple velvet box with discs in thin cardboard slipcovers, wedged awkwardly into the box, topped by the booklet. The three CDs have sixty songs, but only three cut after 1975. Aside from a couple of memorable hits psychedelicized by Mickie Most, he was a folkie without a folk -- at least he didn't fall into the usual celtic or skiffle ruts, but starting with Dylan and Buffy Sainte-Marie he wasn't all that novel. Given that he doesn't have enough material for a solid single-disc best-of, three verges on an academic exercise, but he's too simple for academia -- his saving grace, as it were. B
Tommy Dorsey: The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing: Centennial Collection (1925-56 , Bluebird/Legacy, 3CD): Born 1905, hence the centennial. Died 1956, a few months after the last cut here, an Ernie Wilkins arrangement of "Heartbreak Hotel" with Elvis Presley singing. Nowadays Dorsey is mainly remembered for launching the career of his "boy singer," Frank Sinatra. Dorsey ran one of the most successful dance bands in America. Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and the Pied Pipers are prominent on the third disc here, built from air shots and sequenced like a radio program -- surely most Americans' perception of him, but it's the least interesting disc, more history than timely entertainment. The other two discs try to make the case for Dorsey as a jazz musician. The first ransacks the vaults for sideman appearances -- several cuts with his more Dixieland-oriented brother, saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey; groups with Eddie Lang, Red Nichols, and Red Allen; and dates with singers like Ethel Waters, Connie Boswell, Bing Crosby, and Mildred Bailey. Dorsey played trombone, and the disc is a broad sampler of 1925-40 New York jazz. The second disc picks up Dorsey's Orchestra and his small group, the Clambake Seven. It gets notably stronger as the disc progresses, as musicians like Charlie Shavers and Buddy Rich join, and they work in a pair of cuts with Dorsey and Duke Ellington playing with each other's bands. Also welcome cut is "Trombonology," where Dorsey takes a rare, and quite respectable, trombone lead. A-
Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (1961 , Riverside, 3CD): Evans isn't a particularly easy jazz pianist to "get," and I've never been sure that I've gotten him. I've read about how emotional his playing is, but I've never managed to unpack the music to find its emotional center, if indeed there is one. He's a very introverted stylist, shy with his left hand, but with an undeniable melodic knack. Still, even without any real sense of comprehension, his two live albums recorded on June 25, 1961 strike me as near perfect: Waltz for Debby, and especially Sunday at the Village Vanguard. I don't mean to discount Evans, but equally important here are bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. LaFaro was killed in a car accident ten days later, so this is his testament, and much of his legend. Motian is still working on a long career which includes support for many of the finest pianists of our age -- he's worth focusing on here. This box straightens out the context: five sets, everything in order. Most of what was passed over in the original releases have appeared as bonus tracks, so there's very little new here: a false start, some patter, a third take of "All of You." A-
Iggy Pop: A Million in Prizes: The Anthology (1969-2003 , Virgin, 2CD): Most artists -- the better ones, that is -- work out whatever genius they have to offer in their first few years, then if they don't die or retire they age into hacks. In an old man's sport like the blues a John Lee Hooker or a B.B. King might age gracefully, but in a vein like punk rock it's brutal to age at all. Jim Osterberg's prospects were even poorer because no rocker ever bet so much on the one thing he was most certain to lose: his body. In the Stooges, a band that started out as dumber than the Troggs but soon became the definition of raw power, he was vocalist and human sacrifice. He was quickly spent, but David Bowie propped him up for two miraculous comeback albums in 1977. Since then he's persevered, working steadily even though he hasn't had a well-regarded album since 1980, and working out hard enough that pushing 60 he can still pose shirtless and bandaged. So the first disc of his 35-year career retrospective, an 8 year slice, is a sure bet -- the three Stooges albums and the two Bowie comebacks worth owning whole. But the second, pieced together from 27 undistinguished years, holds up amazingly well: mostly hard, of course, including a snarling live "T.V. Eye," but duets with Kate Pierson and Deborah Harry get by on charm and wit, and "Look Away" impresses with its measured finnesse. A
Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar (1906-2001 , Columbia/Legacy, 4CD): Guitar has always had a problematic place in jazz history. Present since the beginning, it hasn't had a consistent role or focus like other instruments. In part this is because technology has transformed the sound of guitar more than any other instrument -- amplification, effects, devices. But it's also because most guitar developments took place outside of jazz. The idea behind this box is to cover it all, but that's tough, especially the home stretch. Early on guitar was almost exclusively a rhythm instrument -- so much so that Eddie Condon and Freddie Green were famous for was never taking solos. Improvisers were more likely to come from elsewhere -- Disc 1 casts its net wide enough to catch bluesmen Lonnie Johnson and Casey Bill Weldon, western swingers Leon McAulliffe and Eldon Shamblin, and notables from the far ends of the earth: Sol Hoppii (Hawaii), Oscar Alemán (Argentina), most importantly Django Reinhardt (France). Charlie Christian might have changed everything, but he died in 1942, his legacy -- bebop-inflected lines cleanly picked on electric guitar -- developing gradually through the '50s, culminating in Wes Montgomery. Disc 2 covers this period rather loosely, with outsiders Les Paul and Chet Atkins as well as the usual suspects. While the first two discs make for interesting archaeology, the subject gets messier after that, and the chronology breaks down. Disc 3 broaches fusion, starting again with a notable outsider, Jimi Hendrix, followed by John McLaughlin. Disc 4 recasts fusion into smoother groove music, with Eric Gale and Larry Carlton among the culprits. But neither disc focuses at all tightly. Disc 3 includes tastes as varied as George Benson, Sonny Sharrock, Derek Bailey, John Abercrombie, and Ralph Towner, while Disc 4 has James Ulmer, Bill Frisell, John Scofield and Marc Ribot. So this covers a lot of ground. I'm tempted to add that it also misses much, but the real problem is that jazz guitar has exploded, both in raw numbers and stylistic variety, in the last twenty years, and it's too soon to do more than pick arbitrary samples. So much jumping around limits the box's listenability, especially on Disc 4. But then view it as a reference -- the 144-page booklet is by far the best thing here. B+
Run-D.M.C. (1983-84 , Arista/Legacy): If this pioneering slab of hip-hop seems dated today, consider that the twenty year generation cycle from when it dropped to now is the same distance from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker, and from Elvis Presley to Johnny Rotten. But it doesn't sound that dated, perhaps because by 1983 the lessons of Parker and Rotten had already sunk in. The hard beats, crude scratches, and clearly enunciated boasts told us that this was a group that broked no bullshit. The only concession to popular taste or for that matter melody was the monster bass riff on "Rock Box" -- the only thing here I got into at the time, but over the years hits like "It's Like That" and "Sucker M.C.'s," and two undeniable Greatest Hits comps beat down my resistance, so now even filler like the minimalist "Wake Up" makese sense. There's something timeless about their breakthrough -- much like Armstrong and Presley. A
In an infinite universe, all the music you'll ever need already exists somewhere. We find more each month: live jazz legends (Miles Davis, Bill Evans), rappers (Run-DMC, Digable Planets, Eminem), crooners (Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra), folkies (Donovan), punks (Iggy Pop), mad dogs and Englishmen (Joe Cocker), boxes of New Orleans and jazz guitar, many more (44 records).
Copyright © 2006 Tom Hull.