Discs in a Box

When it’s time to start thinking of giving, nothing beats a box of discs:

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Jazz:

Dave Douglas: DD50

Trumpeter Dave Douglas turned fifty this year, and his celebration included releasing a boxed set of new and recent recordings, DD50. It’s a rare package in that it collects music that is not only recent but new. The contents are his 2012 recording Be Still, with singer Aoife O’Donovan, and quintet and sextet recordings from this year, Time Travel and Pathways. While these are all also available separately, inside the box you also get a DVD with in-studio playing and music videos, and a code to download four extra tracks, all of which are as good as the official releases.

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The box is both a value and a bargain. I’m not a fan of O’Donovan’s singing, which I find bland and clichéd, and Be Still is too sentimental for me (a personal bugaboo), but the ensemble discs are excellent. Douglas is an excellent player with an uneven recording career. His ambitious compositional projects aren’t successful: though they’re full of good material, he can’t sustain their structures through to the end.

His quintet recordings have always been a favorite of mine though, going back to more than ten years to The Infinite. Time Travel is great, one of the best jazz releases this year. His new quint is anchored by Linda Oh on bass and Rudy Royston drums, and the high energy and intelligent pianist Matt Mitchell and saxophonist Jon Irabagon push the band to a new level. The sextet disc returns some important members of his earlier bands — drummer Clarence Penn and pianist Uri Caine — and is a little subtler but also excellent, despite O’Donovan’s cameo. It’s a survey of his estimable accomplishments in his fiftieth year, and great present to himself and gift to others.

William Parker: Wood Flute Songs: Live 2006-2012

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With Dave Douglas above, this is the only other set on this list of recommendations that is made up of recent and new material. As the title says, these are all live recordings led by Parker, one of the finest and most important musicians on the creative edge of jazz for the past thirty years or so. Every disc features his core quartet, with Hamid Drake on drums (they make one of the finest rhythm sections in jazz history), Rob Brown on alto sax and Lewis Barnes on trumpet. They are augmented and reconfigured into almost every important ensemble Parker has led (except for his big band and his Curtis Mayfield tribute group): Raining on the Moon with the singer Leena Conquest, In Order to Survive with Cooper-Moore on piano, an absolutely wonderful septet with Billy Bang, Bobby Bradford and James Spaulding. The stats are eight CDs, over nine hours of music, only 1,500 copies issued, and 100% never-before released music. The quality is: a rich, involving, exciting and comprehensive look at the state-of-the-art in creative jazz in the early twenty-first century. Considered as an album, this is one of the most remarkable releases of the past decade. Highest recommendation.

The Complete Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941)

Another in the long line of exceptionally produced and essential box sets of historic jazz from Mosaic Records. Chick Webb led one of the greatest bands of the swing era. They were legendary for their power in live situations, but what the these hundreds of tracks show is how incredibly stylish they were. There is an elegance and sophistication to everything they play, and there are plenty of instrumental only tracks that are full of excitement.

Of course, the point of the set is the young Ella, who began singing with Webb when she was still a teenager. She was to my mind, along with Anita O’Day, the greatest singer the music has ever had. Her singing made jazz what it is: precise intonation, impeccable swing, beautiful phrasing. These recordings show the sweet gentleness of her youthful voice and spirit, and are a deeply poignant companion to all here later recordings, especially the great American songbooks, where she is a woman, full of experience, ruefulness, and the blues. The usual informative, detailed booklet from Mosaic, full of great pictures. This set is limited to 5,000 copies.

Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Begins

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The revolution began when Scott-Heron made these recordings for the Flying Dutchman label, and it was revived when this 3-CD set was released January 1. These recordings are Scott-Heron at his finest. They are untempered fire, mordant humor, brilliant criticism and the occasional bits of sad homophobia. His ideas this early in his career where fully formed, and while from track to track the musical conception can be uneven, mainly on the first disc “Songs” (made up of Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Pieces of a Man and Free Will), the force of his intelligence is incredibly exciting, and the bands that feature Bernard Purdie, Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Gerry Jemmott and others are great. Some of the funkiest soul music around, supporting some of the most important vernacular poetry of the past fifty years. Essential for anyone with any interest in African-American music and culture.

Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection 1972 – 1988

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One of the behemoths of the season, thirty-four CDs that collect one one of the most aesthetically varied careers in jazz and American popular music. It’s not cheap, it’s not tidy, but it is full of riches. Jazz traditionalists will balk at its very existence, but listeners who value music that is creatively restless and intriguingly untidy — and that’s a lot of Herbie Hancock fans — will need to snap this up.

It’s also for fans of Sun Ra and his aesthetic associates. As great as Hancock is — and he is a great pianist, composer and bandleader — the view of his career and music-making has been confined to his origins in the contemporary mainstream at Blue Note in the 1960s and his role in Miles Davis’ 1965 – 68 Quintet, the greatest small group in jazz history. Confined to this context, he is a seminal post-bop jazzer who either spread hipness to the masses or sold his soul for cash via funk and dance music. That’s too short and narrow a lever to crack open such an enormous career.

But think of him like Sun Ra, and it all falls into place. They are both brilliant musicians who saw themselves as completely in the African-American tradition, which is unusually capacious and sympathetic. Ra made pop music that was just a natural part of his whole, in which the step from Fletcher Henderson to free-improvisation ritual was nothing more than shifting from the chair to the couch in the same living room. Hancock, though exploration different styles, has been doing the same thing. The Blue Note discs, the Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands, the V.S.O.P Quintet and Future Shock are faces of the same set of values and musical ambitions.

This set represents it all, with the great funk records like Head Hunters and Thrust, the acoustic ensemble, the pop collaborations with Bill Laswell, the hipness and naïve futurism. There are eight discs never released before outside of Japan (including an incredible live album Flood, a reunion trio with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, the soundtrack to Death Wish. This is a must have box set.

Other Notable Sets:

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Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings

Paul Bley: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note

Anita O’Day: The Verve Years 1957-1962

Andrew Cyrille: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note

The Complete Clifford Jordan Strata-East Sessions

Joe McPhee: Nation Time, The Complete Recordings

Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions

Oliver Lake: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note

Paul Motion (ECM Recordings)

Julius Hemphill: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note

Classical

Verdi: The Complete Works

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This is a year of important anniversaries in the Western classical tradition: bicentennials of Wagner and Verdi, centennials of Britten and Lutoslawski. All are represented on this list, but experience in the concert halls, opera houses and in front of my stereo has me firmly convinced of the greatness and importance of Verdi, one of three opera composers (the others are Monteverdi and Mozart) whose achievements are beyond all others and whose legacy is eternal and indispensable.

With Verdi, the revolutionary ideas of Monteverdi — recitative — and Mozart — harmonic structure — and synthesized and furthered by a naturalism that binds the music completely to story and character. The humanity, urgency and tunefulness of Verdi’s operas are unsurpassed. This set includes all his dramatic works, with the two versions each of the masterpieces La forza del destine and Don Carlo, his choral and sacred works, songs, ballet music, the string quartet and a collection of rarities. The musicians include Pavarotti, Sutherland, Muti, Giulini, Domingo, Gergiev … it’s ridiculously rich and, at less then $2/disc, a steal. And if you have the money and want more, you can get Tutto Verdi: The Complete Operas on stage, on DVD.

For about half the price of the box above, you can get a good collection of his generally greatest operas in this box from EMI. I am less and less fond of Wagner each day, but if you care about opera he must be dealt with, one way or another, and DG has a compact and bargain priced box of his complete opera.

Britten: The Complete Works

The other great opera composer celebrated this year is Benjamin Britten, and this is another extravagant collection that covers not only his operas but his excellent chamber music, songs, orchestral pieces and more. While not cheap, it’s again a great value at about $4/disc. The set also includes a 208 page hardcover book with biographical material, pictures, and index and more.

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There are three excellent, stringy recommended box sets of music from important twentieth century composers. Lutoslawski is the first. Vastly underrated, his music extraordinary, reconciling the Western classical tradition with the concepts of John Cage, and doing so with incredible colors and expressive beauty. This box collects the terrific series of recordings on the Naxos label. A necessity for anyone with an interest in modern classical music.

But the other two sets are no less necessary: Henze: The Complete Deutsche Grammophon Recordings, and Pierre Boulez: Complete Works. The Henze set does not cover his whole career, there are chamber pieces and operas that DG did not record, but it has the complete Symphonies, dramatic works like El Cimarron and Das Floss der Medusa, songs, concertos and the late ballet Undine. Henze was an knotty, uncompromising artist with exceptional skill and powerful ideas.

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Other Notable Sets:

Gesualdo: Complete Madrigals

Complete Bach Cantatas

Henri Dutilleux 1916-2013

The Art of David Tudor 1963-1992

Music of Gustav Mahler: Issued 78s 1903-1940

Alexander String Quartet: Bartók & Kodály, Complete String Quartets

Boulez Conducts Mahler

Pop

Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Volume 1

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Self-recommending and, at forty-seven discs plus hardcover book, a good value. If there are any doubts about the worth of this set, consider the contents:

  • All thirty-five studio albums, through Tempest
  • Included is first North American CD release of Dylan
  • Six live albums
  • 2-CD set Side Tracks that collects songs from the recording sessions that were left off the original albums

Warts and all, and with Dylan you need all, and continued listening through this box has convinced me you need it all, including the warts. One can only ponder what Volume 2 will bring …

The Orb: History of the Future

As important as any pop group in the last twenty-five years. Three CDs and one DVD that collect tracks like “A Huge Evergrowing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld,” along with remixes and rarities, two live sets (Copenhagen in 1993 and Woodstock in 1994) and video of Top of the Pops appearances, promo videos and live events.

Other Notable Sets:

Wood Guthrie: American Radical Patriot

Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 1

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Yes: The Studio Albums 1969-1987

The Beatles: Live at the BBC, the Collection

The Vevet Underground: White Light/White Heat 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition

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