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Out of the box

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Real culture vultures have a wave of new recordings to choose from during this holiday gift-giving season. There’s material here with more staying power than the latest hitmaker and enough fodder for the most searching conversations. Yeah, we realize the larger part of this came from Rhino, but the bottom line with most of this stuff is that it’s simply great.

Louis Armstrong
The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings

Legacy

Rhapsodies in Black
Music and Words from the Harlem Renaissance

Rhino

This is the semen of 20th century American popular music. Certainly cornet and trumpet player Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, made from 1925-27, are seen as the direct foundation of jazz (and by extension blues, rock and pop) as the art of the virtuoso improviser. Sure there were others who played jazz before Armstrong, and there were other improvisers of note. But Armstrong was the first great virtuoso.

That accomplishment alone would have sealed his spot in jazz history, but there is so much more. Not only did he blow better, but his singing set the stage for next-generation songbirds such as Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby, and scat singer Ella Fitzgerald. The arrangements show a diversity of dynamics that modern-day players would do well to learn from. Rather than playing the melody and following with ad nauseam choruses of solos, Armstrong breaks the band down to duets, trios, etc. to display a wide range of approaches.

This collection has all of that, plus a great booklet chock-full of photos, commentaries on the four discs in the set, an assemblage of the main players, personal reflections and essays from producer Phil Scrap, George Avakian and Robert G. O'Meally. Even if you already have the records, the book makes this set worth getting.

Rhapsodies in Black is a great collection in its own right, with four discs of cuts from a bunch of early century artists and connected to today with readings of some of the era's literature by such contemporary bright lights as Alfre Woodard, Ice-T, Darius Rucker, Coolio, Angela Bassett and Quincy Jones.

This set defines the Harlem Renaissance as the period from 1915 to 1935, and while one may quibble over the dates, no one disputes the importance of the time period to the African-American intellectual canon and, by extension, to the world.

While Louis Armstrong (found here as a leader and as sideman with Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams) may have been the razor-sharp cutting edge of the early era, here one finds the milieu from which he was spawned. James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Lonnie Johnson, Bessie Smith and even Detroit's McKinney's Cotton Pickers all appear. Recitations from Langston Hughes, Helene Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps and others are interspersed.

What makes this collection great (though the booklet gives short shrift to painters of the period when discussing the overall impact of the Harlem Renaissance) is that it compiles tidbits that one has seen or heard of here and there into one easy-to-find package. For instance, many people may have heard of Bert Williams, considered by many the greatest comedian ever, but here is an actual recording of him doing a dramatic reading.

Richard Pryor
… And It's Deep Too: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992)

Rhino

One may conjecture on Bert Williams' greatness, but there is no question when it comes to Pryor. Ask nearly any comedian and you'll be told that Pryor is the single most important wonder of the world. In fact, many do just that in the booklet that accompanies this nine-CD set. Robin Williams, Chris Rock and Billy Crystal all line up to testify. But more than testimonials, the bits on these recordings are every bit as important in comedy as the Louis Armstrong's Hot Five in jazz.

Today, Pryor is reduced by multiple sclerosis to a skeleton of his former self. This collection reminds you — literally — about when he had some meat on his boney ass. Where Pryor was a poet in his time, today's comedians just talk dirty. But for all its poetry, I was reminded 20-something years later when my 3-year-old daughter walked into the room while I was listening, that this is adult humor. But seeing as we're all adults here, turn it up and have a laugh.

Los Lobos
El Cancionero Mas y Mas

Rhino

People so often refer to Los Lobos (The Wolves) as a Chicano group that it obscures the fact that they are a quintessential American rock band. As facile with roots rock, R&B, rap and guitar hero twazzling as they are with Mexican folk music, Los Lobos is a formidable assemblage of rhythms and riffs that can knock on just about any door and leave listeners happy. This four-disc set follows the group chronologically from 1977 through 2000, with most of the essential work included. It’s a great collection for the curious, and for longtime fans the book is full of some of the most revealing anecdotes about a band ever put in print.

Charlie Parker
The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings (1944-48)

Savoy

Bird fans always welcome another way of listening to Charlie Parker take flight. Yet there are few truly exciting moments here if you've already been listening. This is not a collection for beginners, with its myriad alternate takes, false starts and incomplete takes. Do you really need 11 versions of "Marmaduke" in a row? This is for deep connoisseurs who can recognize the subtleties of different solos played over the same background. Still, with eight discs in the set, there is an awful lot of great bop swinging around.

Bill Evans Trio
The Last Waltz

Milestone

Bill Evans looks like hell in the pictures here, but he sounds like he’s making a petition to get into heaven. With his last trio (Marc Johnson on bass, Joe LaBarbera on drums), the pianist wrapped up his eight-night Keystone Korner gig exactly a week before the death he surely felt looming. Some 20 years later, eight CDs let you come back, set after set, to take in 65 previously unreleased performances covering 32 tunes.

David X. Young's Jazz Loft
1954-1965 The History and Lost Recordings

Jazz Magnet

From Monk to Miles to Mulligan, everybody jammed at this artist's loft in a decade-long heyday. These two CDs capture one chummy circle of regulars — saxophonists Zoot Sims and Pepper Adams, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and pianist Mose Allison among them — over a number of years. The sound quality is so-so, the rough edges can make you go uh-oh, but the energy is go-man-go.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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