When Shopping for CDs, Don't Bypass Those Bargains

Although hundreds of musically stunning compact discs are affordably priced, many companies do nothing to help music fans gain awareness of these recordings, preferring instead to highlight discs selling for $16 and more.

Indeed, when asked about budget CDs, a publicity agent for one of the largest recording companies claimed to have no catalog of under $12 discs, and kept repeating that her corporation's cheap discs were a "low priority."

A corporation's "low priority" can easily be a music lover's highest. Here are five reasons why:

Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel (Music Club). These were the first recordings the Queen of Gospel ever made, and are arguably her finest. Free of any predictable mannerisms, here are 16 performances exuding spontaneously realized transcendence, full of full-throated shouts, soaring trills, and blues-drenched choruses.

The repertoire may seem familiar - "Get Away Jordan," "Amazing Grace," "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" - but there is nothing shopworn about Jackson's ecstatic vocal arabesques, captured during the height of her power.

Freddie Hubbard, Ballads (Blue Note). As jazz trumpeter Hubbard struggles in the present to regain his once-legendary tone, here is a ravishing sample of his youthful art as caught in studios during the '60s.

Seven ballads, ranging from the much-recorded "Body and Soul" to Hubbard's tearful elegy for fellow trumpeter Booker Little, "Lament for Booker," find the trumpeter gloriously supported by various saxophonists and rhythm-section players.

There is a pure lyricism captured, a sound suffused with a dignified power, burnished to a finish as glowing as finely carved cherry wood. Count this as one of the most riveting recordings of jazz ballad artistry ever assembled.

Various Artists, Smithsonian Folkways World Music Collection (Smithsonian Folkways). Given the fact that a single CD can hold only 70-odd minutes of music, it seems preposterous to think that one disc could successfully present traditional musics from every continent.

Yet here are 28 selections, bookended by a chanting/drumming piece from Ghana full of dazzling polyrhythms and a Lithuanian lullaby sung laughingly by a mother to her infant, that present a coherent overview of the planet's folk traditions.

The accompanying 25-page booklet offers a highly informative and lively guide to the world-music discs on the "Smithsonian/Folkways" label.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, Conductor: Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, Falla, Nights in the Gardens of Spain (Sony Essential Classics). More classical discs are priced in the budget category ($3.99 to $11.99) than discs in any other genre. And inexpensive Gershwin discs litter the market.

But this version captures the urban(e) sophistication, the swanky jazz stylings, the broad romanticism better than any other recording at any price.

It also happens to be the only disc linking Gershwin to his lesser-known Spanish contemporary Manuel de Falla. Initially the link seems loony - jazz age New York rhapsodized set next to an impressionistic tone poem evoking Spanish gardens? - yet the common thread is the focus upon mysterious landscapes aglow with hidden nocturnal charms.

Various Artists, 15 Louisiana Zydeco Classics (Arhoolie). Zydeco resembles much of Louisiana's cuisine: a peppery amalgam of bold flavors. Accordion-driven, this music's mix of Cajun dance rhythms cross-fertilized with R&B electric guitar sounds fairly chaotic at its very best.

It doesn't get any better than this: the sounds of Zydeco's founder Clifton Chenier, his son C.J., and others, recklessly exemplifying a swampy, sultry, upbeat sensibility.

A supremely satisfying soundtrack for any wildly festive occasion.

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