'Jazz' CD set offers musical chestnuts, plays it too safe

A sticker attached to the front of Ken Burns's "Jazz: The Story of American Music," the new five-CD box from Columbia Legacy and Verve Music Group, proclaims: "This is the definitive collection of the quintessential American music."

Even given the feverish hyperbole regularly churned out by marketing departments, it's an unfortunately overblown accolade to describe the selection of nearly 100 musical pieces from the forthcoming PBS television series created by the talented filmmaker.

This boxed set is an often engaging, but oddly compiled hodge-podge, reflecting the filmmaker's enthusiasm for jazz - but also revealing a less than sterling awareness of jazz's histories.

To think of jazz as having "histories," rather than one definitive history, is a reminder that it is an art form only a century old, one still in dynamic evolution, subject to various interpretations.

What Mr. Burns and his musical consultants did in compiling this box is to emphasize the heritage of swing that drew heavily from Tin Pan Alley and blues. That's why the set opens with Louis Armstrong singing "Stardust."

"Stardust" is not Armstrong's strongest moment - either vocally or instrumentally - but it prepares listeners for the experience of jazz as seeming familiar, nostalgic, hummable, comfortable, a form as broadly accessible and American as baseball, the subject of Burns' previous multipart TV documentary.

Disc One does have its share of truly stunning moments - Bessie Smith wailing "Backwater Blues," Duke Ellington's roiling Cotton Club classics like "The Mooche," and Armstrong's magisterially soaring trumpet on "West End Blues." This is familiar music for listeners with even a fleeting acquaintance with jazz, and nothing of the music's luster is lost.

Disc Two consists largely of big- band classics, showcasing more Ellington, along with danceable Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and vocals by a young Billie Holiday. Again, Burns emphasizes familiar fare like Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," with it's throbbing drums.

The transition from the big-band sounds of the 1930s to the bop style of the 1940s and '50s is capably handled on Disc Three, with the baroquely complex "Scrapple From the Apple" by the Charlie Parker quintet and dissonant yet enchanting piano by Thelonious Monk.

Disc Four demonstrates little understanding of jazz from 1960 to the present. While the inclusion of tumultuously revolutionary tunes by Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor fairly represent these giants, the omissions are jarring. No jazz women are represented, except as vocalists. Most amazingly, the composer Mary Lou Williams, who will be featured in the TV series, is nowhere to be found. Nor are examples of jazz revealing African, Asian, or European influences.

Instead, on Disc Five, loosely encompassing the last three decades, we're given a highly unlistenable melange that seems assembled by pressing a "random play" button on a CD player. Opening with Armstrong's "Holly Dolly," a performance that is pure pop music with little jazz coloration, the disc segues through bossa nova by Stan Getz, fusion by Miles Davis, "lite" jazz by Grover Washington Jr., and concludes with an utterly overblown (literally as well as figuratively) version of Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," as blaringly mangled by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Is this the future of jazz Burns wants to leave us with - retro vulgarity rather than imaginatively progressive improvisation?

Credit Burns with being a matchless storyteller in film. But strictly on musical terms, he offers a pricey "play it safe" assortment of sturdy musical chestnuts.

There is a one-disc "sampler" culled from this box that can be recommended, and 22 individual discs, intelligently compiled and attractively priced, by the prime movers and shakers Burns celebrates, for those who will want audio gems from the PBS series.

The story of jazz is largely a story of the African-American quest for freedom through imaginative musical expression. Like all quests for freedom, "play it safe" strategies were never the whole story. The definitive collection of jazz on disc is, like freedom itself, still gestating.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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