Every fall record labels churn out box sets and special packages—sometimes elaborate, sometimes exploitive, sometimes worthwhile—designed to appeal to fanatics or end up as holiday gifts (and often both). I suppose if you have no interest in jazz, an eight-CD box set of music by Coleman Hawkins might seem uselessly extravagant, but all the releases I’ve collected here put music first, bells and whistles second (when there are any bells and whistles at all). Each would make a great present for the right friend or loved one—with any luck, these reviews will help you decide if you know that person (or are that person yourself).
Check out our all-local gift guide for nonmusical suggestions like absinthe, shadow puppets, and insulting posters.
Arizona Dranes, He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Drane (Tompkins Square)
This release collects all 16 known recordings of blind gospel singer and pianist Arizona Dranes, born in Greenville Town, Texas, in 1889 and affiliated with the Church of God in Christ, the first black-founded Christian denomination in the U.S. Music journalist Michael Corcoran wrote the 44-page book that houses the disc, and he clearly spent a lot of time trying fruitlessly to dig up facts about Dranes, who died in Los Angeles in 1963—the text reads almost like an unsolved mystery. Almost no photos of Dranes exist, so the book uses correspondence, advertisements, labels from 78s, and pictures with some connection to her history—associates, church congregations, buildings—to document her life by proxy. The remarkable music, recorded in three sessions in Chicago between 1926 and ’28 and remastered from original 78s, makes plain what spurred Corcoran’s search. Dranes’s huge, booming voice rides atop raucous piano accompaniment propelled by her locomotive left hand, which plays pre-boogie-woogie bass lines—she’s like a precursor to guitarist and singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who injected gospel with the drive of proto-rock ‘n’ roll in the 30s and 40s. $24.99
Jan Garbarek, Dansere (ECM)
No jazz musician is more synonymous with the so-called “Nordic tone” than Norwegian reedist Jan Garbarek. The serene, probing sound he developed became for some reason linked to fjords and mountains, aided on most of his recordings by the trademark production of German label ECM—dispassionate, reverb-heavy, and pastoral. Dansere collects the three LPs Garbarek made with Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson in the early 70s, during which time he expanded beyond his fire-breathing free-jazz beginnings and grew into this meditative style.
The 1971 album Sart is the transitional recording: thanks in part to the rock energy of electric guitarist Terje Rypdal, it retains the fury of its seething predecessor, Afric Pepperbird, so that you can feel the heavy thumbprints of Coltrane and Ayler and, on the wide-open title track, the influence of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. But Stenson’s majestic playing leavens the woolly energy, pushing the music in a contemplative direction—with help from a patient, space-carving rhythm section consisting of drummer Jon Christensen and bassist Arild Andersen. Witchi-Tai-To (1973) and Dansere (1975) are quartet recordings with Stenson, Christensen, and bassist Palle Danielsson. Both are all acoustic, and on the first you can hear the saxophonist smoothing out his tone, relaxing his phrases, and incorporating ideas from Scandinavian and North American folk music into the whole (Native American jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper wrote the title track). Dansere is more ethereal and lyrical, a development that set the stage for some unfortunate spin-offs—not just the antiseptic ECM house sound but also what came to be called “smooth jazz.” Garbarek’s style would calcify somewhat in the years to come, as though stuck in this shape, but in 1975 the beauty and high-level interplay in his music was still unique. $29.99
Coleman Hawkins, Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic)
Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins has the distinction of attracting more superlatives than almost anyone else in jazz, and this sprawling set spanning the first two and a half decades of his career demonstrates how thoroughly he earned them. He was the first jazz musician to develop a proper template for the tenor saxophone; he led his own bands and worked as a sideman through some of the most crucial developments in the music’s history, from traditional jazz to swing to bebop; and he was one of the most gifted and original improvisers who ever lived.
The eight-disc box—whose LP-size booklet includes precise and accessible liner notes by scholar and musician Loren Schoenberg, artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem—traces Coleman’s development from a slap-tonguing sideman for blues singer Mamie Smith to a star soloist with big-band legend Fletcher Henderson to a fixture in prewar all-star ensembles to a savvy bandleader in his own right. Included of course is his canonical 1939 reading of “Body and Soul,” but the other ballads are just as fantastic. In some ways this dynamic set could double as a primer on early jazz history, seen through the lens of one of its most durable figures—but it’s great no matter how you approach it. (Available only by mail via mosaicrecords.com.) $136
Tunji Oyelana, A Nigerian Retrospective 1966-79(Soundway)
Though singer Tunji Oyelana is among the many African stars who never found much of an audience outside the continent, he was a remarkable artist, evolving his music as the tastes of his fellow Nigerians changed—Afrobeat, juju, rock, highlife. For many years his backing band was called the Benders for just that reason: “This band, we have no particular style,” Oyelana says in the liner notes. “So we’re the Benders, just bending from one level to another!” A few of his vintage tracks have turned up on previous Soundway compilations of Nigerian music, but this excellent two-disc overview—which includes rare cuts he recorded in London with members of South African expat jazz group the Blue Notes—is the label’s first release to capture his range. The material jumps around chronologically, further obscuring whatever linear development he might have undergone; the fact that the liner notes don’t nail down the date of each track is my only complaint.
Oyelana participated in many multidisciplinary projects throughout his career, perhaps none more notable than his early involvement with the theater company of longtime friend Wole Soyinka. But he wasn’t a dabbler, spread too thin to be truly great at anything—whatever he did, he did 100 percent. He was a terrific songwriter, with a great ear for combining popular music with traditional Nigerian folk to create something hooky, warm, and heavy on the grooves. He led a killer band, and he used daring and distinctive production tricks—a bunch of tunes have two different, overlapping lead-vocal tracks. Oyelana’s output is still more proof that music ran deep all over Africa in the 60s and 70s—the stars visible from the West filled only a tiny fraction of the sky. $23
András Schiff, Johann Sebastian Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (ECM)
I’m still sad I missed the recent Symphony Center performance that pianist András Schiff gave of book two of The Well-Tempered Clavier, part of an ongoing series for which he’s playing all of Bach’s music from memory. Schiff’s 1983 recording of the Goldberg Variations was my entry point into Bach, and few living pianists are so invested in the composer’s oeuvre. Luckily for me, last year Schiff made his second recording of both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier—each comprises 24 paired preludes and fugues, one pair for each of the major and minor keys—and ECM has released it in this magnificent four-CD box set.
In a thoughtful essay included in the liner notes, Schiff explains some of his technical choices on aesthetic and historic grounds—particularly his decision to refrain entirely from using the piano’s sustain pedal, which he made because Bach wrote when the pedal didn’t yet exist. This goes against the grain of most modern performances, and only allows Schiff to let notes resonate and overlap by holding down their keys—but it yields a stunning rhythmic clarity. As Paul Griffiths writes in his notes, “Bach’s is supreme finger music,” and Schiff’s decision helps it sound unclouded and punchy, underlining the presence of what Griffiths calls “song or dance” in these masterful compositions. $59.99
Bessie Smith, The Complete Columbia Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)
Like the Bill Withers set I discuss below, this indispensable ten-CD box is exhaustive but no-frills. It collects the voluminous output of brilliant blues singer Bessie Smith on Columbia Records from 1923 to ’33. In the 90s the label issued this material in five cumbersome two-CD boxes with elaborate liner notes; this much more compact version contains the same five double-disc sets but lacks most of the documentation. Smith’s career was cut short by a fatal 1937 car crash at age 43, but she was one of America’s biggest musical stars, burning hot, bright, and fast—her first single, “Down Hearted Blues,” sold an unprecedented 780,000 copies in its first six months, becoming Columbia’s first major pop hit, and from then on the label kept her busy in the studio, renewing her contract over and over. Smith was sometimes accompanied by instrumentalists who matched her talent, including Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson, but she routinely overcame subpar backing bands and mediocre material with the power of her voice and the ingenuity and precision of her phrasing—listen to this set and you’ll understand why they called her “the Empress of the Blues.” $79.99
Various artists, Diablos del Ritmo: The Colombian Melting Pot 1960-1985 (Analog Africa)
Though German label Analog Africa focuses on rarely heard music from West Africa, in 2010 it released a terrific collection by Colombian accordionist and bandleader Anibal Velasquez, whose work has always extended beyond cumbia, the de facto national genre. Most vintage Colombian reissues draw from the deep catalog of powerhouse label Discos Fuentes, but for the sprawling new double CD Diablos del Ritmo Analog Africa owner Samy Ben Redjeb relied almost entirely on tiny imprints such as Felito, Machuca, and Discos Tropical. The first disc looks at the myriad ways Colombians absorbed and translated African influences—funk, Afrobeat, champeta—and the second offers a dizzying range of homegrown variants of cumbia and related forms, including puya, mapale, and cumbiamba. I recognized a few artists’ names—Wganda Kenya, Sonora Dinamita, Alejandro Duran—but nearly all of the music was new to me.
As usual for Analog Africa releases, Diablos del Ritmo comes with a photo-packed booklet of engrossing liner notes, which is almost worth the set’s price all by itself. Redjeb shares background on the music’s cultural roots and development and includes interviews he conducted with most of the musicians who are still alive, but for me the best part is the story of how he discovered this part of Colombia’s musical legacy. African records have been popular in the country since the 70s, but because most weren’t formally distributed there people could generally only hear them via sound-system DJs, who often guarded them fiercely to prevent rivals from learning what they were playing. When Redjeb visited Colombia, he brought hundreds of his own records, in effect pulling back the curtain on African music for local collectors—who in turn helped school him on the music that ended up on this compilation. $28.98
Various artists, Sound Art @ Het Apollohuis (Wergo)
Dutch sound artist Paul Panhuysen and his wife Helene started Het Apollohuis in 1980 in Eindhoven, and for 21 years it stood as a groundbreaking outpost where experimental music and art collided and performances and installations shared space under one roof. This double CD contains 24 excerpts from performances between 1980 and ’85, providing a great snapshot of what the venue provided even though the selections are incomplete documents—not just in duration but also in the absence of an often crucial visual component. A wide variety of approaches and theoretical schools are represented, including the post-Fluxus verbal play of Jackson MacLow, the postpunk percussion of Z’ev, the guerrilla electronic music of Mark Trayle and Hugh Davies, and the minimalism of Phill Niblock and Arnold Dreyblatt. The set includes a 74-page booklet with notes on each performance, which certainly helps in the case of Alvin Lucier’s head-rattling 1987 piece “Music for Solo Performer”—you’d never guess just from listening to it that it was created with brain waves. $49.98
Various artists, Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time, and End Time Music 1923-1936 (Tompkins Square)
Guitarist Nathan Salsburg, who’s also curator of the Alan Lomax Collection, built this three-CD set of early country and folk music from the massive record collection that Don Wahle of Louisville, Kentucky, amassed between the 50s and the early 80s. Salsburg got wind of Wahle’s trove the night before most of it was scheduled to be hauled away in a Dumpster, and he pulled an 11th-hour rescue. In his notes Salsburg writes that he’d been planning on assembling a compilation around the themes of working, playing, and praying, and Wahle’s records galvanized the project—the songs here show some of the ways rural southerners coped with toil through drink, romance, and religion. There are some country giants featured, including Gid Tanner, the Allen Brothers, and the Dixon Brothers, but most of the music is obscure; the majority of the songs have been unavailable since their original release on 78. As usual with the Tompkins Square label, the package (designed by Susan Archie) comes with excellent liner notes and fascinating photos. Encountering buried treasures like this always makes me wonder how many more American music can possibly still hold, but I’m thrilled they keep coming. $32.99
Bill Withers, The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums(Columbia/Legacy)
This handy set collects the discography of soul singer Bill Withers—the eight studio albums and one live collection he made between 1971 and 1985, when he quit the record biz. Each CD is enclosed in a miniature facsimile of the original LP cover, but none of the bonus tracks that have previously turned up on individual album reissues are included; the 40-page booklet doesn’t contain much more than some photos and album credits, aside from a short piece by Withers (who’s still alive) and an essay by author and Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson. But who cares about liner notes when the music says so much? Withers stood alone in his time, and his singular sound kicked off a paradigm shift in soul: his laid-back, adult spin on the music, with relatively restrained singing and stripped-down arrangements, emphasizes poignant commentary on the human condition rather than outpourings of individual emotion. Early classics such as Still Bill (which contains the timeless “Use Me” and “Lean on Me”) and +’Justments, and later albums such as Menagerie treated the same sort of songwriting to more elaborate, jazz-kissed production. Through it all Withers’s voice embodies “chill,” saying more with less. $74.99