From Refurbished Classics to Fresh Discoveries, Swing Into the Holidays with Our Gift Guide

Nov 26, 2018

We know it can be hard to shop for the jazz fan in your life. Especially in this day and age — when so much of our music arrives in digital form, or through a streaming service. So in this Holiday Gift Guide edition of Take Five I gathered 15 new releases, from throwback to ultramodern, that are well worth savoring as physical objects. 

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles

21 CDs, ECM Records / Amazon

An impressive complement to a season of commemoration, this elegant boxed set gathers every ECM release by The Art Ensemble of Chicago, along with albums that spin in a compatible orbit — everything from Wadada Leo Smith’s Divine Love, made 40 years ago, to Roscoe Mitchell’s Bells For the South Side, recorded in 2015. Avant-garde enthusiasts will be familiar with most if not all of this material, but it’s presented in such handsome fashion here, as in the catalog of a museum retrospective, that the package makes its case.

A 300-page booklet includes not only credits and original album art but also a series of notes from participating artists, some of whom reflect on the legacy of the group. “The program moves through such a variety of approaches and sounds, from blues to bebop to sound collage and stark rigorous structural compositions,” observes Craig Taborn, a pianist featured in Mitchell’s Note Factory. “But through all of this is this feeling that this music has somehow always been going on, is part of some larger sound body, and when the albums end I have always felt haunted by this music as if it never really ends at all.”

Ornette Coleman, The Atlantic Years

10 LPs, Rhino / Amazon

All of the music in this epochal collection was made within the span of two years, from May 1959 to March 1961. And even without the immodest thrust of the album titles — The Shape of Jazz to Come, of course, but also Change of the Century and The Art of the Improvisers — this cache of recordings would amount to a watershed, securing Ornette Coleman’s legacy as both a trailblazer and a catalyst.  

Rhino has previously assembled this material in a 6-CD set, Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings. What differentiates the deluxe 10-LP package is the lucid mastering, by John Webber at AIR Studios, and a booklet that includes an astute new liner essay by Ben Ratliff. (Writing about Free Jazz, he suggests that drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell “come together like two men in a horse costume to create ecstatic, loose-limbed New Orleans dance rhythm.”) Masterpiece treatment, for a body of work that demands no less. 

John Coltrane, 1963: New Directions (Impulse!)

3 CDs or 5 LPs, Impulse! / Amazon

One intriguing fact about Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album – the archival John Coltrane release that caused a sensation this year — is how clearly it captures an artist in motion. Just one day after recording the music on Both Directions, the Coltrane quartet returned to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio to make John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, a simmering classic. Later in the year, there came vital dispatches both from the studio and the bandstand. And now, motivated by the runaway demand for archival Trane, Impulse! has gathered all of this material into one package, with an underlying thesis about a genius at a pivotal moment of transition. The 3-CD set is available now, while a deluxe vinyl edition is expected on Dec. 7. 

Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6

4 CDs, Legacy / Amazon  

This small trove of concert recordings, which we’ve featured before in Take Five, could be considered an ending or a beginning, depending on your vantage. After several pivotal years as Miles Davis’ saxophonist and frontline foil, John Coltrane was ready to head out on his own, and that restless resolve permeates the music from this last European tour. The band plays songbook standards as well as modal experiments from what was then a new album, Kind of Blue. As Ashley Kahn details in his liner notes, the music contains the tensions of an emerging divide. 

Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Sessions

3 LPs or 3 CDs, Resonance / Amazon

Resonance Records recently celebrated its first decade with all due ceremony, and its latest release will remind fans of why the label stands so tall in its lane. Alto saxophonist, flutist and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy made the music in this set 55 years ago, with partners including trumpeter Woody Shaw and bassist Richard Davis. Along with material originally heard on the landmark albums Iron Man and Conversations, the set includes nearly an hour and a half of previously unissued music — painstakingly sourced, generously annotated, and packed with rare photographs. Resonance has just released Musical Prophet as a limited-edition vinyl set, for Black Friday; it will be available on CD and in digital formats on Jan. 25.

Dave Douglas Quintet, Brazen Heart Live at Jazz Standard

8 CDs and digital, Greenleaf Music

Brazen Heart, a 2015 studio album by trumpeter Dave Douglas, marked the official moment of arrival for a quintet featuring saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston. Just after its release, this band played a four-night run at the Jazz Standard, recording and rush-delivering the results in digital form. Now there’s a physical release, available either as an 8-CD comprehensive box or as individual 2-disc albums, each one chronicling a night. Whatever your portion size, this is a fine chronicle of a fantastic band leaning out over the edge.

Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946

Hardcover, Little, Brown / Amazon

“Publicly he appeared to glide through a charmed world,” writes Gary Giddins of the preternaturally unruffled entertainer Bing Crosby in Swinging on a Star, the second volume in a gargantuan biographical study. As indicated by the subtitle, “The War Years: 1940-1946,” this is a hefty unpacking of a brief span of time — and yet there’s so much to say about Crosby’s life and art during the war, and Giddins is such an observant and companionable portraitist, that the effort feels well justified. More than an accounting of Der Bingle’s movements, the book offers a glimpse of what celebrity entailed in the 1940s, a reflection on morale and national identity, and yes, a candid peek behind the all-American façade. 

Maxine Gordon, Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon 

Hardcover, U. of California Press / Amazon

A work of jazz biography that also matter-of-factly contains elements of historiography and memoir, Sophisticated Giant depicts tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon from the closest possible vantage. For more about it, hear my recent conversation with Maxine Gordon, who first set out to write this book some 30 years ago, and took no shortcuts in its completion. 

Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 (Deluxe Edition)

3 LPs, Urban Legends / Amazon

The interchange between jazz and hip-hop has become so multilayered and matter-of-fact that it’s easy to forget how bold a statement it could once seem.

Guru, one half of the duo Gang Starr, made perhaps the most earnest and out-front gesture in this vein with Jazzmatazz Vol. 1, which featured a multigenerational array of jazz musicians — trumpeter Donald Byrd, vibraphonist Roy Ayers, saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Courtney Pine — in a boom-bap mode. This 25th anniversary deluxe edition supplements the original album with one disc of instrumental-only tracks and another full of remixes. (“Loungin,’” the album’s lead single, appears in no fewer than five versions throughout the set.) This music sounds emphatically of its moment, but it also carries elements of the future we now take for granted.

Art Kane. Harlem 1958: 60th Anniversary Edition

Hardcover, Wall of Sound / Amazon

The photograph is justly iconic: a class picture of the New York City jazz firmament just as one valiant generation is making way for the next. It was also a career breakthrough for Art Kane, who pitched the ambitious idea to Esquire and then had to figure out how to make it work.

This beautifully organized art book, printed and bound in Italy, features one foreword apiece by Quincy Jones, who would have been in the image if not for his studies abroad, and Benny Golson, one of only two surviving artists from the shoot. It also includes an essay by Jonathan Kane, who remembers his father’s compulsion for discarding anything but the finished shot. The book argues otherwise, gathering all manner of additional shots from that day. What emerges is a jovial portrait of an artistic society much more unified in purpose than it would soon become. Also: it becomes clear just how much cajoling and serendipity went into the final image, which loses not an ounce of its magic in the process.

Charles Mingus, Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden

5 CDs or 5 LPs, BBE Music / 180 Proof / Amazon

Here is a delectable heap of music from bassist and composer Charles Mingus, leading a rather ad hoc ensemble through nearly four hours of performance in Detroit. The year is 1973, and the band is most remarkable for the effervescent genius of Don Pullen at the piano. (Also in the band were saxophonist John Stubblefield and drummer Roy Brooks, among others.) Available now on CD or LP, it finds Mingus in strong, spirited form, muscling the band through staples like “Pithecanthropus Erectus” as well as relative obscurities like “Dizzy Profile.” And as Detroit-based critic Mark Stryker notes in a recent article, the results also “open a window on a compelling and influential chapter of Detroit jazz history.” 

Newvelle Records Subcription

6 LPs by subscription, Newvelle

If you routinely follow the action at Take Five, you should be familiar with Newvelle, an audiophile vinyl subscription series with a bright roster of artists and a sumptuous visual design. The label’s third season is well underway, and has so far included a gem of a duets album by bassist Skúli Sverrisson and guitarist Bill Frisell; a tribute to Charlie Haden and Paul Motian by one of their former protégé-collaborators, guitarist Steve Cardenas; and a rare standards outing by guitarist Lionel Loueke, leading a trio with Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. Details about the fourth season have not yet been announced, but regular Newvelle subscribers have by now grown accustomed to excellence.

Sonny Rollins, Way Out West: Deluxe Edition

2 LPs, Craft Recordings / Amazon

The album, like the image that emblazons its cover, is a stone classic. But even if you’ve spent countless hours with this 1957 gem — the first time tenor titan Sonny Rollins recorded with a pianoless trio, backed only by bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne — there’s fresh intel in this set. Along with three alternate takes included on an earlier reissue, it includes a previously unreleased alternate take of “There Is No Greater Love,” and one additional spin through the album’s title track. There’s also some engaging studio chatter (including a risqué exchange about the title of “Come, Gone”) and a sharp new liner essay by Neil Tesser, complete with recent comments from Rollins — who, in the closest he’ll probably ever get to a boast, says: “It was a unique concept; I’m glad I did it.” 

Various Artists, The Savory Collection 1935-1940

6 CDs, only available through Mosaic Records

The saga of discovery that yielded The Savory Collection is by now a familiar tale to most diehard jazz fans. But prior to the recent arrival of this 6-CD boxed set from Mosaic Records, the music — Bill Savory’s miraculous radio transcriptions of (among others) Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, John Kirby, and Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb — has only been available through iTunes and Apple Music.

True to form, Mosaic has produced the set with loving attention: most of the tracks sound remarkably clean, and an accompanying booklet is chockfull of period photographs. Loren Schoenberg, who shepherded collection to the light of day, is one of a handful of insightful commentators in the notes. Others include James Carter, the saxophonist; Ricky Riccardi, Director of Research Collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum; Dan Morgenstern, Director Emeritus of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. A major rollout for an incomparable body of work. 

Various Artists, Brainfeeder X

4 LPs, 2 CDs and digital; Brainfeeder  

Brainfeeder, the future-shock indie label out of Los Angeles, observes its 10th anniversary with this 36-track compilation, as stylish a move as you’d expect. Produced mainly by the label’s founder, pathfinding electronic artist Flying Lotus, the set breaks down into two halves: a retrospective, featuring the likes of Jameszoo, Thundercat and Daedelus; and a future prospectus, with contributions from Georgia Anne Muldrow, Louis Cole, Taylor Graves and many more. There’s a conspicuous absence in saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who now records for another label. But given what this set does contain — notably from Kamasi confrere Brandon Coleman, bassist Mono/Poly, BADBADNOTGOOD and Flying Lotus himself — it would be shortsighted to focus on the omissions. What’s here is worth tripping over.