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Divine Sounds in Deluxe Editions: Peruse the Finest Jazz, Blues and Soul, with Our Gift Guide

George Lederer

Seeking holiday inspiration? We’ve got you covered.

Here is an array of covetable boxed sets, books and special editions for the jazz, soul, blues or gospel fan in your life — at various price points, covering a range of eras and styles.  

Chet Baker, The Legendary Riverside Albums

(5 LPs, Craft Recordings / Amazon)

As a trumpeter and as a singer — and to be clear, no less as a photographic subject — Chet Baker personified a soft, seductive brand of postwar American cool. This deluxe set consists of four albums that helped define that image, mastered from original analog tapes. Starting with Chet Baker Sings (1958) and ending with Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner And Loewe (1959), it finds Baker in top form alongside some of New York’s brightest talent, like tenor saxophonists Zoot Sims and Johnny Griffin, and pianists Bill Evans and Kenny Drew. A fifth disc of outtakes and alternates is a deal-sweetener, as are the liner notes by Doug Ramsey, who conveys both the pith and the poignancy of Baker’s career.

Credit Eagle Rock Entertainment
Eagle Rock Entertainment
Wayne Shorter, filmmaker Sophie Huber and Blue Note president Don Was

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes

(Blu-Ray or DVD, Eagle Rock / Amazon)

Sophie Huber’s brisk, stylish documentary was released theatrically in connection with Blue Note’s 80th anniversary, but it maintains an outside perspective — whirring to life especially whenever the subject turns to jazz’s role in African American sociopolitical movements, and its relationship to hip-hop. Presiding elders like Lou Donaldson, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock share ample time with younger artists on the label roster, including saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Robert Glasper.  

James Brown, Live at Home With His Bad Self

(2 LPs or CD, Republic/UMe / Amazon)

Just over a half-century ago — on Oct. 1, 1969 — Soul Brother No. 1 performed an exultant homecoming concert in Augusta, Ga. The blistering show, at the Bell Auditorium, was recorded for a live album that never happened, because of the fractious end of Brown’s band. Which makes this release the first full document of that evening, as well as a Last Hurrah for the spit-and-polish era of Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and Clyde Stubblefield. There are some odd lapses — Brown insists of performing his new single, “World,” to a prerecorded track — but the high points, like https://youtu.be/k4mb3baIH84" target="_blank">“Mother Popcorn,” are as high as it gets.

Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vols. 1 & 2

(LP or CD, Concord Records)

Ray Charles released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music more than two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — just one reason for its reputation as a groundbreaking album. The first and foremost reason, of course, is the sheer excellence of Charles’ performances, of songs like “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Careless Love.” This reissue marks the first vinyl treatment of the album and its follow-up since 2002 — a real treat, especially on high-fidelity vinyl.  

The City Was Yellow: Chicago Jazz and Improvised Music 1980-2010

(Paperback, Constellation Performing Arts)

Conceived and curated by Mike Reed, a drummer/composer/bandleader with broad experience on the Chicago scene, this remarkable book can be understood as a love letter — to that scene, to its players and especially to Fred Anderson and Von Freeman, two tenor saxophonists who stood tall as mentors and community-builders. But The City Was Yellow also has implications both practical and scholarly: it’s a regional Real Book, an intentional canon, and a holistic survey, with insights from a range of critics who understand the terrain.

Nat King Cole, Hittin' The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943 Deluxe

(10 LPs, 7 CDs, Resonance / Amazon)

If Nat King Cole had never become a pioneering television personality, a songbook totem or even a Capitol Records star, he’d still hold a rarefied place in American music. That’s mainly because of the extraordinary music lovingly assembled here. Composed of almost 200 tracks from the 1930s and '40s — most featuring the irrepressibly buoyant Nat King Cole Trio, and some never previously released — it’s a collection worthy of Cole’s centennial year. Characteristically for Resonance Records, it’s also a scrupulous piece of jazz scholarship, thanks especially to the work of coproducer Will Friedwald, whose illuminating liner essay appears alongside interviews with the likes of Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones and Freddy Cole. All told, a splurge worth coveting for any fan of classic jazz.

John Coltrane, Blue World

(LP, CD or digital, Impulse!/UMe / Amazon)

The archival discovery of the year does more than extend a series of windfalls from John Coltrane’s estate. It’s also a tantalizing glimpse of the saxophonist and his immortal quartet in their loosest state, revisiting old songs and testing out new angles, with barely a thought for the posterity that is us, poring over every detail. Not an essential addition to the Coltrane discography, but an extremely welcome one, either on vinyl or CD.

Miles Davis, The Complete Birth of the Cool

(2 LPs, Blue Note/UMe / Amazon)

Miles Davis and his fledgling Third Stream coalition recorded this pellucid music 70 years ago, and it has never lacked for appeal. First compiled as an album in 1957, it has been repackaged a few times since — notably in a 1998 edition that bears the same title as this one (with studio material supplemented by two broadcasts from The Royal Roost). Why, then, would you splurge on an anniversary vinyl release? The big reason: an exquisite new mastering effort, which reveals new levels of depth and nuance in the arrangements, by Gil Evans and others. A smart idea for any audiophiles in your life, even if they think they already know this music cold.

Roy DeCarava, the sound i saw

(Hardcover, First Print Press / Amazon)

The American photographer Roy DeCarava died a decade ago, in Harlem, where he spent most of his life in radiant observation. He made the sound i saw as a prototype in the 1960s, interspersing unguarded musician portraits — of jazz giants like Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk — with street scenes, club interiors and his own impressionistic poetry. The book didn’t see proper publication until many years later; this handsome edition has been hailed as a landmark. To dive into its pages is to marvel at the painterly quality of DeCarava’s compositions, the evident clarity of his convictions, and his unsentimental yet deeply empathetic vision.

Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings

(4 LPs, 2 CDs, Rhino / Amazon)

When Amazing Grace finally made its way to theaters last fall, after more than 40 years in limbo, critical acclaim was universal and unreserved; it earns its place as one of the best music films ever made. Inspired by that success, Rhino put out the first-ever vinyl release of Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings, on four 180-gram LPs. Lovingly produced to create the most faithful reproduction of what transpired at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Jan. 13 and 14, 1972, it strips away some of the postproduction overdubs from the original, iconic gospel album. The effect is a verité nearly as warmly immersive as the film — a fitting tribute to a transcendent effort by one of our most irreplaceable artists.

Marvin Gaye, You’re the Man

(2 LPs, Motown/UMe / Amazon)

When Marvin Gaye made You’re the Man in 1972, he faced an imposing task: producing a follow-up to his instant classic What’s Going On. But after the title track fell short as a single, Motown shelved the release, leaving Gaye to keep moving forward. So this is the first-ever release of You’re the Man — and while it doesn’t quite cohere as a complete album, its heights and depths are considerable. And there’s a seasonal bonus: https://youtu.be/1qOSqSUFi6s" target="_blank">“Christmas in the City” and https://youtu.be/cWPbZLMec60" target="_blank">“I Want to Come Home For Christmas,” both deserving of a spot on your holiday playlists.  

Getz at the Gate: The Stan Getz Quartet Live at the Village Gate, Nov. 26, 1961

(3 LPs, 2 CDs, Verve/UMe)

This spectacular live album captures tenor saxophonist Stan Getz with what was then, all too briefly, a working rhythm section: pianist Steve Kuhn, bassist John Neves, drummer Roy Haynes. Getz whips the band around like a sports car, the paragon of boppish fluency, on tunes like “Airegin” and “52nd Street Theme.” As Bob Blumenthal observes in his liner notes, this quartet should have gone on to a long career, but the smash success of Jazz Samba would prove an irresistible diversion. Thankfully we now have this document, in first-rate sound quality.

Ben Goldberg, Good Day For Cloud Fishing

(CD with poems, Pyroclastic Records)

Clarinetist and composer Ben Goldberg managed a rare symbiosis with the poet Dean Young on this album, which also features Ron Miles on cornet and Nels Cline on guitar. The music is exceptional: chamberlike but never precious, in tune with Young’s deadpan surrealism — and the only way to truly experience the interaction between word and sound is through this physical release, which features the poems on tactile card inserts.

Janis: Her Life and Music, by Holly George-Warren

(Hardcover, Simon & Schuster)

Janis Joplin, the Aquarian Age blues howler and rock goddess, receives a sharp, sympathetic and thoughtful biographical treatment in Janis, which peers behind the haze of iconography, while recognizing the role that it played in her explosive career and ultimate undoing. Holly George-Warren, who has also published books on Alex Chilton and Gene Autry, writes with easeful authority; this is a definitive study that wears its wisdom lightly.

Joseph Jarman, Black Case Volume I & II: Return From Exile

(Paperback, Blank Forms Editions)

Joseph Jarman, the saxophonist and spiritual leader best known as a founding member of The Art Ensemble of Chicago, self-published this book of poetry and photographs 45 years ago, but its energies feel no less urgent today. Experimental, often exhortative, and rooted in the righteous concept of Great Black Music, Black Case Volume I & II: Return From Exile is a fascinating portal, now available in a limited edition from Blank Forms. Along with a faithful reproduction, it includes new essays by Thulani Davis and Brent Hayes Edwards, who persuasively calls it “perhaps the most extraordinary of an efflorescence of literary publications by jazz musicians in the 1970s.”

Curtis Mayfield, Keep On Keeping On: Studio Albums 1970-1974

(5 LPs or 4 CDs, Rhino)

A searing sociopolitical ambition flows throughout this choice collection, which gathers newly remastered versions of Curtis Mayfield’s first four studio albums: Curtis, Roots, Back to the World and Sweet Exorcist. Along with the soundtrack to Super Fly, this is the bedrock on which Mayfield’s genius rests, and it still holds the capacity to rouse and inspire.

Motown: The Complete No. 1s

(11 CDs, Motown/UMe / Amazon)

The 208 hit singles in this collection — both timeless and perfectly of their time — form a testament to the miracle of Motown, which marked its 60th anniversary this year. As part of the festivities, the label updated its Complete No. 1s with a bundle of additional tracks: Motown songs that yielded hits for other artists, like Coolio; and late-breaking chart-toppers, like Diana Ross’ 2018 remix of “I'm Coming Out / Upside Down.” Of course, the 11 CDs still come housed in a replica of Hitsville U.S.A., where so much of this magic happened in the first place.

Newvelle Records: Season Four

(6 LPs, Newvelle)

Newvelle is known to jazz audiophiles as a boutique label — releasing music only on high-quality vinyl, and only through a full-season subscription. That’s a niche market, but a growing one, and the label’s musical direction just keeps getting more distinctive and assured. Season Four is top-notch across the board; highlights include Noah Preminger’s Preminger Plays Preminger; Kenny Werner’s Church on Mars; a duo album by multi-reedist Gregory Tardy and guitarist Bill Frisell; and an overdue breakthrough by pianist Billy Lester. (Newvelle is also offering select individual LPs from past seasons, now through Dec. 2.)

Mark Stryker, Jazz From Detroit

(Hardcover, Univ. of Michigan Press / Amazon)

Mark Stryker has chronicled music in Detroit for many years, and in this exemplary cultural history, he makes the case that jazz would be unimaginable without the city’s influence. Along with 26 glowing profiles — of artists ranging from Yusef Lateef to Sheila Jordan to Geri Allen — the book illuminates a complex cultural backdrop, showing how the rise and fall (and ongoing transition) of a great American industrial city produced reverberations still felt in our music.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.