Holiday Gift Guide 2020: Sparkling Sounds and Bright Ideas For the Jazz Lover in Your Life
In search of holiday inspiration? WBGO has you covered.
As we round the final lap of a uniquely trying year, music is more of a comfort than ever. And even in this age of the algorithm, the right musical gift can be unbeatable. So we’ve gathered more than 30 terrific options — new boxed sets, books, vinyl reissues, even apparel — at a multitude of price points, spanning a healthy range of style. (As an Amazon Associate, WBGO earns from qualifying purchases.)
Before we go further, let’s note that while our Guide favors physical media in deluxe editions, there are many ways to support living artists. You can often buy their albums or merch directly, or through Bandcamp. Peruse our Livestream Hub to find a ticketed show.
And of course, please remember that WBGO is listener-supported. Give the Gift of Jazz when you become a member, or sign up a friend or family member. We’re in this together!
Monty Alexander, Love You Madly: Live at Bubba’s
The crisp touch and buoyant feel of Monty Alexander’s piano style has rarely been better captured than on this 1982 recording from a club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Leading an airtight combo, he swings like nobody’s business — captured in audiophile quality, and presented accordingly.
Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong
Ricky Riccardi, Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, brings warm illumination to this study of Armstrong’s career during a 20-year span, from the late 1920s to the late ‘40s, when he “transcended the world of jazz.” Pushing back against stubborn accusations of commercial or cultural capitulation, Riccardi recenters a narrative of Armstrong’s genius, with admiring but clear-eyed detail. A definitive work of jazz scholarship that’s also an absorbing read.
Albert Ayler, New Grass
New Grass met with a prickly reception in 1969, as critics struggled to make sense of Albert Ayler’s swerve into a funkier lane. This year, Third Man Records undertook its first vinyl pressing in over 40 years, urging a reevaluation. John Szwed pulls no punches in his liner notes: “Never has an avant-garde musician thrust himself fully into the spirit of a popular music as Albert Ayler does here.”
Biophilia Records Face Masks
Biophilia, the label founded by pianist Fabian Almazan, takes environmental activism seriously: there is still no way to purchase its music in physical form, though each album comes with patented Biopholio artwork. Here is another tactile offering: a contoured face mask, emblazoned with the label logo.
Blue Note Records: Tone Poet Series
Initiated last year for the 80th anniversary of Blue Note Records, the Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series has since released a steady tide of covetable objects: classic albums from the label’s storied catalog, mastered from the original source on 180-gram vinyl and presented in deluxe gatefold packaging, usually with Francis Wolff session photographs. Among the latest titles: McCoy Tyner’s Tender Moments, Donald Byrd’s Byrd in Flight, and Bobby Hutcherson’s Oblique.
Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time
For most of his career, pianist-composer Dave Brubeck was one of the most famous jazz musicians alive — and arguably one of the most misunderstood. This biography, by British music journalist Philip Clark, draws on firsthand interviews and extensive research to pull back the curtain on Brubeck’s ambitions and intentions.
Joe Castro, Passion Flower - For Doris Duke
West Coast bop pianist Joe Castro only released a few albums, but he was prodigious in the studio — specifically, the home studios built at the estates of his partner, heiress Doris Duke. Gathered here, alongside his two Atlantic albums, are highlights from those private sessions, with a revolving door of friends. And hark: a previously unheard 1965 trio album with bassist Teddy Kotick and drummer Paul Motian.
George Coleman Quintet, In Baltimore
Tenor saxophonist George Coleman made his first known live recording as a leader for Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society in 1971. His fiery and hitherto unissued set features a quintet with trumpeter Danny Moore out front, playing a few standards and not one but two tunes by hard-bop paragon Clifford Brown.
John Coltrane, Giant Steps: 60th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
Giant Steps, of course, is as canonical as it gets — a fact openly acknowledged in this commemorative reissue. Along with eight alternate takes (including a fine early version of “Like Sonny,” recorded during the same timeframe but saved for a later album), there’s a detailed new essay by Ashley Kahn, who consults with a handful of today’s leading saxophonists, and sagely calls this album “Exhibit A of how Coltrane’s obsession with the inner mechanics of music could not — and did not — impede his lyrical priority as a soloist, nor his compositional knack for inventing memorable, deeply entrancing melodies.”
Bill Evans, Live at Ronnie Scott’s
Resonance Records has made a cottage industry out of unheard tapes by pianist Bill Evans, but that’s no reason to overlook this one. Recorded during a monthlong engagement at London’s top jazz club in 1968, it captures a short-lived, spectacular trio — with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette — in loose and fiery form. Sheer magic.
Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes
As we suggested in a recent episode of Jazz United, The Lost Berlin Tapes is an artifact of triumph — a previously unheard gem that captures the First Lady of Song in spectacular form, on tour in 1962. Verve has produced a handsome package for the album (especially on vinyl), with liner notes by Stuart Nicholson.
Jimi Hendrix Experience, Live in Maui
On July 30, 1970, Jimi Hendrix played a ramshackle free concert along the slope of Haleakala Crater, on the Hawaiian isle of Maui. The tale behind the show, involving an ill-fated hippie film called Rainbow Bridge, is the subject of a new doc titled Music, Money, Madness… Jimi Hendrix in Maui. It appears in this package alongside the music from the concert — primo Hendrix, only six weeks before his shocking death, with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox.
Impulse! Records Apparel
Impulse! Records, which is preparing to observe its 60th anniversary, has recently stepped up its merch game: at the official label store, you can find an array of T-shirts, totes and hoodies, even a cotton face mask.
Keith Jarrett: A Biography
(Hardcover book, Equinox)
Wolfgang Sandner, a German musicologist and historian, first published this biography five years ago. It has since been translated into English — by none other than Jarrett’s youngest brother, Chris, who resides in Germany — and updated to include this year’s bittersweet release, The Budapest Concert. An insightful and respectful treatment of one of our most brilliant talents, and a rare window onto the life behind the music.
Jazz Dispensary Bundle
In addition to assorted standalone releases under its Classics line, Vinyl Me, Please has produced a special batch of albums in collaboration with Craft Recordings and Jazz Dispensary. Pressed in proprietary swirls at RTI, they include David Axelrod’s Heavy Axe, Idris Muhammed’s Black Rhythm Revolution and Jack DeJohnette’s Sorcerer. (Pictured here is the deluxe package, complete with beanie.)
Charles Lloyd, 8: Kindred Spirits (Live from The Lobero)
On March 15, 2018, saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd celebrated his 80th birthday onstage in Santa Barbara, with attentive partners like drummer Eric Harland and guitarist Julian Lage. The concert has been lovingly chronicled, in multiple formats — including a limited-edition boxed set with 3 LPs, 2 CDs, a DVD, and a hardcover book of images and text compiled by Lloyd’s wife, photographer Dorothy Darr.
Rudresh Mahanthappa, Improvise! T-Shirt
Hero Trio, the go-for-broke new album by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, would make a fine gift in and of itself, in a vinyl or CD edition. But Mahanthappa has also produced a T-shirt, with artwork by trumpeter and cartoonist Dave Chisolm; its one-word exhortation is self-explanatory. (Available in women’s and men’s/unisex styles.)
The Meaning of Soul
In this theory-laden yet readable piece of scholarship, Emily J. Lordi untethers soul music from its genre moorings, pushing toward a deeper cultural understanding. Carefully considering artists like Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, and moving up the timeline to Janelle Monae, Lordi unpacks the complicated legacies of a music that, as she puts it, “came to signify the special resilience black people had earned by surviving the historical and daily trials of white supremacy.”
Charles Mingus, @ Bremen 1964 & 1975
Charles Mingus embarked on his first tour of Europe in 1964, with a band featuring (among others) Eric Dolphy and Jaki Byard. As chronicled in Bremen, they’re a revelation, explosive and clearly ahead of their time. By ‘75, when Mingus returns with a lineup that includes George Adams and Don Pullen, his freewheeling approach is established canon, but no less miraculous — as is the elastic hookup between Mingus and drummer Danny Richmond, heard on both sets.
Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto
The archival jazz discovery of the year was recorded in a high school auditorium and shelved for more than 50 years. But beyond the intriguing back story, Palo Alto is a standout in Thelonious Monk’s oeuvre — as is the packaging for this release, with an essay by Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley and a reproduction of the concert program and flyer.
Newvelle: Season Five / New Orleans Collection
By now, the discerning jazz public is familiar with Newvelle Records’ boutique business model, which involves vinyl releases mainly on a subscription basis. Beyond that, it’s worth pointing out that Newvelle makes possible some incredibly distinctive albums — including, in its fifth season, a sterling trio effort by pianist Carmen Staaf and a companionable duo session with bassist Rufus Reid and pianist Sullivan Fortner. This year, the label also issued The New Orleans Collection, composed of new work by living legends like Irma Thomas, and the final recording by pianist Ellis Marsalis.
Charlie Parker, The Mercury & Clef 10-Inch LP Collection
Arguably the crown jewel of Bird 100, a massive reissue campaign on behalf of bebop’s crown prince, this set gathers some of the best-loved albums under his name — including Charlie Parker Plays South of the Border, Bird and Diz, and two volumes of Charlie Parker with Strings. All but Bird and Diz have been out of print on vinyl since their original release, making this a necessary corrective — as well as a stylish collection, given the cover art by David Stone Martin and new booklet essays by Ethan Iverson and David Ritz.
Charlie Parker, The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection
If the Mercury and Clef box above contains the most celebrated Charlie Parker albums, this Savoy set contains his greatest performances. Here is where you’ll find “Ko-Ko,” “Parker’s Mood,” “Billie’s Bounce” and “Donna Lee” — in historic 10-inch vinyl format, with new liner notes by Neil Tesser.
Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film
Kevin Whitehead, the veteran jazz critic for Fresh Air, has compiled an authoritative guide to the music’s legacy in the movies — by which he means narrative filmmaking, rather than concert footage. Teasing out connections with a keen eye for detail, he shows how the cinematic record reveals changes in public perception, factoring in everything from Billie Holiday in New Orleans to Ryan Gosling in La La Land.
Prince, Sign O’ the Times (Super Deluxe Edition)
Has any artist ever been more at the top of their game than Prince was in 1987? Perhaps — but the majestic overspill in this boxed set would suggest otherwise. A deep dive into the vault, it includes more than 60 previously unissued tracks, many of them stunners; a DVD chronicles the legendary New Year’s Eve concert at Paisley Park that yielded Prince’s lone onstage performance with Miles Davis.
Sonny Rollins, Rollins in Holland: The 1967 Studio & Live Recordings
Even in a year distinguished by jazz-historical windfalls, this one’s a jaw-dropper: more than two hours of previously unissued Sonny Rollins, in peak form. Recorded over three dates in the Netherlands during what would become a six-year gap in his studio discography, it finds the Saxophone Colossus in triologue with bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink, a top Dutch rhythm team who rise to the challenge. As a Resonance release, the music and package are presented with all the care befitting a holy relic — but the performances, leaping from your speakers, don’t seem at all burdened by posterity.
Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords
This deeply impressive, often gorgeous double album can’t be heard on streaming services. (For Schneider, conscientious objection to those is sort of the point.) So the only way to listen is via high-quality digital download — or on disc, in a luxe package as suitable for a museum display as it is for your media shelf.
Sittin’ In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s
A surprising feast of iconography that doubles as a stealth work of jazz history, Sittin’ In gathers souvenir photographs, handbills and other ephemera from dozens of nightclubs and showrooms across the country, both famous and obscure. Collector Jeff Gold supplements these images — radically, they focus more on clubgoers than artists — with judicious interviews, gleaning firsthand insight from Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones and Dan Morgenstern, and contemporary views from Robin Givhan and Jason Moran.
Turn Me Loose, White Man
Allen Lowe, a musician and scholar who puts human form to the notion of rugged independence, has produced a staggeringly ambitious piece of musicology and cultural history. (He provides a helpful subtitle, “Or: Appropriating Culture: How to Listen to American Music, 1900-1960.”) In a densely notated book and 30 accompanying CDs, Lowe draws a crooked line through hillbilly and minstrel music, gospel and jazz, among other American strains of song — raising questions and swatting away conventions as he goes.
Verve Records: Acoustic Sounds Series
Launched this summer, the Acoustic Sounds Series is Verve/UMe’s entry to the high-end vinyl market, in partnership with audiophile guru Chad Kassem. The first two releases in the campaign, Getz/Gilberto and Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson, have since been joined by landmarks from the EmArcy, Philips, Decca and Impulse! catalogs, like Nina Simone’s I Put a Spell on You and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.
Village Vanguard Merchandise
For each and every jazz club in business, this has been a year of existential challenge. Some have initiated livestreams; The Village Vanguard is one of these. In addition, the club has stepped up its merch game, selling totes, baseball caps and T-shirts — like the one pictured here, which immortalizes a Rahsaan Roland Kirk engagement in psychedelic style.
Jazz Images by Francis Wolff
The art of jazz photography has many luminaries, none more distinguished than Francis Wolff. This coffee table book gathers more than 150 of his images, most of them from Blue Note recording dates and many of them previously unpublished; it’s a visual treasure trove, and a chronicle of the music during a feverishly creative period.