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Holiday Gift Guide 2021: Fresh finds and refurbished classics for the jazz fan in your life

2021 WBGO Gift Guide
Nate Chinen

Looking for holiday inspiration? Don't worry, we've got you covered.

In what has become a fond tradition, WBGO presents a painstakingly assembled sprawl of covetable boxed sets, books, apparel and other goodies — at all price points, for young and old, across an array of eras and styles.

Before we dive in: remember that you Give the Gift of Jazz by becoming a member of WBGO — or by signing up friends and family. We're always grateful for your support. (Note, too, that as an Amazon Associate, WBGO earns from qualifying purchases.)

The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia & RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946 - 66

(7 CDs, Mosaic Records)

Louis Armstrong changed the face of popular music, let alone jazz, and his star was fully ascendant during the time chronicled in this magisterial set. The music has never sounded clearer, thanks to a new transfer from the original metal parts and tape reels, and the package includes a dissertation-quality essay by Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi, along with dozens of rare photographs. A monument worthy of the man.

TL Barrett

Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth For Christ Choir, I Shall Wear a Crown

(5 LPs, Numero Group | Amazon)

For more than 40 years, T.L. Barrett has shepherded a flock on the South Side of Chicago, making music that enfolds no small amount of funk and soul in its gospel embrace. (A few months ago, he played a rousing Tiny Desk Concert from the sanctuary.) I Shall Wear a Crown scrupulously gathers a wealth of recorded output from the 1970s, by Barrett and his Youth For Christ Choir; it's a stunning document that, much like Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace, closes the gap between the sacred and the secular, without compromise. It's all about uplift, which is ageless.

Blue Note Records: Tone Poet Series

(Single LPs, Blue Note | Amazon)

Since its introduction in 2019, as part of Blue Note's 80th anniversary celebration, the Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series has become a sort of institution. The concept is a no-brainer: 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. This year's batch includes post-bop gems like Wayne Shorter's The All Seeing Eye and a choice artifact of the cool school, Lee Konitz Plays with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet.

Anthony Braxton, 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017

Anthony Braxton, 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017

(Blu-Ray, Firehouse 12 | Amazon)

There's never a pause in the production schedule for composer and multi-reedist Anthony Braxton, who released two mammoth collections of music this fall, and triumphantly unveiled another new concept at the Other Mind Festival. 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017, which Firehouse 12 released on Blu-Ray audio, features a dozen roughly hourlong performances, by chamber ensembles ranging from six to nine pieces. It's an experience you could get lost in, which seems to be Braxton's aim: when we talked about this music for NPR, he drew an enthusiastic parallel to Disneyland.

Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker, by Bill Milkowski

(Hardcover, Backbeat Books | Amazon)

For much of his storied career, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker left an almost superhuman impression — a function of his extravagant technical aplomb, his superb harmonic insight and his quick-flash instinct as an improviser. Ode to a Tenor Titan, Bill Milkowski's affectionate biography, captures the person behind the pyrotechnics — weaving in stories from dozens of Brecker's musical associates, from his older brother, Randy, to younger sidemen like pianist Joey Calderazzo. The expansive reporting, and the enthusiasm in the telling, both speak to the depth of feeling Milkowski has for his subject, whose achievements aren't likely to be replicated anytime soon.

Daphne Brooks, Liner Notes For the Revolution

(Hardcover, Harvard University Press | Amazon)

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Daphne Brooks makes a compelling case with Liner Notes For the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. A brilliant work of criticism and historiography, it reveals how the women we often valorize in American music, from Bessie Smith to Aretha Franklin to Cécile McLorin Salvant, must also be seen as curators of sound. A scholarly work with style.

Roy Brooks, Understanding

(3 LPs, Reel to Real | Amazon)

A brilliant drummer whose questing hard-bop beat was prized by the likes of Horace Silver and Yusef Lateef, Roy Brooks never became a household name as a bandleader — though it wasn't for lack of drive. Understanding is a newly unearthed chronicle of Brooks' incendiary 1970 performance at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore, presented by the Left Bank Jazz Society. The LP set is beautifully produced, and the band — with trumpeter Woody Shaw, tenor saxophonist Carlos Garnett, pianist Harold Mabern and bassist Cecil McBee — meets Brooks at his intensity level, which is saying something.

Buena Vista Social Club 25th anniversary

Buena Vista Social Club: 25th Anniversary

(2 LPs + 2 CDs, World Circuit Records | Amazon)

The album that single-handedly reconfigured popular perceptions of Cuban music (with notable help from a companion film) marks a milestone with all due ceremony: the 25th anniversary edition, on remastered CD or 180-gram LP, features bonus tracks, session photographs and insightful annotation by historian Rosa Marquetti Torres, down to the origins of each trova and bolero on the celebrated program. (The deluxe version includes two atmospheric art prints by Christian Jaspars.)

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle

(2 LPs or CD, Impulse! | Amazon)

The most heralded archival release in recent memory, recorded at The Penthouse in Seattle in 1965, finds John Coltrane in a phase of intense self-reflection, urging his exceptional working quartet ever further into the avant-garde. But along with a few enlightened acolytes, Pharoah Sanders chief among them, he has the benefit of A Love Supreme itself — Coltrane's most intentional creation, a piece of sacred music durable enough to withstand any earthly storm (and, as of this month, one of only a few jazz albums to be certified platinum). The deluxe package has illuminating notes from two acknowledged Coltrane authorities, Lewis Porter and Ashley Kahn.

She Raised Her Voice! 50 Black Women Who Sang Their Way into Music History, by Jordannah Elizabeth and Briana Dengoue

(Hardcover, Hachette | Amazon)

This middle-grade Who's Who of Black women in song — spanning jazz, blues, hip-hop, soul, opera, even punk-rock — presents some of our most towering artists in approachable human scale. Briana Dengoue's illustrations take a clean, graphic approach, and Jordannah Elizabeth writes with perceptive attunement to a young reader's curiosity. (Nancy Wilson "made every song she sang sound like a beautiful lullaby," while Betty Carter's performances "changed from slow to fast and from loud to soft in seconds, and her young players had to be sure to keep up.") But take note: this inspiring book publishes on Dec. 28, so it'll have to be a post-holiday delivery.

Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans

Bill Evans, Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans

(5 CDs, Official store | Amazon)

Bill Evans, Behind the Dikes: The 1969 Netherlands Recordings

(3 LPs or 2 CDs Elemental Music | Amazon)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when Gift Guide season rolls around, there's going to be some freshly dug Bill Evans. This year, that honor falls to Behind the Dikes, an enchanting set of recordings from the Netherlands in 1969. Evans' piano, glowingly ethereal yet rhythmically grounded, encounters flawless support from his longest-running rhythm team of Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums. The music has long been available in bootleg form, but this conscientious release boasts pristine sound and a beautiful booklet (with remarks by Morell, Gomez and pianist Vijay Iyer) — and as a bonus, two tracks pair the trio with the Metropole Orkest. So that covers the Evans completist. For the neophyte, try Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans — a deftly curated compilation that pulls from Evans' output across two dozen years and six record labels. (Did I say "freshly dug"? How about "still digging"?)

It's a Good, Good Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania Records

(4 CDs + 7" single, Craft Latino | Amazon)

Fania Records is justly celebrated as the home of New York salsa, but the label had a serious side interest in boogaloo and Latin soul — the focus of this boisterous anthology, spanning a decade's worth of singles (1965-75) by Joe Bataan, Ray Barretto, Larry Harlow and others. Along with four CDs, the set includes a novelty 45-r.p.m. single with two radio promo tracks: separate versions of Lester Young's "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid," by Bataan and Bobby Valentín.

Erroll Garner Liberation in Swing

Erroll Garner, Liberation in Swing

(4 LPs, booklet, download, Official site | Amazon)

No jazz pianist ever radiated a steadier beam of sunshine than Erroll Garner, whose legacy has been carefully tended. And even by the exacting standards of the Erroll Garner Project, Liberation in Swing: The Octave Records Story & Complete Symphony Hall Concert is a lavish production. Its centerpiece is a glorious, previously unissued 1959 concert recording from Symphony Hall in Boston, highlights of which are available as a standalone LP. But the package also includes a single-LP compilation of highlights from Garner's sparkling output on Octave Records, and a hi-res digital download of all 12 of those albums. A handsome booklet features unpublished photos, reproductions of Garner's neo-Surrealist works on paper, and deeply insightful essays by Robin D. G. Kelley, Terri Lyne Carrington and Cécile McLorin Salvant.

Julius Hemphill, The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony

(7 CDs, New World Records | Amazon)

A saxophonist and composer who combined the exploratory fire of the avant-garde with the earth and grit of soul, Julius Hemphill occupied a singular place in improvised music. He receives all due attention on this revelatory boxed set, curated by a protégé, Marty Ehrlich; it features a trove of previously unreleased material, in formats ranging from solo to quintet. As Kevin Whitehead notes in his review for Fresh Air, "Julius Hemphill was one of the key jazz composers of the late 20th century, a modernist with deep roots. His music should be part of any informed listener's jazz education."

Joe Henderson Mosaic

Joe Henderson, The Complete Joe Henderson Blue Note Studio Sessions

(5 CDs, Mosaic Records)

Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson hit the ground running at Blue Note Records in 1963: over the next several years, he appeared on some 20 albums as a sideman, most of them stone classics. The focus of this splendid boxed set is a three-year span that yielded five of his own albums for the label, from Page One to Mode For Joe. Remastered from Rudy Van Gelder's original analog tapes, the music sounds incredible, and the booklet essay, by Bob Blumenthal, amounts to a master class. Sprinkled throughout are a few sessions for others (like Larry Young and Johnny Coles) that introduced Henderson's compositions.

The Hundreds x Blue Note

The Hundreds x Blue Note Records

(Assorted apparel, The Hundreds)

Blue Note is undeniably one of the merch-savviest brands in jazz, and on the heels of this year's smash collaboration with UNIQLO, the label has partnered with Los Angeles streetwear outfit The Hundreds. With an array of sweatshirts, bombers and snapback hats, it's a perfect fit for the sort of jazz fan who came to Grant Green through Kendrick Lamar.

Impulse! Records Acoustic Sounds Series

(Single LPs, Official store | Amazon)

Acoustic Sounds, Verve/UMe's all-analog audiophile vinyl reissue series, turned its focus toward the Impulse catalog this year, as part of that label's 60th anniversary celebration. Beginning with two of the earliest Impulse releases, Ray Charles' Genius + Soul = Jazz and the Gil Evans Orchestra's Out Of The Cool, the series moved on to other cornerstone albums, by Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and others. The production value couldn't possibly be higher, and the music is the very definition of canonical.

Impulse Music Message

Impulse Records: Music, Message and the Moment

(4 LPs, Official site | Amazon)

The pièce de résistance of Impulse's 60th anniversary celebration is a package worthy of its pedigree: a deluxe vinyl compilation that makes an implicit argument for the label's engagement with a liberation agenda. Expertly curated by Ken Druker and Ashley Kahn, the set includes selections both compulsory (Pharoah Sanders' "The Creator Has a Master Plan") and refreshingly off the beaten path (Shirley Scott's take on "Freedom Dance"). The booklet, in a glossy magazine format, includes authoritative essays by A.B. Spellman and Greg Tate, who sums up the package as "a collection celebrating Impulse's deep-digging support of artists who scored We The People's SingFight-ing for social political and artists' self-determination in a critical time of beatdowns, breakthroughs and cosmically-centered aspirations."

Story of Quincy Jones

The Story of Quincy Jones

(12 LPs, Vinyl Me, Please)

Vinyl Me, Please set the industry standard for lifestyle vinyl subscription bundles — earlier this year, they exhausted their run of Herbie Hancock retrospective — and it would seem like a no-brainer to pair the brand with a musical personality as capacious as Quincy Jones. This VMP set touches on eight highlights from Q's recording career, including Sinatra at the Sands and Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux as well as his own Body Heat and The Dude. (You didn't really need them to include Thriller, did you?) The collection comes with a companion podcast series and a three-month pass to Qwest TV. Just be aware that the first edition is limited to 1,000 copies, and won't ship until sometime in January.

Joni Mitchell, The Reprise Albums 1968-1971

(4 LPs or 4 CDs, Official site | Amazon)

Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971)

(10 LPs or 5 CDs, Official site | Amazon)

She isn't a jazz artist, and her most jazz-relevant output falls just past the purview covered here. Still, Joni Mitchell is an obvious person of interest for jazzfolk — really, for any enlightened music fan, especially during this Hall of Fame stretch of her career. The Reprise Albums is quite simply that: a loving reissue of Mitchell's first four albums, culminating in Blue. The archives box offers more of a deep dive, with photographs from Mitchell's personal archives and some prized performances — including an Ottawa set recorded by Jimi Hendrix in 1968, and a London concert two years later, featuring a notable then-paramour, James Taylor, in the second half.

Matt Mitchell and Kate Gentile, Snark Horse

(6 CDs, Pi Recordings | Amazon)

It sounds like something concocted on a dare: a corpus of 70 forbiddingly complex compositions, each of which can be rendered on the page in a single bar. For pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Kate Gentile, co-conspirators in life as in music, this is just the sort of challenge to spark new conflagrations. The music on Snark Horse — performed by both composers and some heavy company, including Jon Irabagon on saxophones and Ava Mendoza and Brandon Seabrook on guitars — boggles the mind and floods the other senses, like some hyperacute yet off-kilter vision of the future.

Lee Morgan Complete Live at the Lighthouse

Lee Morgan, The Complete Live at the Lighthouse

(12 LPs or 8 CDs, Blue Note | Amazon)

For a single midsummer weekend in 1970, trumpeter Lee Morgan brought his working band — with saxophonist Bennie Maupin, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Jymie Merritt, and drummer Mickey Roker — to The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Morgan was on the comeback trail, and what his band delivered there amounted to a crackling shot across the bow: rooted in a recognizable post-bop identity but reaching toward freer terrain. Highlights have long been prized by Morgan adherents, but this comprehensive drop — as revelatory, in its way, as the Plugged Nickel output of the Miles Davis Quintet — shows how rocketlike a trajectory he was on. And in both editions of this set (but especially the splurge-tastic vinyl box), Blue Note has given this music its glorious due.

Motian in Motion

(Blu-Ray, Aquapio Films | Amazon)

Paul Motian, who died a decade ago, at 80, was more than a composer of sly economy and a drummer of slippery craft. As we're vividly reminded in Motian in Motion, a labor-of-love documentary by Michael Patrick Kelly, he was also a quintessential New York character, and a supreme connector and catalyst on the scene. The film takes us behind the scenes and on the bandstand with Motian, with ample insights from confreres like Gary Peacock, Joe Lovano, Arlo Guthrie and Bill Frisell.

Newport Jazz sweatshirt

Newport Jazz Festival Merch

(Assorted apparel, Official store)

Because, perhaps, you weren't able to make it to this year's triumphant return. Or you did go, and want to relive the feeling. Or maybe you just like the look of that crewneck, and want the world to know you're on familiar terms with the sea spray off the rocks at Fort Adams (and the cold, sweet relief of a Del's Lemonade).

Nina children's book

Nina: A Story of Nina Simone, by Traci N. Todd and Christian Robinson

(Hardcover, Penguin Random House | Amazon)

We remember her as a freedom fighter and a force of nature — but Nina Simone didn't come to her activism, or her musical genius, automatically. Traci N. Todd's sensitive and soulful picture book, brilliantly illustrated by Christian Robinson, depicts Simone's coming of age as both an artist and an advocate, in crucial dialogue with the African American struggle for civil rights. In one of the most widely praised children's books published this year, Todd and Robinson convey these historical events (including the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, and the assassination of Dr. King in '68), with a firm but gentle touch — humanizing the movement through Nina's evolving experience. The result is a beautiful story of uplift that nevertheless upholds a key conviction: that there remains work to be done.

William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World

(10 CDs, AUM Fidelity | Amazon)

Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker, by Cisco Bradley

(Paperback, Duke University Press | Amazon)

Multi-instrumentalist and composer William Parker has had a banner year, between the arrival of Cisco Bradley's conscientious biography and the boatload of new music he has released, including at least half a dozen albums as a leader or co-leader. But as a manifestation of Parker's irreducible creative powers, Migration of Silence — a 10-disc set, featuring as many different musical situations — takes the cake. As we noted near the top of this year in an episode of Jazz United, this is a man who never stops.

Jeremy Pelt Griot

Jeremy Pelt, Griot

(Paperback book, Official store)

With his incisive new book Griot: Examining the Lives of Jazz's Great Storytellers Vol. 1, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt set out to create a document as authentic as Arthur Taylor's Notes and Tones. The conversations — with elders like Bertha Hope and near-contemporaries like Ambrose Akinmusire — fulfill that promise, partly because of Pelt's perceptive humility as an interviewer. At his website store, you'll find the book alongside related merch, like a cotton T-shit (and his most recent album, Griot: This is Important!).

Ivo Perelman, Brass and Ivory Tales

(9 CDs, Sluchaj | Amazon)

Ivo Perelman and Matthew Shipp, Special Edition Box

(Blu-Ray, CD and booklet, SMP)

Ivo Perelman, the restless saxophone firebrand from São Paulo, marked his 60th birthday this year with a mountain of recorded music made with pianists. On Brass and Ivory Tales, that amounted to nine albums' worth of material, with as many duet partners: Dave Burrell, Marilyn Crispell, Sylvie Courvoisier, Angelica Sanchez, Aaron Parks, Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer, Agustí Fernández, and Aruán Ortiz. Special Edition Box, meanwhile, chronicles a well-known partnership between Perelman and Matthew Shipp, with a studio album titled Procedural Language and a scintillating concert filmed in Perelman's hometown in 2019.

Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge, by Gary Golio and James Ransome

(Hardcover, Nancy Paulsen Books | Amazon)

It's one of the most storied sabbaticals in jazz lore: the period straddling the start of the 1960s, when Sonny Rollins withdrew from the scene (and no small degree of public acclamation) to practice his tenor saxophone on a walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. What led to his decision, and what can it tell us about his art? Generations of grown-up jazz fans have pondered this question, and now Gary Golio has posed it specifically for children. His partner, James Ransome, beautifully illustrates the tale, with a particular feel for the cityscape. And Golio's text takes the form of free verse, with a rhythmic variation that intentionally calls one of Rollins' famous cadenzas to mind:

Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge

subway cars

clanking clanging

banging out rhythm on

silvery train tracks

Sonny's fingers

clicking clacking


sparkling brass

sax keys

Bola Sete, Samba In Seattle: Live at The Penthouse 1966-1968

(3 CDs, Tompkins Square | Amazon)

John Coltrane doesn't have the only notable new release recorded at The Penthouse in the mid-1960s. The Brazilian guitar maestro Bola Sete performed often in the leading Seattle club during that era, and this collection gathers a few hours of impeccable tape — with Sete on nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, Sebastião Neto on bass and Paulinho Magalhães on drums. The material ranges from bossas to Bach, and the playing is uniformly exquisite.

Wadada Leo Smith, Trumpet

(3 CDs, TUM | Amazon)

Wadada Leo Smith with Milford Graves and Bill Laswell, Sacred Ceremonies

Wadada Leo Smith Chicago Symphonies

(3 CDs, TUM | Amazon)

Wadada Leo Smith's Great Lakes Quartet, The Chicago Symphonies

(4 CDs, TUM | Amazon)

Now on the cusp of 80, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has been producing sternly intrepid new work at a near-profligate pace — a situation that puts him in the same airspace as his old friend and colleague Anthony Braxton. Along with a new album, A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday, Smith has three boxed sets on TUM Records this year — including a new solo trumpet compendium, and a set of symphonies for his Great Lakes Quartet (whose ranks include Henry Threadgill and Jack DeJohnette). As for Sacred Ceremonies, it pairs Smith respectively with bassist and producer Bill Laswell and the late percussionist Milford Graves, before bringing all three together as one.

Sun Ra Lanquidity

Sun Ra, Lanquidity (Definitive Edition)

(4 LPs or 2 CDs, Strut | Amazon)

The spaceways rarely got funkier than they do on Lanquidity, which finds Sun Ra leading his Arkestra in a loose-limbed series of hazy studio jams in 1978. Strut has paired the classic Philly Jazz release with alternate mixes by Bob Blank, originally distributed at a show at Georgia Tech. The backbeat framework of this album has long made Lanquidity a popular Sun Ra title, especially among those inclined to take their Afrofuturism with a spoonful of sugar. But don't mistake accessibility for a lack of purpose: just listen to how Eddie Gale, Marshall Allen and John Gilmore throw down on "That's How I Feel."

Nate Chinen