2001 Records to Die For Page 9

Sam Tellig

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings
Louis Armstrong, cornet, vocal; Jimmie Noone, Don Redman, Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto sax; Barney Bigard, Happy Caldwell, tenor sax; Mancy Carr, Eddie Condon, Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Honore Dutrey, J.C. Higginbotham, Kid Ory, Fred Robinson, Jack Teagarden, trombone; Pete Briggs, tuba; Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, guitar; Lil Hardin, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Joe Sullivan, piano; Carroll Dickerson, piano, leader; Luis Russell, piano, leader; Pops Foster, bass; Phil Barbarin, Warren "Baby" Dodds, Kaiser Marshall, Zutty Singleton, drums; Joe "Butterbeans" Edwards, Susie Edwards, vocals
Columbia/Legacy C4K 63527 (4 CDs). 2000. Richard M. Jones, Tommy Rockwell, unknown others, orig. prods.; Phil Schaap, Steve Berkowitz, Seth Rothstein, compilation prods.; Seth Roster, Ken Robertson, Tom "Curly" Ruff, Phil Schaap, Mark Wilder, digital remastering; Steve Berkowitz, Michael Brooks, Ken Robertson, Phil Schaap, A/D transfers. AAD. TT: 4:32:10

"Who in the hell dreamed up Louie?" asked novelist Ralph Ellison. Louis Armstrong himself said he was "out there in the cause of happiness." Sure enough. On these four discs, Louis and the members of his Hot Five and Hot Seven recording groups offer four and a half hours of pure pleasure that take you back to the creation of jazz as we now know it. The material includes blues, ballads, scat-songs, dance numbers, and novelties—including priceless cuts like "Heebie Jeebies," where Louis just wings it vocally, spur of the moment. And "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," where Louis shows what he would later do, swinging the American popular songbook. It's impossible to overestimate the influence of Armstrong as a vocalist—Rudy Vallee pointed to his "delightful, delicious distortion of lyrics and melody." Pappa Armstrong taught Bing, Ella, Frank, and many others how to swing a vocal.

The sound, as you might expect, varies, depending on the quality of the source material. Selections on the first discs are acoustical recordings, made without a microphone. These recordings aren't just historical: they're archaeological. The sound can be startlingly immediate, though, indicating a superb job of sonic restoration. The four discs are nested in the front and back covers of an 84-page hardcover book filled with historic photographs and essays by Phil Schaap and Robert G. O'Meally. Most of this material has been reissued before on CD and LP, but never with so much tender love and care. Buy this set and you will have the best jazz of the 1920s, maybe the best jazz that ever was. (XXIII-10)

DUKE ELLINGTON: Complete Columbia & RCA Victor Sessions with Ben Webster, featuring Jimmy Blanton
Duke Ellington, piano; Wallace Jones, Ray Nance, Arthur Whetsol, Cootie Williams, trumpet; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown, Joe Nanton, Juan Tizo, trombone; Barney Bigard, Chauncey Haughton, clarinet & tenor sax; Johnny Hodges, clarinet, alto & soprano sax; Otto Hardwick, alto & bass sax; Ben Webster, tenor sax; Harry Carney, clarinet, alto & bass sax; Fred Guy, guitar; Billy Strayhorn, piano; Hayes Alvis, Jimmy Blanton, Junior Raglin, Billy Taylor, bass; Sonny Greer, drums; Ivie Anderson, Herb Jeffries, vocals
Definitive DRCD11170 (4 CDs, Spain). 1999. Prepared & edited by J.G. Calvados. TT: 4:38:29

Back in 1986, RCA came out with a three-disc set, Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA 5659-2-RB). It's still available—awesome music, atrocious sound. Many of the recordings sound suspiciously like fake stereo, some as if the music is coming from the bottom of a tin garbage can.

Instead, buy this new four-CD set on Definitive Records, with added material originally issued on Columbia. The sound is far better, and the music reflects the greatest creative period in Ellington's career. The Duke had already become famous, but here (1935-1942) he hits his stride as he joins forces with a roster including Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, Billy Strayhorn, and Johnny Hodges. You'll hear one Ellington hit after another, all recorded when they were fresh and new, including "Mood Indigo," "Perdido," "Take the A Train," and "I Got It Bad."

As if all that's not reason enough to buy the set, many of the vocals feature Ivie Anderson (1905-1948), one of the most talented singers in the history of American popular song. Dig Ivie in "At a Dixie Roadside Diner," "So Far So Good," and "Chocolate Shake." And "Blue Serge," dedicated to Ellington admirer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Ellington was unique among bandleaders of his era in that he wrote or arranged nearly all the music his orchestra played. His achievement was awesome. Sound quality on this new set is variable—generally good, depending on the source material, and far better than that of the aforementioned RCA set. Buy this (4 CDs for $30!) and you'll know why I don't give a shit about SACD or DVD-Audio. (JA won't print that.) This music sounds especially good with a single-ended triode amp! If you can't find Definitive Recordings through your usual sources, try www.disconforme.com, or my usual source for this type of stuff.

Peter van Willenswaard

SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto
TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto 1

Byron Janis, piano; Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Minneapolis Symphony (Schumann); Herbert Menges, London Symphony (Tchaikovsky)
Mercury Living Presence 432 011-2 (CD). 1960, 1962. Wilma Cozart, prod.; Robert Fine, Robert Eberenz, engs. AAD. TT: 69:24

The Schumann Piano Concerto is nice, but it's the Tchaikovsky I fall for. Byron Janis had already shown a remarkable understanding of the Russian soul in his recordings of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concertos 1-3 (also on Mercury); he repeats it here, magnificently supported by the London Symphony. It would not surprise me if Janis were of Russian ancestry. The sound is typical Living Presence and not easy on solid-state electronics. Or digital. How I wish I had the LP! (XV-1)

VERDI: La Traviata
Ricardo Muti, Philharmonia Orchestra, Ambrosian Opera Chorus
EMI SLS 5240163 (4 LPs), CDCB 47538 (2 CDs). 1982. John Mordler, prod.; Peter Brown, eng. DDA/DDD. TT: 2:09:05

Amazing and powerful performance, excellent dynamics and staging. Although the recording was entirely digital, presumably on EMI's in-house-developed digital system of the time, I prefer the LP version. But the CD is very good too, and presents a severe challenge to many a system. If it sounds smeared or edgy or confused, don't blame the recording!

Barry Willis

Patricia Barber, vocals, piano; Charlie Hunter, 8-string guitar; Michael Arnopol, Marc Johnson, bass; Adam Cruz, Adam Nussbaum, drums
Blue Note/Premonition 5 27290 2 (CD). 2000. Patricia Barber, prod.; Michael Friedman, exec. prod.; Jim Anderson, eng. DDD. TT: 51:29

No doubt the multiple-entry winner in this year's R2D4 sweepstakes, Nightclub is an extraordinary recording by an extraordinary artist. With elite support on drums, bass, and guitar, the hyper-intelligent Barber applies her prodigious pianistic talent and sultry voice to a collection of jazz standards—"Yesterdays," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Autumn Leaves," and "So In Love" among them. She has an amazing ability to find nuance and sophistication in the most pedestrian pop song, as anyone who has seen her perform can attest. Jazz traditionalists will find a lot to like in Nightclub, and then, perhaps, move on to Barber's more challenging recordings, like Café Blue, Modern Cool, and Companion, all of which have already been named as Records To Die For.

YO-YO MA: Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla
Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Antonio Agri, violin; Sergio Assad, Odair Assad, Horacio Malvicino, guitar; Kathryn Stott, Leonardo Marconi, Gerardo Gandini, Frank Corliss, piano; Hector Console, Edwin Barker, bass; Nestor Marconi, bandoneon; Jorge Calandrelli, music director
Sony Classical SK 63122 (CD). 1997. Oscar Castro-Neves, Laraine Perri, prods.; Geoff Gillette, eng. DDD. TT: 63:38

Arguably the greatest cellist of the late 20th century, Yo-Yo Ma has often strayed from his roots in classical and chamber music in search of material to which he could lend his inimitable touch. For Soul of the Tango he went to Buenos Aires, the birthplace of the genre, to record with authentic tango players the works of the classically trained Astor Piazzolla. The results were used in the soundtrack of the film The Tango Lesson. This disc demonstrates the genius of both Ma and Piazzolla: The cellist goes so far as to indulge in what Pat Metheny has called "musical necrophilia" by performing a duet ("Tango Remembrances") with the dead Argentine on the bandoneon, a small accordion imported from Germany around the turn of the last century.

Seductive, intricate, and upbeat, Soul of the Tango works equally well as background or foreground music, but only professionals should try to dance to it.