Thanks to my affiliation with Blogcritics, I’ve listened to a couple jazz box sets the last several weeks. Both are worthy enough to be considered for any jazz fan’s libarary.
The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961, Bill Evans Trio — On Sunday, June 15, 1961, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian recorded their sessions at New York City’s Village Vanguard. Initially resulting in the release of a couple classic LPs, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, Riverside has now released a three-CD box set that contains the entirety of the material in the order it was recorded during the day’s five performances.
These CDs reveal the higher level to which Evans, LaFaro and Motian took the jazz trio. This is not LaFaro and Motian serving as a rhythm section while Evans dominates center stage. This is a sublime yet intense improvised musical dialogue amongst partners, a dialogue at which listeners can only marvel. At times, the interplay between LaFaro and Evans is as if they are speaking to each other in another musical dimension, transported there in part by Motian. LaFaro is not simply in the background keeping time. Even when not up front — and Evans gives LaFaro plenty of chances to be up front — his performance is as much a force in the entirety as Evans’s own inimitable style. And when LaFaro is up front, Evans trades roles easily. As he “comps” to whatever musical course LaFaro charts, he not only reminds us of the elements of the underlying theme but lays the groundwork for his own improv when the lead is handed back to him.
While LaFaro and Evans often gracefully change rhythms and moods in the course of any one tune, this is done with and through Motian as the backbone. Yet while Motian keeps everyone on course expressively, he is never intrusive or overstated. His eloquent performances should serve as an exemplar for any percussionist.
Taken in its discrete sessions or as a whole, this set can help create a true jazz fantasy. Take these CDs, put on noise-canceling headphones, close your eyes and listen. You will be in the Vanguard, hearing the clinking glasses, the occasional bar conversation and wanting to stare daggers at the woman who laughs a bit too loudly as some comment at her table, seemingly oblivious to the marvelous performance to which serendipity has brought her.
Any true fan of the jazz trio would have loved to have changed places with her. Unable to do that, consider this release a slice of heaven in a box.
Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar — If this four-CD set isn’t a definitive collection of the history of jazz guitar to date, it comes awfully damn close.
The four CDs have 75 tracks totaling more than five hours of music recorded from 1906 to 2001. Collected from over three dozen record labels, the tracks explore the full range of the jazz idiom, from basic ragtime to swing to bossa nova to jazz-rock/fusion to the variations of bop and free jazz. Yet breadth is not the only hallmark of this collection. It’s selectivity is equally impressive
The compilers recognized that jazz guitar and its influences can’t be narrowly defined. You will find the giants here, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery to name just three. But you’ll also find artists that might shock some jazz snobs. Thus, Progressions not only gives you electric guitarist Leon McAuliffe and steel guitarist Eldon Shamblin of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, it includes Carlos Santana and even Jimi Hendrix. These are just a couple of the unexpected selections and approaches that help make this collection so unique.
The set opens with a 1906 recording of banjoist Vess Ossman, beautifully demonstrating that ragtime music went beyond the piano. That first CD basically covers the period from then through World War II. It includes a 1934 recording of Sam Koki, a Hawaiian guitarist, purported to be the first amplified jazz guitar solo on record. The second disc generally traces developments from 1946 through the early 1960s. It not only shows the influence of the guitarists on the first disc, but how their ideas were extended and helped bring new expressions to the field. Disc 3 takes us into the late 1960s and early 1970s, an evolution that borders on revolution. It shows not only the spread of free jazz into jazz guitar, it is also where we begin to really hear the incorporation of the rock idiom, the full development of fusion and the origins of so-called “smooth jazz”. Disc 4 attempts to cover roughly the last 30 years, again reflecting the influence of rock, the growth of fusion and those who again sought to push and expand the boundaries of jazz guitar.
There’s plenty of icing on this cake, too. The set includes a 160-page booklet with photos of every artist in the compilation as well as brief biographies of each and their place in the history of jazz guitar. The booklet also contains the responses of 25 guitarists — both within and outside the jazz idiom — asked to identify their jazz guitar heroes.
Whether you find jazz guitar a welcome diversion or are a hardcore aficionado, Progressions is a one-of-a-kind offering that actually lives up to its billing. It may, in fact, do for jazz guitar what the Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano did for its subject.
If you have to ask, you’ll never know.
Louis Armstrong, quoted in Jazz 101