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Consumer Guide: A Ken Burns Xmas

As the frugal know, this annual gift guide disdains boxes for one- and two-CD best-ofs, which got hard to come by as rock history was plumbed. So along comes the devil inscribing a definitive series of jazz best-ofs with his infernal name. Some are redundant (Louis, Miles, 'Trane) or not for me (Hancock, Brubeck, Vaughan). Others mix periods too much. Others I'll get to next year.

ERIC B. & RAKIM: The Best of Eric B. & Rakim: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (Hip-O) One more once, I played the six other titles on the legendary 1987 Paid in Full. They're pure, innovative, in-your-face--no doubt. But they're also turntablism with spoken decoration, of small use to anyone who hasn't internalized the "real" hip hop aesthetic. Adding seven songs from their three excellent later albums to the debut's four groundbreaking masterworks, this is where the rest of us go with their flow; I don't know another hip hop album that sweeps by so easily and rapidly. Not that there are no bumps--in a way, the terrain is all bumps. Sometimes the effect is mountain-hopping the rooftops, more often kayaking through Hell Gate. Always the mind is quicker than the beat. A

COUNT BASIE: The Best of Early Basie (Decca) It was the sure shots of the Basie Ken Burns Jazz that enabled me to go back and hear this 1996 budget item. Late Basie is as springy as brass plush gets. But though Orrin Keepnews's big-band focus is purist--this would still have been a unified record if he'd made room for Helen Humes pop and gone out on a terse piano feature like "Hey Lawdy Mama"--jazzbos don't divide Basie into Old and New Testament just because he's a god. Not all 21 tunes here are as indelible as "One O'Clock Jump." But most are close enough, and deliver the prime pleasures of Basie at his most original: Bill's uncannily understated theme, Lester's insouciant honk, and a bandleader's dozen of superb musicians in the service of volume and beat. True, amplifiers soon achieved a similar effect with less fuss. But the amplifier has never been a solo instrument. A

THE DOORS: The Very Best of the Doors (Elektra) Shaman, poet, lizard king--believe that guff and you'll miss a great pop band. Ass man, schlockmeister, cosmic slimeball--that's where Jim Morrison's originality lies, and he's never been better represented. Right beneath the back-door macho resides a weak-willed whine as El Lay as Jackson Browne's, and the struggle between the two would have landed him in Vegas if he hadn't achieved oblivion in Paris first. Compelling in part because he's revolting, Jimbo reminds us that some assholes actually do live with demons. His three sidemen rocked almost as good as the Stones. Without him they were nothing. A

JOE ELY: The Best of Joe Ely (MCA) Also the best of Butch Hancock, who wrote seven of the first nine songs here, until he ran dry, Joe got a big head, or both. You want to feel how fluently Hancock rolls out narrative metaphor, compare Ely's "Honky Tonk Masquerade"--title song of his second and best album, a well-turned set piece as good as said title and no more--to "Boxcars": "Well there's some big old Buicks by the Baptist church/Cadillacs at the Church of Christ/I parked my camel by an old haystack/I'll be looking for that needle all night." Some believe you can get all the ex-Flatlanders you need from Ely's first two albums, now available on a single convenient CD. But the 13 later tracks here complete a far stronger package, leaning hard on Ely's less poetic songs in a high-flying country-rock occasionally emulated--by Rodney Crowell, Charlie Robison, in their way the Dixie Chicks--but never equaled. Not even by Jimmie Dale Gilmore. A

ELLA FITZGERALD: Ken Burns Jazz (Verve) Suffering and subtlety may be the way of truth, but though I've revered Billie Holiday for 40 years, they're not the only way. First time through this rocket ship of an argument for Fitzgerald as blithe spirit and improvising musician, I was put off by the opener, her first and biggest hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." It was so silly, so girly. But as she floated through the closer--the almost as flighty "Shiny Stockings," once again with words by the artiste--it dawned on me that she sounded just as girly at 45. And that was 1963, by which time she had outscatted everybody this side of King Louis, defined the pop canon, and ebulliently declared to her impeccably credentialed jazz combo, "I wanna rock, I wanna roll." Girly was so much her gift that it's too bad there isn't anything later--she was still making young records past 60. There were many things she didn't understand--that's why the token "blues" is a pop song about blues. But there was plenty Billie didn't understand too. Ella outlived her on the difference. A PLUS

MARVIN GAYE: The Very Best of Marvin Gaye (Motown) Gaye was so rhythmically and dynamically astute that his albums sustained whether he was a Motown matinee idol (try In the Groove) or a self-actualizing nut (Let's Get It On). But that doesn't mean they were perfect, which goes double for the inflated What's Going On. His first not-too-big/not-too-small since the long-departed Anthology puts 19 songs on the idol disc (including six key duets) and 15 on the nut disc (including one solid previously unreleased). Gaye makes much more than most out of waving his dick, expanding his mind, and proving that jazz needs him more than he needs jazz. But in the end, the airy grit, hip innocence, and invention-within-stricture of his clean-cut period are more magical and probably deeper. A

GIRL GROUP GREATS (Rhino) No news here, especially if you were conscious in 1962, and of course the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las, the Marvelettes and the Supremes, Martha Reeves and (see below) Mary Wells sustain their own albums. But girl-group was bigger than its biggest stars, and never before has it sounded this wondrous. When my daughter and I made a genre tape for her 16th birthday, we just filled the first half of the C-90 with tracks one through 17, in order, the only question Little Peggy March's "I Will Follow Him," a perkier record than I remembered. Every great one-shot is recalled--Exciters, Angels, Cookies, Ad Libs, Essex, Little Eva, Betty Everett, holy Jaynetts. So's Motown, as indicated, although not spoilsport Phil Spector, who didn't make many records that can stand up to these anyway. The selection is so perfect that when Joanie Sommers parades by with "Johnny Get Angry" she's marked with the Sign of the Beast. Bless the Toys and Claudine Clark for relegating her to the perdition she deserves. A PLUS

COLEMAN HAWKINS: Ken Burns Jazz (Verve) Hawkins's sensual largesse and easy legato delivered the saxophone from vaudeville novelty. He was so deft with chords that he progressed unimpeded from swing to bebop and beyond, and along the way he launched the first solo saxophone track, which took off from the most famous solo in jazz history, his original improvisation on "Body and Soul." For all these reasons, this five-decade selection declines stylistic consistency. No problem. The big, breathy, paradigmatically Southwestern sound of his tenor doesn't dominate its harmonic trappings, or cut through them. It pervades them, from preswinging Fletcher Henderson to protégé-turned-auteur Thelonious Monk. And to finish off there's an unforced, unnostalgic Ellington-Hodges-Carney session that returns Hawkins to his youth in a graceful parabola. A

BILLIE HOLIDAY: Ken Burns Jazz (Verve) You won't be sorry if you spring for a matched set of two-CD sets: Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years and Columbia's belated Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday. But beyond a label-bridging perfection spoiled only by the unavoidable "Strange Fruit," the advantage of this disc is how vividly it establishes the organic unity of a career customarily bifurcated into girl-singer and fallen-woman phases. Early on she digs fibbing about the moonlight, while in the end she's too ravaged to fake how far fine-and-mellow has and hasn't gotten her. But in hindsight we can hear that her commitment to good times was provisional either way. That distance was what made her singing meaningful. What made it great was a musicality that instead of transcending pain affirmed its primacy. A PLUS

THE HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS AND FRIENDS: I Make a Wish for a Potato (Rounder) This 20-song megacomp steals three songs from 1976's impregnable Have Moicy! and four from 1999's vulnerable Too Much Fun. But I'm too big a fan to blame it for cramming two secret coded messages into one package proving that, as the Bard once put it, age cannot wither nor custom stale their infinite variety. The variety part came with an indelible classic cut on no money and less forethought by whoever dropped in, the age and custom part with a career album cut in their dotage and rural Quebec or vice versa. "Friends" include the ageless Michael Hurley and the late Jeffrey Frederick, fully credited cocreators of Have Moicy! who chime in here from their own stubbornly inconsistent solo albums, and Steve Weber, the not unholy rounder who's been Peter Stampfel's opposite number for 40 years. But Stampfel's spirit dominates, as it should. It's he who discovered that Henry Clay Work's 1862 "Kingdom Coming" was the first true pop song. And it's he who put one of 20 otherwise awful-I-bet songs called "Nova" on the Rounders' spotty-I-know 1975 Alleged in Their Own Time: "Time is on my side/Slime is on my tide/I ride my time slide all the time/I'm a lazy [ellipsis in original]." A

ROGER MILLER: Oh Boy Classics Presents Roger Miller (Oh Boy) Who better than John Prine to finally do right by this extremely professional Nashville eccentric the Ramones had nothing on--16 songs in 35 minutes, half of them comic and half of the rest lighthearted? You know "King of the Road" with its "rooms to let 50 cents" if not the even more dated "England Swings," plus maybe two unlikely Top 10 pop hits from 1964: the underage drinker's how-de-doo "Chug a Lug" and the hairy-ass new dad's lament "Dang Me." But there are plenty of others. A Kansas City star, you oughta see his car, Miller was a singer as well as a songwriter, and he could also hiccup and gargle and yodel and flap his lips. He couldn't rollerskate in a buffalo herd. But he could be happy when he'd a mind to. A MINUS

THELONIOUS MONK: Ken Burns Jazz (Columbia/Legacy) I like every album he ever made, and they do vary sonically. But Monk's piano is so distinct that from 1947 "Night in Tunisia" rewrite to 1971 "Nice Work If You Can Get It" decon this collection moves as one thing. Like Basie, Monk is a minimalist master of silence and space. But where Basie's few notes imply the full-bodied riff he's prepared for the band, Monk writes the way he plays. His tunes are spare, misshapen things that seemed bizarre in the '40s and eccentric in the '50s--and that now sound like they've always been there. Except for the late "Green Chimneys," every head singled out here is a known classic, equally potent and idiomatic whether Monk trips around trio or solo, corrals Rollins or Coltrane, or slips a little something to the boon companion of his icon years, tenor man Charlie Rouse. And then there are the wickedly timed and modulated comps that mine his sidemen's staunchest efforts. So humorous. So pointed. So on the fractal. A PLUS

SONNY ROLLINS: Ken Burns Jazz (Verve) Epitomized in 11 flawless 1954-1966 tracks is jazz's greatest living improviser as questing modernist, before he settled into his seigneury at Milestone. Almost every player is a titan trying: Davis and Gillespie and Brown, Hawkins and Stitt, Silver and Flanagan and Bley, Clarke and Roach and Jones. Yet Rollins owns every track. On straight bebop and postmodernism crossing the bridge, "Body and Soul" and "St. Thomas" and "I'm an Old Cowhand," his fluid, muscular, sardonically confident sound justifies his omnivorous appetites and vitalizes his twistiest abstractions. I'm not literate enough to explain what "Alfie's Theme Differently" has to do with "Alfie." But I bet Burt Bacharach thought about it for a good long time. A PLUS

MARY WELLS: The Best of Mary Wells: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (Motown) The first six tracks here are the same six tracks in the same order that Massa Gordy put on his little runaway's Greatest Hits in 1964. From the calm, hurt "The One Who Really Loves You" to the blissful, confident "My Guy," they're Smokey Robinson's portrait of the heroine as a nice girl: a vision of female sensitivity balanced by female pride, all plain poetry and subdued sexual promise. The Shirelles themselves never said it better. Only then, starting with a Marvin Gaye duet and proceeding on the simple strength of compiler Harry Weinger's taste, the less canonical numbers sustain the illusion that Greatest Hits turns to filler. There's even a song written by the artist, who proved what a fool she was to desert Motown--and what a construction her modesty was--with every piece of forced soul and adult pop she turned out for Fox, MGM, Atlantic, etc. This is all the distinction Wells had in her. It was epochal, and it was over before she passed 21. A

Village Voice, Dec. 25, 2001

Nov. 27, 2001 Jan. 15, 2002