Building a Survey of Jazz: A Brief Summary of the Larger Jazz-Related Collections in My Library

I have a decent starter-collection of jazz vinyl, focusing primarily on Miles Davis’ catalog including the 6LP Miles at the Fillmore box set, as well as a selection of the better quality big band box sets on wax. But I’ve been working on building the digital portion of my jazz collection, the larger box sets of which total 1,626 albums. These highlights help me add a sense of order to the 22,000 jazz recordings in my digital library.

To date, my focus has been on essential classics, vocal jazz standards, the crooners, tin pan alley, jazz pop (1920-1960), highlights of avant-garde jazz, the big bands, swing, a bit of ECM, future jazz (in the electronic realm), film noir scores, gypsy jazz / jazz manouche, and their related subgenres. I’ve been in the mood to explore The Great American Songbook, (jazz vocal standards by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Ellington, etc), so I started doing some research.

I’m no jazz expert, but some preliminary Google searches, list-generators, and review surveys provided me with sufficient information to begin building a respectable personal library. One intriguing release offered for sale on Toronto’s JazzFM website was an astonishingly large 500 CD box set called, The World’s Greatest Jazz Collection. Of course, due to licensing restrictions, the set lacks some of the classic milestone recordings which come to mind when such a title is raised, but the sound quality and sheer volume of the collection warranted its addition to my library.

The 500-CD World’s Greatest Jazz Collection comprises five 100-disc sub sets:

100-CD Bebop Story box set

100-CD The Big Bands box set

100-CD Classic Jazz box set

100-CD Modern Jazz box set

100-CD Swing Time box set

Next I tackled building discographic archives of key figures in the history of classic and modern jazz. Larger jazz artist discographies in my archive include but are not limited to the following:

156-CD Thelonious Monk discography

135-CD Keith Jarrett discography

100-CD RateYourMusic.com’s Top 100 Future Jazz LPs

98-CD Miles Davis discography

78-CD Jimmy Smith discography

75-CD Sun Ra discography

61-CD Ornette Coleman discography

52-CD Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers discography

43-CD Herbie Hancock discography

43-CD Jimmy McGriff discography

40-CD Duke Ellington discography

35-CD Charles Mingus discography

30-CD John Coltrane discography

22-CD Dave Brubeck discography

16-CD Future Sounds of Jazz box set

as well as the 16-CD Diana Krall discography. (My late father was a fan and sparked my interest in her catalog when I was starting college.)

And as I’ve discussed in former features, I worked hard to build analog and digital archives of the finest big band collections ever issued to the public. Some of these were exclusively available from mail order subscription services on vinyl and later on compact disc, but thankfully, archivists around the world have painstakingly digitized the vinyl-exclusive volumes and produced complete digital libraries of these sets at professional archival quality.

In my Big Band Archive I have:

30-LP box set of Time Life: The Big Bands

27-CD Ken Burns Jazz Series and Jazz: The Story of America’s Music (22-CD + 5CD)

11-LP box set of The Great Band Era

10-volume Benny Goodman Collection

7-volume The Big Bands box set

4-CD Smithsonian Big Band Jazz archive

2-disc Glenn Miller Gold Collection

1-CD The Glenn Miller Orchestra Collection

Other smaller and more precisely-focused jazz collections in my library include:

8 CDs from the Jazz Moods series 

6 of the essential albums by The Bill Evans Trio

6-CD Gypsy Jazz / Jazz Manouche box set

5-CD 100 Hits American Songbook box set which includes one hundred standards recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Shirley Bassey, Sammy Davis Jr, and more.

5-CD Film Noir jazz series collection

3-CD Complete Recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong 

and the single-disc Complete Recordings of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong

My collection is leagues away from exhaustive or complete in the vast scope of the world of jazz – an insurmountable task for certain, but I’ve done my best to construct a modest library showcasing the key subgenres I enjoy most. These will provide me with years of listening enjoyment on lazy Sundays and on my afternoon drives queued up in the car from my personal media server.

In an effort to determine the best recordings to sample first, I began compiling various “best-of” lists. Rateyourmusic user erikfish found 22 “top jazz albums of all time” lists in books, magazines and web sites and combined them into one meta-list here. And TheJazzResource.com compiled a similar list of the Top 25 Jazz Albums of All Time. Spinditty published a feature on Ten Coltrane Albums Every Jazz Fan Should Own and NPR put together a similar roster called The Cocktail Party Guide To John Coltrane. I also assembled some of my own lists including Modal Jazz Essentials, Recordings of the First Great Quintet (Davis and Trane in ‘56), as well as 17 Essential Hard Bop Recordings courtesy of critic Scott Yanow and a Top Ten Essentials list of Thelonious Monk LPs.

I would love to hear your recommendations for your favorite titles from the collections mentioned above which deserve priority listening, or your suggestions for other collections which would complement my current library. If I’ve any glaring omissions, please let me know! I’m always eager to learn.

A First Foray into ECM Jazz

In an effort to introduce more novel content into my daily listening and to challenge myself a bit, I’ve decided to explore the ECM label, particularly the Touchtone remasters. In 2008 ECM issued forty of their most popular albums spanning 1971 to 1993 in the form of affordable cardboard sleeved compact discs. A few of the names were familiar, most notably Jon Hassell who I know from his Fourth World: Possible Musics tribal ambient LP produced in collaboration with Brian Eno. ECM’s motto is, “the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence” and I was eager to test their claim.

Ambient themes seemed to be a suitable point of ingress for the genre of ECM jazz, as I am most comfortable with long-form soundscapes which emphasize sonic texture over melodic structures. I quickly found my way to a few introductory recordings well-suited to this task:

• Ralph Towner’s Solstice and Batik LPs (ECM chamber jazz) described as hauntingly beautiful, with elements of drone and wall of sound, characterized as smooth and mellow

• Jan Garbarek & the Bobo Stenson Quartet – Witchi-Tai-To – a classic understated work of spiritual jazz from 1974

• Tomasz Stanko’s Litania: The Music of Krzysztof Komeda, showcasing hypnotic, atmospheric Polish jazz performances

• And the label’s most prominent artist, Keith Jarrett’s critically acclaimed Facing You and The Köln Concert LPs which are described as smooth, calm, and soothing instrumentals, featuring impassioned improvisation with moments of great intensity. Köln is considered a revolutionary work of contemporary jazz.

It’s a curious place to find myself as a listener and chronicler of music. I’ve read very little in the way of jazz criticism and am only rudimentarily acquainted with both its theory and contextual history. That made this territory a unique and satisfying venture from the familiar to something new and interesting.

Witchi-Tai-To

Witchi-Tai-To is an hypnotic and surreal exercise in spiritual jazz with a mellow and meditative quality characteristic of many ECM releases. It definitely inspires me to track down lush and uplifting spiritual jazz classics like Alice Coltrane’s Journey to Satchidananda and Pharoah Sanders’ Karma and Black Unity LPs.

facing you

Jarrett’s Facing You was awe-inspiring. This was clearly bold, new territory for solo jazz piano. Jarrett’s improvisation is personal, intense, and fantastically dynamic. Still, there is a gentleness to his performative style that makes the album incredibly accessible and satisfying.

koln concert

The Köln Concert is absolute heaven. From the first notes, it’s evident why this is celebrated as the best-selling solo album in jazz history and the all-time best-selling piano album. And the circumstances of the performance make the magic of this music all the more remarkable. Evidently, Jarrett was suffering significant back pain and was wearing a brace the evening of the performance. The pain had cost him several nights’ sleep and following the drive from Zürich he was thoroughly exhausted. Jarrett arrived at the opera house only to discover that the piano on which he was to perform upon was small and poorly-tuned rather than the Bösendorfer grand he’d requested. But with only a few hours before the concert, Jarrett made the very best of the situation and went on to improvise one of the greatest concerts ever captured to tape.

Solstice

Solstice is arguably the best of Towner’s catalog, forty minutes of instrumentals wedding sustained drones with elements of fusion and chamber music. It approaches the dreaded label of “new age” music but is jazzy enough to escape the bland realms of near-self-parody commonly associated with the genre. Never overly-energetic, the album is consistently subtle and darkly atmospheric.

batik1.jpg

Batik is a similar work equally noteworthy for Towner and for Jack DeJohnette’s abstract drumming on the album, especially his contribution to the title track.

litania.jpg

I found Litania to be highly accessible and thought-provoking. It’s gentle enough to provide a sonic wallpaper but sufficiently engaging to activate my mind and send me into a trance of self-reflection. The three variations of “Sleep Safe and Warm” are intimately soothing but the most intriguing selection from the album is “Night-Time, Daytime Requiem” which wanders placidly for more than twenty minutes of atmospheric bliss. “The Witch” changes up the dynamic a bit with the addition of an electric guitar but keeps with the ambiance of the record. The album could function well as dinner jazz but seems to lend itself ideally to quiet, solitary exploration.

What I enjoyed most about each of these releases was ECM’s consistently ascetic, restrained, and meditative properties. While the recordings dabble in free jazz and avant-garde experimentalism, they remain at all times refined and gently ethereal. It was a most rewarding venture, and I’m excited to continue exploring more of “The Most Beautiful Sounds Next to Silence.”

More than likely my next survey will be of the fifteen albums Arvo Pärt issued under ECM. Sublime listening awaits!