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Jazz box set review: 'Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology'

April 7, 2011 |  3:50 pm

Jazzsmithsonian300 Attempting to capture jazz in a single anthology is a little like mankind's ongoing efforts to cure the common cold. Everyone knows it's impossible, yet people keep giving it a shot anyway.

Which is in and of itself a curious phenomenon. Why does jazz, with its rich and diverse history and standing reputation as the "true American art form" stand apart from rock, classical and country as a genre so unique its story could somehow be told in a handful of CDs? And as an additional question, are sets like these truly useful artifacts in spreading the gospel — whatever that is — of jazz?  (Or goth, or early alt-rock, or psychedelia or any other smaller, more readily compartmentalized subgenre that has been tackled this way with better results.)

Undaunted, the Smithsonian has just released an updated version its out-of-print collection from 1987 with "Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology" (Smithsonian Folkways, $99.98), a beautiful and meticulously packaged hard-bound book and six-CD set that attempts to tell the complete story of jazz (up to eight years ago anyway). While the goal is admirable, and any time the Smithsonian's name gets involved there's a promise of a broad editorial and academic exploration (in contrast with PBS documentary filmmakers, for instance), ultimately this set is doomed to failure even while much of it feels like a success.

Because as hopeless as it is to capture a whole tradition in this amount of time, for a hardcore music fan — one of the presumed targets of this set — there are few better ways to spend an afternoon than cracking open a musical tome like this and potentially learning about lesser-known artists such as Tadd Dameron, George Russell and the all-star band the Chocolate Dandies. Pick a shift in the music's direction, and most likely it's represented here with at least one song.

Of course, given the constraints of creating a set that isn't the size of a compact car, that can be more frustrating than illuminating. Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin' " feels like a curious choice if you had to pick one song to represent the saxophonist's body of work (the Smithsonian's set from 1987, for instance, included three of Coleman's pieces, including an except from "Free Jazz"), and he's not the only giant forced to be addressed with just a single song. Single edits of "My Favorite Things" and "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" ultimately leave a listener wanting more, but maybe that's the point for a set hopefully designed to inspire further exploration. Still, the result leaves a set that aims for comprehensiveness feeling inevitably incomplete.

Jazzsmithsonian250 That leaves this set's other target audience, the total jazz neophyte. Certainly, there's a romance to the idea that you can present a set like "Jazz" to someone who's spent a lifetime in a sensory deprivation tank and, six CDs and 200 pages later, presto!, instant jazz fan. If this model exists, this would be the set for it with a 30,000-foot view of the genre with detailed essays from critics such as Ted Gioia, Alyn Shipton and Bob Blumenthal to further color each song. But is a cursory exploration really how we as music lovers discover new favorites? It's a question of whether one makes a better connection having small talk with 100 people at a cocktail party or having a long conversation with one person over coffee.

But apart from wondering about target audiences, the biggest question is simply if this set is any fun to hear. Regardless of its intention to define and, somewhat alarmingly, transform jazz into a literal museum piece, the music is primarily wonderful listening. There's no arguing the pleasures in James P. Johnson's revolutionary "You've Got to be Modernistic," Coleman Hawkins' slippery "Body and Soul" and Erroll Garner's chugging piano in "I'll Remember April," and that's just naming a few. Plus, after the internecine fueds further sparked by Ken Burns' narrowly defined 2000 anthology, it's refreshing to hear Anthony Braxton, Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Zorn's Masada and even Medeski Martin and Wood as part of the continuum in a document like this.

Maybe that's the best way to approach this set, with less of an eye toward its omissions and more of just an appreciation of an exceptionally nice try. It isn't a satisfyingly complete portrait of jazz for anyone except perhaps the 140-odd people who meticulously put the set together — and many of those are no doubt miffed about all sorts of inclusions or compromises. It's the nature of the admirable yet hopeless anthologizing business. Historical context, groundbreaking music and dizzying explanations AABA structures are all wonderful, but really all you can do is just listen. And know there's so much more still waiting to be discovered.

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 — Chris Barton

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