Volume 94, Issue 71

Tuesday, January 30, 2001


Maestro stick to his hip-hop vision

Sugar and Spice everything but nice

Disc of the Week

Rock movie phun for Phish heads

Disc of the Week

Various Artists
The Best of Ken Burns Jazz

Recently, the last segment of Ken Burns' documentary, Jazz, aired on television. The 19-hour film featured nearly 500 pieces of music, mapping the days of late 1920s New Orleans jazz, to the swinging '30s, big band, bebop and beyond.

The release of this single compilation, though, begs the question: How can this 20-track, 75-minute long CD possibly do justice to its more expansive film source?

Regardless, the album starts on the right note with the "Pops" of jazz himself – virtuoso Louis Armstrong – performing trumpet and vocals on the timeless "Star Dust." Among the favourites that follow are Noble Sissle teaming with fiery Sidney Bechet for "Dear Old Southland," a 1937 recording that is driving, insistent and infused with a subtle Spanish flare. Clarinetist Benny Goodman also makes an appearance with "King Porter Stomp," reminding listeners why he's "the King of Swing."

Of the prominent female jazz musicians, none is quite so wistfully remembered as Billie Holiday, who graces the compilation with Duke Ellington's melody, "Solitude." In it, she expresses soul and sadness in her trademark behind-the-beat singing style.

Two great jazz pianists appear: Thelonius Monk and Dave Brubeck. Monk shows off his unique percussive piano playing in "Straight, No Chaser" and The Dave Brubeck Quartet performs what is perhaps the most-played jazz tune ever, "Take Five."

But what would any jazz collection be without each of the four "giants of jazz" (Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis)? Parker joins Dizzie Gillespie for the innovative "Groovin' High," while Davis and his sextet offer "So What" – a track illustrative of his restless experimentation and collaboration with other big players, including supreme saxophonist John Coltrane.

While this album combines most of the jazz legends, there are some obvious absences, like Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker. Nevertheless, The Best of Ken Burns Jazz is commendable, if only for the fact that Burns completed the daunting task of sifting through an ocean of music for a single disc.

Insofar as it is a starter album highlighting the titans of a genre that still swings, The Best of Ken Burns Jazz is close to being a magnum opus of jazz compilations.

–Rebecca Morier

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