Every fall record labels churn out box sets and special packages—sometimes elaborate, sometimes exploitive, sometimes worthwhile—designed to appeal to fanatics or end up as holiday gifts (and often both). I suppose if you have no interest in jazz, an eight-CD box set of music by Coleman Hawkins might seem uselessly extravagant, but all the releases I've collected here put music first, bells and whistles second (when there are any bells and whistles at all). Each would make a great present for the right friend or loved one—with any luck, these reviews will help you decide if you know that person (or are that person yourself).
Check out our all-local gift guide for nonmusical suggestions like absinthe, shadow puppets, and insulting posters.
Arizona Dranes, He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Drane (Tompkins Square)
This release collects all 16 known recordings of blind gospel singer and pianist Arizona Dranes, born in Greenville Town, Texas, in 1889 and affiliated with the Church of God in Christ, the first black-founded Christian denomination in the U.S. Music journalist Michael Corcoran wrote the 44-page book that houses the disc, and he clearly spent a lot of time trying fruitlessly to dig up facts about Dranes, who died in Los Angeles in 1963—the text reads almost like an unsolved mystery. Almost no photos of Dranes exist, so the book uses correspondence, advertisements, labels from 78s, and pictures with some connection to her history—associates, church congregations, buildings—to document her life by proxy. The remarkable music, recorded in three sessions in Chicago between 1926 and '28 and remastered from original 78s, makes plain what spurred Corcoran's search. Dranes's huge, booming voice rides atop raucous piano accompaniment propelled by her locomotive left hand, which plays pre-boogie-woogie bass lines—she's like a precursor to guitarist and singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who injected gospel with the drive of proto-rock 'n' roll in the 30s and 40s. $24.99
Jan Garbarek, Dansere (ECM)
No jazz musician is more synonymous with the so-called "Nordic tone" than Norwegian reedist Jan Garbarek. The serene, probing sound he developed became for some reason linked to fjords and mountains, aided on most of his recordings by the trademark production of German label ECM—dispassionate, reverb-heavy, and pastoral. Dansere collects the three LPs Garbarek made with Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson in the early 70s, during which time he expanded beyond his fire-breathing free-jazz beginnings and grew into this meditative style.
The 1971 album Sart is the transitional recording: thanks in part to the rock energy of electric guitarist Terje Rypdal, it retains the fury of its seething predecessor, Afric Pepperbird, so that you can feel the heavy thumbprints of Coltrane and Ayler and, on the wide-open title track, the influence of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. But Stenson's majestic playing leavens the woolly energy, pushing the music in a contemplative direction—with help from a patient, space-carving rhythm section consisting of drummer Jon Christensen and bassist Arild Andersen. Witchi-Tai-To (1973) and Dansere (1975) are quartet recordings with Stenson, Christensen, and bassist Palle Danielsson. Both are all acoustic, and on the first you can hear the saxophonist smoothing out his tone, relaxing his phrases, and incorporating ideas from Scandinavian and North American folk music into the whole (Native American jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper wrote the title track). Dansere is more ethereal and lyrical, a development that set the stage for some unfortunate spin-offs—not just the antiseptic ECM house sound but also what came to be called "smooth jazz." Garbarek's style would calcify somewhat in the years to come, as though stuck in this shape, but in 1975 the beauty and high-level interplay in his music was still unique. $29.99
Coleman Hawkins, Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic)
Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins has the distinction of attracting more superlatives than almost anyone else in jazz, and this sprawling set spanning the first two and a half decades of his career demonstrates how thoroughly he earned them. He was the first jazz musician to develop a proper template for the tenor saxophone; he led his own bands and worked as a sideman through some of the most crucial developments in the music's history, from traditional jazz to swing to bebop; and he was one of the most gifted and original improvisers who ever lived.
The eight-disc box—whose LP-size booklet includes precise and accessible liner notes by scholar and musician Loren Schoenberg, artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem—traces Coleman's development from a slap-tonguing sideman for blues singer Mamie Smith to a star soloist with big-band legend Fletcher Henderson to a fixture in prewar all-star ensembles to a savvy bandleader in his own right. Included of course is his canonical 1939 reading of "Body and Soul," but the other ballads are just as fantastic. In some ways this dynamic set could double as a primer on early jazz history, seen through the lens of one of its most durable figures—but it's great no matter how you approach it. (Available only by mail via mosaicrecords.com.) $136
Tunji Oyelana, A Nigerian Retrospective 1966-79(Soundway)
Though singer Tunji Oyelana is among the many African stars who never found much of an audience outside the continent, he was a remarkable artist, evolving his music as the tastes of his fellow Nigerians changed—Afrobeat, juju, rock, highlife. For many years his backing band was called the Benders for just that reason: "This band, we have no particular style," Oyelana says in the liner notes. "So we're the Benders, just bending from one level to another!" A few of his vintage tracks have turned up on previous Soundway compilations of Nigerian music, but this excellent two-disc overview—which includes rare cuts he recorded in London with members of South African expat jazz group the Blue Notes—is the label's first release to capture his range. The material jumps around chronologically, further obscuring whatever linear development he might have undergone; the fact that the liner notes don't nail down the date of each track is my only complaint.
Oyelana participated in many multidisciplinary projects throughout his career, perhaps none more notable than his early involvement with the theater company of longtime friend Wole Soyinka. But he wasn't a dabbler, spread too thin to be truly great at anything—whatever he did, he did 100 percent. He was a terrific songwriter, with a great ear for combining popular music with traditional Nigerian folk to create something hooky, warm, and heavy on the grooves. He led a killer band, and he used daring and distinctive production tricks—a bunch of tunes have two different, overlapping lead-vocal tracks. Oyelana's output is still more proof that music ran deep all over Africa in the 60s and 70s—the stars visible from the West filled only a tiny fraction of the sky. $23
András Schiff, Johann Sebastian Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (ECM)
I'm still sad I missed the recent Symphony Center performance that pianist András Schiff gave of book two of The Well-Tempered Clavier, part of an ongoing series for which he's playing all of Bach's music from memory. Schiff's 1983 recording of the Goldberg Variations was my entry point into Bach, and few living pianists are so invested in the composer's oeuvre. Luckily for me, last year Schiff made his second recording of both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier—each comprises 24 paired preludes and fugues, one pair for each of the major and minor keys—and ECM has released it in this magnificent four-CD box set.
In a thoughtful essay included in the liner notes, Schiff explains some of his technical choices on aesthetic and historic grounds—particularly his decision to refrain entirely from using the piano's sustain pedal, which he made because Bach wrote when the pedal didn't yet exist. This goes against the grain of most modern performances, and only allows Schiff to let notes resonate and overlap by holding down their keys—but it yields a stunning rhythmic clarity. As Paul Griffiths writes in his notes, "Bach's is supreme finger music," and Schiff's decision helps it sound unclouded and punchy, underlining the presence of what Griffiths calls "song or dance" in these masterful compositions. $59.99