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The New Smithsonian Collection: An Anthology That Matters
In 1987, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the catalogue of Moses Asch’s famed Folkways record label. The next year, the Smithsonian began releasing material (old and new) under the umbrella of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Now, Smithsonian Folkways has jumped into the void created in 1999 when the separate Smithsonian Collection of Recordings went dark, ending the life of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz that first appeared in 1973. The new project (released in March 2011) is titled Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology; and it’s a magnificently packaged set that every jazz fan (or potential jazz fan) will want to hear.
The six-CD project (that contains 111 selections with a running time of almost eight hours) is the result of producer Richard James Burgess’s seven-year obsession with resurrecting and updating the out-of-print Classic Jazz set. As Burgess, the Director of Marketing and Sales at Smithsonian Folkways (as well as the Director of Resource Development at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage), explains the Anthology was not meant to simply build on the five-disc Classic Jazz collection that was selected and annotated by the late Martin Williams, but to revisit it with new eyes.
After all, the Classic Jazz set (in its revised 1987 form) jumped directly from the 1960s to 1981 and the World Saxophone Quartet’s recording of “Steppin.’ ” The new Anthology also contains “Steppin.’ ” But that track is part of the sixth CD that also has cuts from: the Art Ensemble of Chicago; Anthony Braxton with Muhal Richard Abrams; Weather Report; Keith Jarrett; Steve Coleman; Irakere; Michael Brecker; Abdullah Ibrahim; Tito Puente; Wynton Marsalis; Nguyên Lê; John Zorn’s Masada quartet; Medeski, Martin & Wood; Martial Solal with Johnny Griffin; and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko who wraps things up with a recording from 2003. The new set also recognizes the jazz-rock era (left untouched by Classic Jazz) with sounds from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.
If the highly-regarded collection put together by Williams represents an intelligent singular point of view on the music’s tradition, the Anthology follows a different path – one that began by submitting a list of some 2,500 artists and recordings to more than 50 jazz experts and educators for comment and further suggestions. A final list of the 111 tracks that make up the Anthology was then compiled by an executive committee of five people with 30 writers commissioned to write the very substantive notes for the recordings that are included in the 200-page book that is part of the set.
While that different approach has certainly generated discussions about the merits of an individual’s insight versus the collective judgment made by a committee, the simple fact remains that neither approach is without its merits and its difficulties. Questions about who is in and is out and whether a track selected for those included represents the best choice available are always on the table regardless of the selection method followed.
Of course, that’s not a bad thing. Part of the fun (and the educational value) of the Anthology comes not only examining what is included in the set, but in comparing and analyzing its content to the 95 tracks contained in the Classic Jazz collection along with the 94 tracks offered on the five-disc Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music compilation released in 2000 (about midway between the revised Classic Jazz collection and the new Smithsonian Anthology). For example, some 17 percent of the cuts from the new Anthology are also on Classic Jazz, while 15 percent of those on the new Smithsonian outing are found on the Burns set. When the listener adds in his or her own preferences and prejudices, the discussions, disagreements and debates are endless, especially (though not exclusively) when it comes to more modern entries that do not have the kind of consensus produced by historical perspective. In this regard, I have nothing against guitarist Lê or trumpeter Stańko, but I’m still wondering about their inclusion. I’m also wondering, from earlier eras, about the inclusion of the Boswell Sisters, the Count Basie Octet, Shorty Rogers, the Clark Terry-Bob Brookmeyer Quintet and even George Shearing to name just a few.
Then, there’s the matter of specific selections. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers doing “Moanin’ ” makes sense – but “One by One” from Ugetsu ? The inclusion of Chico Hamilton’s unique quintet I can understand – but “Jonaleh”? I’m a fan of the Art Ensemble, yet I’m less than convinced that “Bush Magic” is the best choice. The same is true of the pairing of Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery on “King of the Road.” And the list of questions goes on and on, including the use of Dick Hyman’s rendition of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” instead Joplin’s to launch the set’s first CD.
Importantly, that list of questions doesn’t detract from the Anthology’s significance. Quite to the contrary, it actually points to the set’s enormous educational (and entertainment) value as a gateway into a living tradition, not simply as a post-mortem on an historical artifact. A gateway, by the way, that is packaged in the kind of top-shelf manner that the music justly deserves, but all too frequently fails to receive, including the striking signature art work based on the album cover design for Fred Ramsey’s Jazz series on Folkways by his wife Amelia.
In a brief discussion with producer Burgess just months after the new set was released, he noted that the Anthology had already broken even. Since the set from Smithsonian Folkways has to pay its own way, that’s very good news. If it sells the way it should, then, perhaps, the label will be able to consider the possibility of doing something similar with other out-of-print Smithsonian jazz collections, such as Big Band Jazz, Big Band Renaissance, Jazz Singers, Swing That Music and the Jazz Piano. The Anthology helps keep hope alive.
---- The six-disc Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology lists for $107.98 and it is available at discounted prices. There is also a jazz-education website that accompanies the set (www.folkways.si.edu), as well as posters and t-shirts that utilize its eye-catching design ----