Jazz can be as intimidating to the newcomer as it is fascinating to the aficionado. The sheer vastness of the music provokes the question: Where to begin? It’s no wonder that so many folks choose to pursue more commonplace sounds.
But as anyone who’s made the effort can attest, getting into jazz is worth it. And there’s no shortage of entry points. Of course, that raises another question: Which is the best?
Just released in a new edition, “Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” (formerly known as “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz”) is a fine place to start. The box set takes on the daunting challenge of distilling more than 85 years of jazz (from 1917 to 2003) on various labels into six discs featuring 111 tracks.
While jazz devotees may quibble about some of the choices, the anthology is astounding in its breadth and depth, spanning jazz styles from swing to bop, and from fusion to the avant-garde.
Artists represented include those whose status as icons is inarguable: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Parker and Bessie Smith.
But the anthology also takes a surprisingly fresh approach in featuring not only popular performers (such as pianists Dave Brubeck and Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Sonny Rollins) but also those whose work is significant but lesser known (such as pianists Muhal Richard Abrams, George Russell and Lennie Tristano).
Even the mainstream choices are imaginative. Instead of Brubeck’s crossover hit “Take Five,” we get his equally worthy “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” is included — but it’s the funky 1973 remake, not the 1962 hard-bop original. And Rollins, a master of straight-ahead jazz, is represented by the Caribbean-flavored “St. Thomas.”
Among the challenges of putting together such a collection is being stylistically and historically comprehensive while maintaining a seamless flow from track to track. With the exception of the opening track, Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” — which pianist Dick Hyman recorded in 1975 — the recordings in “Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” are presented chronologically. The effect is of hearing the music evolve, taking on numerous shapes and embracing different approaches. In that regard, the anthology makes room for artists such as crossover guitarist Pat Metheny, jam-band stalwarts Medeski Martin & Wood and saxophonist John Zorn’s klezmer-influenced quartet, Masada.
One measure of the anthology’s quality is its approach to an artist whose contribution to jazz was incalculable: legendary trumpeter Davis. He explored a wide range of jazz styles throughout his long career, and six tracks document stops along that journey — from the Charlie Parker Quartet’s state-of-the-art bebop on “Embraceable You” (1947) to the genre-stretching fusion of the trumpeter’s “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” (1969).
Arguably, the most intriguing of the anthology’s six discs is the concluding one — 16 tracks that range from pianist Abrams and saxophonist Anthony Braxton offering an eccentric but entrancing 1976 interpretation of “Maple Leaf Rag,” to Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s superlatively modern “Suspended Night Variation VIII” (2003).
Along the way, there’s the commercial but creative fusion of Weather Report’s “Birdland” (1976), the lilting grace of pianist Keith Jarrett’s “My Song” (1977), the glorious audacity of the World Saxophone Quartet’s “Steppin’” (1981), the propulsive panache of the Steve Coleman Group’s “The Glide Was in the Ride” (1985) and the Ellingtonian verve of the Wynton Marsalis Septet’s “Down the Avenue” (1992).
The anthology is stylishly packaged, with the CDs neatly tucked into the back of a 200-page book that includes essays about each recording, along with historical photographs.
“Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” serves not only as an engaging introduction to the music, but also as an illuminating alternative to the approach that Ken Burns took in his 2000 documentary miniseries and its related jazz collections. Although Burns’ “Jazz” helped to raise awareness of its subject, the miniseries also reinforced the notion that jazz ceased to develop after 1960.
Nothing could be further from the truth — or the spirit of the music.
JAZZ: THE SMITHSONIAN ANTHOLOGY
How much: $99.98
More info: folkways.si.edu/jazz