April 29, 2011 5:46 pm

Precious little outrage

Billie Holiday

Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, is the US cultural institution’s latest word on what constitutes the jazz canon. This CD collection has been a long time coming – it updates the Smithsonian’s landmark Collection of Classic Jazz, issued in 1973 – and the result leaves the listener/reader with a sense of exhaustion at the sheer scale of the enterprise and disappointment with its safety-first outcome.

It took 10 years, a 50-strong panel and an executive committee of five to whittle more than 2,500 suggestions down to the final 111 of the six-CD collection. There is an accompanying 200-page handbook that discusses each track and whizzes through a century of jazz history at the rate of two paragraphs a decade. And, too, there is a rather odd four-page guide to the music, entitled “The Recordings and How to Hear Them”.

But once the music begins, the detailed track notes deal with each track in isolation. There is little sense of connection, movement or raison d’être, merely of objects suspended in time, like precious artefacts in a blockbuster exhibition that is ill-served by its random presentation of facts.

This should not detract from the quality of the listening experience, though it is more enjoyable radio programme than definitive statement. The anthology opens with Dick Hyman’s 1975 reading of Scott Joplin’s written composition “Maple Leaf Rag”, first published in 1899, and Bunk Johnson’s 1945 recreation of the New Orleans marching band “In Gloryland”. Foundations referenced, the chronology opens with the first jazz recording, the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues”. Recorded in 1917, it was phenomenally successful – sales exceeded 1m worldwide – but it sounds like hokum compared with the next track, King Oliver’s 1923 recording of “Dippermouth Blues”.

In the twinkling of an eye, the rough edges of raw polyphony are smoothed by svelte arrangements, Duke Ellington’s artistry has dazzled and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five delivered the timeless art of “West End Blues”. By the end of the first CD we have encountered stride and boogie woogie piano, along with the plaintive genius of Billie Holiday (pictured ), and are on to the orchestral jazz of the swing era.

Jazz evolved with extraordinary speed and sharp junctures, and this excitement is captured throughout the set. The swing era is signed off midway through the second CD by the ballroom glitz of the Gene Krupa orchestra in 1941. Modernism enters dramatically with the underground spike of Dizzy Gillespie’s 1945 recording of “Shaw Nuff”. Smooth Woody Herman and angular Thelonius Monk from the late 1940s are a telling juxtaposition, and the avant-garde cuts an abstract dash with Cecil Taylor, at the end of the fifth CD.

The best sequence is a product of chronology, when Sun Ra’s oddball “Call for All Demons” is followed by the comforting sounds of Nat King Cole. By 1956, jazz had indeed become a broad church. And unlike the case study polemic of Ken Burns Jazz and the 100 CDs of Chant du Monde’s budget-price La Grande Histoire du Jazz, the Smithsonian Anthology reaches into the 21st century – the other two stop well short.

But it needs more sharp corners – there’s precious little outrage – and is decidedly light on fusions and the blues. And the single nod to Europe, the final track of the last CD, is the surprising choice of an ECM recording by Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko.

These are more than quibbles, but shouldn’t detract from a solid chronology of recordings by major figures in the jazz canon. In contrast, the Smithsonian’s first jazz anthology, compiled by critic Martin Williams, focused on a few great figures at sufficient length to make clear exactly why they were so great. Admittedly flawed – he was dismissive of saxophone iconoclast John Coltrane – Williams captured what this collection has lost, the inquisitive energy and polemic wrangling that infuses jazz to this day.

‘Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology’, Smithsonian Folkway Recordings, is released in the UK on May 9

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