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Basie, Buddy, Miles, they're all here--plus the rising star

It has been nearly a century since the exacting rhythms of Scott Joplin's ragtime gave way to the languid swing that marked the birth of jazz. As it nears its 100th birthday, jazz is not one kind of music, but many. Music-store shelves are filled with thousands of jazz albums representing many styles and tastes. St. Nick himself, widely reputed to be an avid jazz fan, would have trouble picking out gifts, even with help from all those elves.

Jazz fans tend to be a dedicated and evangelical lot, buttonholing anyone in reach to spread the word about a rising star or the reissue of a classic disk. They are always looking for others to share the pleasure. Count Basie is unlikely ever to outsell Pearl Jam or even the Three Tenors, but there are probably plenty of potential jazz converts hidden out there among the rock fans, symphony lovers, and operagoers.

The following suggestions represent a wide range of styles and performers. This is intended to be a guide for both fans and newbies--a personal sampling of some of the best of recent jazz compact-disk releases. The various styles all share the spontaneity and creativity that mark great improvisation. That is what jazz is about: the thrill of hearing music that is composed spontaneously, reflecting the spirit and passions of the musicians who create it.

BIG BANDS. This year saw the release of a masterpiece of the form, The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of Miles Davis and Gil Evans (Columbia). Miles Davis was one of the geniuses of jazz who was able to sustain an astonishing level of musical creativity for a lifetime. The Columbia recordings, made between 1957 and 1968, showcase Davis' spare, mournful trumpet against the dense orchestral background provided by Evans' arrangements.

To get a feel for how far Davis and Evans advanced the big-band art in these recordings, compare them with Glenn Miller's The Lost Recordings (RCA Victor), also released this year. Many of the Miller favorites--including In the Mood, A String of Pearls, and Moonlight Serenade--are here, in versions not previously available.

Other recent big-band disks include Count Basie and the New York Voices (Blue Jackel) and Buddy Rich's Big Swing Face (Pacific Jazz). The Basie band was renowned for its irresistible sense of swing, and that continues under the direction of Grover Mitchell. Rich, who some say was the greatest jazz drummer ever, is in peak form on Big Swing Face, a reissue of the 1967 album.

MAINSTREAM. For lack of a better term, ''mainstream'' describes what we think of as the quintessential jazz group, a trio or quartet playing jazz tunes and jazz-style transformations of standard and pop tunes. Joe Lovano is one of today's most acclaimed mainstream saxophone players. On his album Quartets Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note), Lovano growls, purrs, and otherwise makes full use of the saxophone. He displays enormous technical facility and a delicate, lyrical approach on such tunes as This Is All I Ask, the Frank Sinatra ballad, and a variety of original compositions.

Michael Brecker, a tenor saxophonist who has accompanied scores of pop singers (he joined Paul Simon for the singer's most recent Central Park concert), has put out an album of original compositions called Tales from the Hudson (Impulse). The album features guitarist Pat Metheny along with Jack DeJohnette on drums, Dave Holland on bass, and Joey Calderazzo on piano--an all-star lineup.

Among younger sax players, few can match the musicality and inventiveness of Joshua Redman. His most recent album, Freedom in the Groove (Warner Bros.), is a buoyant set of 10 Redman originals that do everything jazz is supposed to do--entertain, stimulate, and uplift.

Another stirring album released this year is Loved Ones (Columbia) by two members of the remarkably talented Marsalis family of New Orleans--saxophonist Branford (Wynton's brother) and his father, pianist Ellis. A version of Leonard Bernstein's Maria from West Side Story, with Branford on soprano saxophone, is flawless.

Sonny Rollins and the late Gerry Mulligan and were both represented this year by reissues of classic recordings: The Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker (Pacific Jazz) and Silver City (Milestone), a selection of Rollins recordings from the past 25 years on the Milestone label. Mulligan was one of the most accomplished of the West Coast jazz players, who developed a slightly more relaxed style that distinguishes them from their New York counterparts.

Rollins, still playing at his peak, is on any critic's short list of the best living saxophonists. The selections on Silver City were assembled after the jazz critic Gary Giddins of The Village Voice argued that much of Rollins' best work was scattered about on many albums and ought to be collected. That's precisely what Milestone did.

Lee Morgan--not as well known as Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie, but revered by many who are familiar with his recordings--appears on Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note), a collection recorded in 1970 at the Lighthouse, a Hermosa Beach (Calif.) nightclub. Other highlights of the year in the mainstream category include: Belief (Sony) by Leon Parker, a newcomer on drums whose originality and unconventional use of the drum set has attracted the admiration of his peers; Live at the Blue Note (Concord) by guitarist Kenny Burrell, with the veteran Sir Roland Hanna on piano; and Ancestors (Blue Note) by Renee Rosnes, a young pianist who has an excellent working knowledge of the jazz pianists who preceded her and a still-developing style of her own.

VOCALISTS. Cassandra Wilson is a jazz singer who has made her reputation with a series of innovative, experimental albums in which she has extended the boundaries of jazz singing into new realms. Now she has taken a different turn with an album of pop tunes and standards. New Moon Daughter (Blue Note) includes, improbably, Last Train to Clarksville (yes, the old Monkees tune) and I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, the vintage Hank Williams country lament. Wilson deconstructs these tunes, slowing them down and lingering over the lyrics. She reveals subtleties that even the songs' composers might not have noticed.

Jeanne Lee, a veteran jazz singer, joins with pianist Mal Waldron on After Hours (Owl) to present a series of jazz standards such as Caravan and I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. This is a more conventional album than Wilson's, but it is no less enjoyable.

In one of the most unusual recordings of the year--Then & Now (Postcards)--Bob Stewart, on tuba, plays his own updated version of traditional jazz, or Dixieland. Nicholas Payton, a young trumpeter who has been a regular in Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center jazz orchestra, updates New Orleans-style jazz with Gumbo Nouveau (Verve). When the Saints Go Marching In sheds all Dixieland cliches with the substitution of expansive new harmonies and unexpected rhythmic stops and starts. The message here is that even some of the oldest jazz tunes can still be surprisingly full of life.

No compilation of jazz would be complete without a mention of its close cousins, Latin and Brazilian music. Percussionist Tito Puente has come out with a new album, Special Delivery (Concord), featuring the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. Phil Woods, the great alto saxophonist, has released Aster & Elis, a tribute to the Argentine composer and accordionist Aster Piazzolla and the late Brazilian bossa nova singer Elis Regina.

Blue Jackel has released a comprehensive, four-disk history of Brazilian music. It includes carnival sambas, folk and traditional music, bossa nova, and contemporary Brazilian pop. Strictly speaking, it's not jazz, but few jazz musicians would quibble with that. Put simply, it's good music, the kind they like to play.

Most jazz enthusiasts would dismiss all of this categorization in any case. As Joshua Redman puts it in the liner notes to Freedom in the Groove: ''When I first heard jazz, it wasn't 'jazz.' It was music.'' If you enjoy music, you're sure to enjoy the disks suggested here--and so will friends and family on your gift list. Give Count Basie a try.

TIPS: A large catalog of jazz releases is available on the World Wide Web at Jazz Online

Paul Raeburn


PHOTO: Newly Released Jazz CDs

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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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