The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Columbia/Legacy 63527)
What does it mean to say that Louis Armstrong invented jazz?
It's not as if he spent his days in a musical laboratory, then one day shouted "Eureka!" and a style was born. Nor is it true that he was the first person ever to take an extended improvised solo - even though he is credited with making the improvised solo the cornerstone of jazz.
No, what Armstrong did was in many ways as subtle as it was profound. Because not only did he shift the emphasis in jazz away from collective improvisation and toward individual solos, he did so in a way that completely changed the sound and the feel of the music. And while nothing he did ever quite took on the obvious immediacy of a "Eureka!" moment, the evolution of his genius is plainly audible in the four-CD set "The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings."
Scholars may yet debate whether rock and roll began with Elvis Presley's first sessions for Sun Records, but nobody argues with the primacy of these Armstrong recordings. Beginning with his initial quintet - which included trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, pianist Lilian Hardin Armstrong and banjo player Johnny St. Cyr - Armstrong set the ground rules for jazz, not only essaying the melodic richness of blues improvisation, but introducing the world to the possibilities of swing.
That last is not to be underestimated. Just listen to "Come Back Sweet Papa," from 1926, the fourth selection on this 89-song collection. The tune starts out in typical "hot" style, and features a nice, bluesy couple of verses from clarinetist Dodds.
But it isn't until Armstrong enters that we realize how flat and stilted music seemed up to this point. Dodds, though he knows how to use a blue note, plays in a style that seems stiffly syncopated. By contrast, Armstrong's solo flows free and easy.
By disc four, which starts just two years later, the whole group has absorbed his sense of rhythm. Granted, the group's membership had changed dramatically by that point, not only adding a drummer (Zutty Singleton) but pairing Armstrong with an equally gifted improvisor, pianist Earl Hines. Indeed, some of these recordings - particularly the virtuosic "West End Blues" and the adventurous Armstrong/Hines duet "Weather Bird" - largely laid the foundation for jazz to come, from the easy rhythms of the swing era to the harmonic innovations of bebop, and beyond.
"The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings" doesn't just document the birth of jazz-as-we-know-it; the set breathes much-needed life into these old recordings. Not only is the sound crisp, clean and vibrant, but the booklet and packaging does an excellent job of putting Armstrong's artistic achievement into context. Short of having a time machine, it would be hard to imagine a better way of appreciating the genius of this music.
And appreciate it we should, as these sessions are as close to Bach inventions or Mozart sonatas as American music comes. But isn't it nice to know that America's classical music is so much fun? * * * *
The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book (Columbia 62180)
His sound draws from hip-hop, R&B, jazz, rock and worldbeat. His guests include Kenny Rogers, Whitney Houston and Youssou N'Dour. No doubt about it, Wyclef Jean certainly is eclectic - or "Ecleftic," as he would put it. But as much as the sound of his second solo album, "The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book," invokes a universal music experience, its lyrical references are too often hung up on the tiny world that is Wyclef's career. It's bad enough that many of the tracks are transparent rewrites of other people's hits (as with "Diallo," which owes more than it should to Peter Gabriel's "Biko"). But if there were less about his beefs with his fellow Fugees and more about bigger, broader topics (as, for instance, on the delightful "Low Income"), "The Ecleftic" would be ecleftional. * * 1/2
INCredible Sound of Gilles Peterson (Epic 61478)
Few DJs defy categorization as completely as Gilles Peterson. A Londoner who built his reputation in that city's soul clubs, Peterson has exceptionally broad tastes and an awesome command of musical idioms. Not only is he widely credited with coining the phrase "acid jazz," but his Talking Loud label releases everything from progressive house to drum 'n' bass. No doubt that's why the remix album "INCredible Sound of Gilles Peterson" manages to be both wide-ranging and cohesive. No other DJ could so easily lead a listener from the rich, Latin grooves of Nuyorican Soul's "I Am the Black Soul of the Sun" to the lean hip-hop pulse of DJ Vadim's "Your Revolution," or from the ecstatic jazz of Pharaoh Sanders' "Rejoice" to the neo-samba of Alive's "Shindo Le Le." * * * 1/2
The Room (Atlantic 83382)
The trouble with much New-Age music is that it's all atmosphere, offering vaporous mood instead of melodic substance. Harold Budd, on the other hand, builds so much solid structure into his eerily quiet soundscapes that you could almost hum along. "The Room" is typical of his work. Hushed and contemplative, its melodies unfold with the slow, considered pace of prayers, using texture to blur the edges of harmony while repetition gradually turns the melodies into mantras. The sound is lean yet lush, as Budd uses the resonance of his keyboards (and the room in which he recorded) to let each note expand to its fullest. As such, there are times when his pieces convey the richness of pealing bells through a sound as gentle as falling blossoms. There's a truly wondrous world of sound in "The Room." * * *