RCA Victor history uneven, but rewarding
At one time, was one of the most powerful music labels on earth. It could make or break careers, could create a star simply by choosing to. Of course, that time was 60 years ago during the height of the Big Band era, and until a recent resurgence in jazz the label had become largely irrelevant in terms of setting musical trends or signing top-selling acts.
But it is one of the oldest labels, with a still-rich library from which to draw, making a new eight-disc retrospective of interest to those curious about the history of jazz.
The second disc, which covers the years 1930-39, is the most interesting: Among the label's hits that decade were Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo," Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," Bunny Berigan's "I Can't Get Started," "Begin the Beguine" by Artie Shaw, "Cherokee" by Charlie Barnet, and Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" (side note: Lead tenor on that hit was by Tex Beneke, who was still playing until his death in 1999).
There are another dozen lesser-known hits by bands ranging from Tommy Dorsey's to Benny Goodman's, Fletcher Henderson to Jimmie Lunceford. Those 25 songs provide a pretty concise yet complete history of the big bands.
The first disc isn't as listenable, but just as historic including what is generally credited as the first-ever jazz recording, by the Original Dixieland "Jass" Band. There are also early sides by Jelly Roll Morton, Bennie Moten, Fletcher Henderson, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Earl Hines, Fats Waller and Eddie Condon.
There is little that is quite as good on the remaining discs, though. There are some early sets by Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey that show them before they hit their artistic stride. But by the '60s, the label had moved away from discovering new talent and was mostly issuing new recordings by established stars.
As mentioned, that has changed some over the past 15 years or so, and the last two discs have some memorable performances by avante-gardist Steve Coleman, solo stuff by former Wynton Marsalis sideman Marcus Roberts, young lions Roy Hargrove and Antonio Hart, and new singers Carmen McRae, Vanessa Rubin and Dominique Eade.
Given that each volume is also being released individually, it might make more sense for the less committed collector to only pick up the volumes that are of particular interest rather than shelling out the money for the whole set. Those who do pick up the whole set, though, get a bonus ninth disc with a newly discovered Mingus recording as well as two other songs by the Original Dixieland "Jass" Band.
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