Jazz accounts for about 2 percent of all recordings sold in the United States, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Jazz-related printed matter, it's safe to assume, likewise isn't exactly a market leader. Fans nevertheless faced little difficulty this year satisfying their appetites for jazz CDs -- new releases, reissues, boxed sets -- and a variety of biographies, histories and other books related to the New Orleans-born music. Here's a selective guide to some of the treasures jazz fans, or those wanting to learn more about the music, might most hope to find among their holiday hoard.
Jazz: The First Century (William Morrow), oversized and jammed with an array of enlightening photos, benefits from a diversity of voices on the subject: The book's editor, John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution, is joined by Bob Blumenthal, Neil Tesser, John Litweiler, Kevin Whitehead and other noted jazz scholars and writers. Themed chapters, spiked with sidebars (on topics such as tap dancing, 52nd Street in New York and the relationship between jazz and religion) are helpfully concluded with lists of related recordings. "If jazz means anything, it is freedom of expression," Ellington is quoted as saying during the introduction. Hasse's impressive document sheds lots of light on the depth and breadth of the uniquely American art form.
Now available in paperback are a pair of jazz books penned by New York-based observers that are among the best of recent years. Future Jazz (Oxford), by veteran music critic Howard Mandel, is a view of the jazz scene from ground level, delivered with no small amount of attitude. Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association, gets personal with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Vernon Reid, John McLaughlin and Geri Allen, optimistically placing the work of these artists and other major players of the last three decades in the context of a continuum stretching into the future. Gary Giddins, the dean of America's jazz critics, entertains, educates and provokes with the essays collected in Visions of Jazz: The First Century (Oxford). Giddins, a Village Voice columnist who might be more knowledgeable about his subject than any other living writer, offers insightful analyses of everyone from Irving Berlin to Don Byron. Related compilation CDs, on the Knitting Factory and Blue Note labels, respectively, are available for both books.
Tito Puente, the influential bandleader and composer, passed away in June, saddening all those who had ever been exposed to the New York-born percussionist's intoxicating brand of Latin jazz. The last year has seen the arrival of no less than 33 releases from El Rey, including several worthwhile compilations. The Best of the Concord Years (Concord Picante), a two-CD set, includes intoxicating versions of familiarities, such as "On Broadway," "Take Five," "All Blues," "Lullaby of Birdland" (with the tune's composer, George Shearing), "On Green Dolphin Street" (with guests Maynard Ferguson and Bobby Shew) and "Spain," all released since 1983. Also recorded during the same period were the 11 dance-inducing pieces heard on Party With Puente (Concord Picante), a collection with "Oye Como Va," "Killer Joe" and several of the same pieces available on the aforementioned set. Those wanting to track the musical development of the King of Mambo might opt for Tito Puente: The Complete RCA Recordings, Volume 1 (RCA), a half-dozen CDs of digitally remastered tracks dating back to the 1949 vinyl release Ran Kan Kan, a reference point for a generation of Latinos, and continuing through 1960.
Concord went the extra mile with The Colors of Latin Jazz (Concord Special Products), an accessibly programmed series of six CDs devoted to that sound, with single discs titled Cubop, Soul Sauce, A Latin Vibe (as in vibraphones) and Sabroso. Our two favorites, From Samba to Bomba and Corcovado, variously include tracks from Charlie Byrd, Manfredo Fest, Trio Da Paz, Hendrik Meurkens, Poncho Sanchez, Cal Tjader, Monty Alexander and the Caribbean Jazz Project.
The label's commitment to the genre is evidenced by Jam Miami (Concord Picante), a document of a recent mix-and-match concert with Sanchez, Arturo San-doval, Chick Corea and his Origin band, Pete Escovedo, Claudio Roditi, Hilton Ruiz, Nestor Torres, Steve Turre and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, among others. Also among this year's top Latin-jazz releases are Los Hombres Calientes, Volume 2 (Basin Street), the sophomore CD from the New Orleans jazz-Latin-African-funk sextet; and Sanchez's Soul of the Conga (Concord Picante), with guests Joey DeFrancesco and Terence Blanchard.
Several notable artists greeted us twice or more in the record stores: Medeski, Martin and Wood, the jazziest and most eclectic of the jam bands, show off their acoustic, stripped-down side with Tonic (Blue Note), recorded at the hip New York nightclub of the same name, but heavy grooves and electric sound sculptures are at the heart of The Dropper (Blue Note), a trippy aural experience featuring contributions by Marc Ribot and hip-hop producer Scotty Hard.
Pat Metheny, perhaps the most accomplished guitarist of his generation, dips into his often neglected bebop bag with e Trio 99>00 (Warner Bros) and the two-disc Trio Live (Warner Bros). Both demonstrate the six-stringer's impressive meeting of hearts and minds with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart.