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Various Artists: RCA Victor 80th Anniversary Collector’s Edition

The first five CDs of RCA’s invaluable and entertaining history lesson dramatize the compression and speed with which jazz matured into music of artistic substance. The last three are a reminder of how, since the late 1960s, the music’s course has slowed or, perhaps, stabilized. This massive collection begins with the first jazz recording, “Livery Stable Blues,” made in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It ends with Antonio Hart’s “Uptown Traveler,” recorded in 1994.

Hearing it in sequence, the listener is stimulated to think of time-lapse photography of phenomena in the natural world, a flower opening or a supernova expanding. In less than a decade, jazz advanced from the primitive hokum of “Livery Stable Blues” to the harmonic sophistication of Bix Beiderbecke and Joe Venuti in Jean Goldkette’s band. In another ten years, the seeds of bebop had been planted. Comparable development in classical music took a couple of centuries.

It would be impossible for one label to paint a portrait of jazz. Nonetheless, as the Victor CDs spin through the years, they produce a reliable sketch of a music evolving. Well-chosen tracks include most of the music’s major artists. To fill in the lines, recordings other than RCA’s must be consulted. The company did not have Louis Armstrong in the 1920s or Lester Young in the 1930s, but its catalogue from those decades includes Jelly Roll Morton, Bennie Moten, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Red Allen and surprises like Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Band and The Missourians. Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Benny Carter, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and George Russell are all here, along with dozens of less well known musicians. So are George Russell, Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Shorty Rogers, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, Gil Evans and Chet Baker.

It is more than coincidence that the playing time of the CDs becomes shorter as the collection reaches 1970. A number of business, cultural and musical reasons might be cited for the decline of quality and interest. The label never abandoned jazz, but its roster of major jazz artists thinned in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s to the point where it must have been a challenge to the producers to fill out the discs representing that era. Among their strange choices are Nina Simone’s angry social message, “The Pusher” and a solo piano “Cherokee” by Marcus Roberts as Jonathan Edwards might have done it. “Up From the Skies” is hardly prime Gil Evans, but it may be the best of the Evans that RCA Victor owns. Cleo Laine is in her most irritating theatrical form in “Ridin’ High,” her simplest and most effective in “I’ll Be Around.” Fusion is represented by the Brecker Brothers and others. There is nothing to reflect free jazz, although Steve Coleman gives it a nod. The Toshiko-Tabackin band, Carmen McRae, Tom Harrell and Danilo Perez all have fine moments.

Happily, the packaging goes against the trend of art for the art director’s sake. Designed around the image of the old RCA Victor 78 rpm label, the box is compact, attractive and easy to handle. Stephanie Stein’s notes, bound into the individual CD albums, are clearly printed and easy to read. The discographical information includes original catalogue numbers, but no titles of the source LPs or CDs. That’s a shortcoming for consumers interested in finding the albums from which this kaleidoscope of music came.

Originally Published