Louis Armstrong: The OKeh, Columbia & RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933

Louis Armstrong’s mammoth canon has been reshuffled and reconfigured so many times that even the most determined collector or student could be forgiven for giving up: Which recordings are truly important, which are marginal and which packages best deliver that music in a meaningful, logical manner? The OKeh, Columbia & RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933, 10 discs of Armstrong’s earliest sides as a leader, handsomely boxed, practically screams, “Start here.” Its packaging is relatively Spartan compared to other Armstrong collections, and the booklet is short on essay material (although the discographical data is thorough). But the music is presented just the way it should be: chronologically and comprehensively-and sold affordably ($45 online). To say that everyone who cares a whit about music should own these recordings would not be an overstatement.

Nevertheless, the box has its issues. Because these recordings constitute the most important of Armstrong’s storied career-and are some of the most vital in jazz history-it’s all been available before, most of it in previous Sony Legacy packages, making its contents redundant: The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides, which begin the Armstrong saga, have been reissued by the company several times before, most notably in a heralded four-CD set in 2000. (Many other labels have made the Hot Fives and Sevens available as well, some outdoing Sony in presentation.) Similarly, Armstrong’s collaborations with Earl Hines, his initial New York and L.A. sides, his early ’30s Chicago sessions, all are old news-there are no new finds, no fresh revelations. And although there’s probably only so much technology can do to enhance recordings made in the ’20s and ’30s, there’s no appreciable difference in the fidelity between these new discs and previous Sony releases of this material.

The bottom line is that The OKeh, Columbia & RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933 gathers together tidily a trove of essential American music that many will already possess-and those who don’t should.