The BLOG: Culture

Something old, something new, something bootlegged, something blue

Wondering what to get that jazz fan in your life? Or thinking of treating yourself to a tasteful little present this holiday? After all, we know that you’ve been nice, and not naughty – or at least we hope that’s the case. We don’t pretend to be as omniscient as Santa.  Here’s a sample of some of the season’s most superlative offerings of new and historic jazz recordings and books.  We’ll start with a collection of Christmas songs by one of the best big bands in the history of the genre and highlight a few offerings shedding light on two gentlemen born 100 years ago who were vital to the development of 20th century music.

The Count Basie Orchestra

A Very Swinging Basie Christmas (Concord).  The juggernaut that helped define hip, blues-tinged big-band swing in the 1950s has just recorded its first Christmas album. The band now led by trumpeter Scotty Barnhart (Basie left for the big-band holiday party in the sky in 1984) has put together a very enjoyable and swinging collection of Christmas tunes arranged by such Basie mainstays as Sammy Nestico. Ellis Marsalis, dad of Wynton and Branford, holds down Basie’s piano chair, and Johnny Mathis does some crooning.

Billy Strayhorn

(Courtesy of Agate Publishing)

(Courtesy of Agate Publishing)

Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life (Agate Bolden). What says “holiday present” better than a coffee table book? This lush collection of photos, essays, interviews and – a special treat – replications of Strayhorn’s written manuscripts, comes on the 100th anniversary of the composer and arranger’s birth. Strayhorn was a vital part of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, writing many of Ellington’s hits – “Satin Doll” among them – and helping shape the sound of the modern big band with his compositions and arrangements, which were ahead of their time in their harmonic and melodic complexity.

Frank Sinatra

Ultimate Sinatra. (Capitol/Universal). This is Sinatra’s centennial as well as Strayhorn’s. One of the offerings is a four-CD set that encompasses much of the singer’s entire career, from his stint with big bands in 1939 through his final Capitol recordings in 1994. These 101 tunes are a fantastic sampler for anyone who wants a good overview of the Chairman of the Board’s biggest hits and most iconic tunes, including the Capitol recordings from 1953-1962 that helped redefine not only Sinatra but the great American songbook.

Frank Sinatra: A Voice on Air (1935-1955) (Legacy). The world first learned about Frank Sinatra when, as part of the Hoboken Four, he appeared on the popular radio show, “The Major Bowes Amateur Hour,” in 1935. This four-CD set and book chronicles Sinatra’s radio broadcasts from the first two decades of his career, including his first Major Bowes appearance (there were several), his broadcasts to the troops during World War II and his ads for cigarettes and other products. It’s a wonderful opportunity to hear his voice – both singing and speaking – develop over the years.

Miles Davis

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Miles Davis: At Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Columbia/Legacy). The Newport Jazz Festival, grand-daddy of all jazz festivals, has been the scene of a number of historic performances, not the least of which was Miles Davis’ 1955 appearance. The trumpeter’s performance helped him reclaim the spotlight that had shone brightly on him only a few years before, and landed him a contract with Columbia that resulted in some of the most important recordings in jazz.  This four-CD set includes that historic 1955 performance (previously released) as well as previously unissued performances (including overseas at outposts of the Newport Jazz Festival) with both of his classic quintets and some of his fusion ensembles from the early 1970s.  

Weather Report

Weather Report: The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981 (Legacy). Perhaps the best-known jazz fusion band, Weather Report was at its commercial peak during this period, with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Peter Erskine joining leaders Wayne Shorter, on saxophone, and keyboard player Joe Zawinul. This four-CD set on Legacy features great live versions of two of the band’s best-known numbers, “Black Market” and “Birdland.”

Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n Roll (Little, Brown & Co.). Yes, yes, I know. It’s not jazz. It is, though, a book by one of Boston’s own – Peter Guralnick – who also just happens to be one of the best music biographers in the business. And it’s the sort of book that is likely to be enjoyed by jazz fans, if they have at least a little bit of interest in what was happening in popular music in the middle of the last century. Sam Phillips revolutionized the music business when he founded Sun Records in Memphis in the 1950s, and proceeded to discover and record Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. Like his groundbreaking two-part bio of Presley (“Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love”), Guralnick impresses us with attention to detail and his ability to put these major musical doings in context.

Tom Nutile can be reached at [email protected].