Music » CD Reviews

Various Artists

Ken Burns's Jazz: A History of American Music (Columbia/Legacy)


This five-CD set, meant as a companion volume to Ken Burns's 10-segment series documenting the history of jazz, is fine as far as compilations go. But like the PBS series, it doesn't go far enough, barely touching on new developments in the music over the last 40 years. The first four volumes in the five-disc set are pretty much what they should be, although the works on them could have been chosen by just about any marginally intelligent person who'd read several histories of jazz and selective discographies. Therefore we have many outstanding and celebrated cuts here by greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane -- easy picks, really.

It's when we get to the fifth CD -- the one that covers jazz's final decades -- that the choices become very questionable and reflect on Columbia's desire to make a buck. The fifth disc in the set contains hits by Armstrong, Weather Report, Stan Getz, Grover Washington, and Herbie Hancock, as well as material by backward-looking musicians such as Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Left out are many innovators from the '60s to the present, including Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sun Ra, Julius Hemphill, and important experimental artists connected with today's New York "downtown scene" -- John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Mark Dresser, and Joe Maneri. It's inexcusable that this set should stop so far from the present, even when you take into account that Burns is gunning for a mass audience. He's either ignorant or gutless, or both.

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