Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology

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LABELS: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
PERFORMER: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker etc

As Rousseau might have said, jazz was born free but is everywhere in institutions. Roughly a century after surfacing in funky New Orleans dance halls, this pungently personal music has been comprehensively analysed and codified, embraced by conservatoires.
The mixed blessing of respectability is palpable in Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology. Over six CDs, 111 tracks and 200 pages of earnest annotation, Washington’s august establishment aims to summarise the music’s evolution, from ragtime to the 21st century.
Selected by a committee of 47 scholars, such titans as Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, make multiple appearances; stylistic developments are marked by standard masterpieces and the occasional curiosity.
Unquestionably, the music is sublime, but the whole enterprise has an academic flavour, like a sampler snipped out of an amazing tapestry. Intended as ‘a jazz appreciation course in a box’, its real value is the music’s rampant, enduring ‘sound of surprise’. Geoffrey Smith