Aficionados and neophytes alike should feel equally welcome when listening to Jazz, the accessible history lesson produced by Putamayo. Although this 12-song compilation presents an audio array that reaches as high as Blossom Dearie's top-shelf timbre on "They Say It's Spring," to the joint-jumping horns on Maxine Sullivan's " 'Taint No Use," the consistent core from start to finish remains a simple, steady swing that says plenty in a very limited time. For the aficionado, these classics are reminders about the art form's origins. For the neophyte, they serve as starting points that invite further exploration.
For starters, all ears and feet get engaged immediately with the rolling piano and sashaying brushes/snare drum in-the-pocket work laid down by Albert "Tootie" Heath on Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares for Me." Simone's power comes from a diaphragm that emits a lush, full-bodied voice that still maintains full femininity. Simone's trio—which also includes bassist Jimmy Bonds—stays locked in on a catchy vamp even during her piano solo, and their release and the new swing they segue into at the song's climax makes this performance worth being called a classic.
Jazz really deserves the most appreciation when one realizes how much music is really played in such a limited time. This is first evident on the Nat King Cole Trio's "'Deed I Do." In a brisk, but still relaxed 2:15, listeners get treated to Cole's suave voice, his polished pianism that is featured in dialogue with guitarist Oscar Moore, and bassist Wally Prince, who presides over it all from the rear. To play so much music so well in such a short timeframe owing to that time period's recording-space limitations is a true testament to these cats' genius.
Although Jazz is a vocal-driven production—nine songs with vocals, three without—the instrumentalists whose singing is an added gift in their prodigious packages are also displayed. Let's consider Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker, whose external and internal axes are featured on "I Was Doing All Right," and "There Will Never Be Another You," respectively. On the former, "Satchmo" is joined by Oscar Peterson's quartet. After opening on his instrument for 16 tasty bars, Armstrong's voice—which always comes with a smile included free of charge—assumes its customary storytelling style. Armstrong's voice should really be appreciated when you consider the strain on the vocal chords that his style demanded.
Now listening to Chet Baker's light (almost femme) voice is a lesson in contrast. True, the trumpet is modest in volume, and the very straight vocal emphasizes the lyrics in an understated way, but Baker's beyond out-of-control lifestyle, documented in the 1988 film Let's Get Lost, makes one wonder how this lighter than light voice could come from such a soiled soul.
Although omitting Duke Ellington's numerous ensembles in this historical compilation may seem like a monumental error, there are two compositions from the maestro's pen included here: "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" co-written with Irving Mills, and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," co-written with Bob Russell. Anita O'Day interprets the former in her intimate style, while Mose Allison takes his turn on the latter. Listeners really get to enjoy Allison's stream-of-consciousness-like humming that comes from him, especially in the song's opening verse. It almost sounds as if Mose is enjoying some really fine cuisine while singing and playing his piano.
There are three instrumentals on Jazz: Zoot Sims' "Someone to Watch Over Me," Hampton Hawes' "The Sermon," and Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby." They are, naturally, excellent. Here, special mention will be given to the latter performance, which is the sweetest and most melodic. Evans, the song's co-writer, opens by laying flowers on the path for Cannonball, who then sings so well from his alto-playing soul while bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay keep it all simple and swinging.
Jazz concludes with Billie Holiday's "Lover Come Back to Me." Ray Brown prefaces Lady Day's plea by taking out his bow to make his doghouse bull-fiddle go deep into the blues of swing before the entire four-man ensemble, led by Oscar Peterson, lend their support. (Unfortunately, Joe Newman's trumpet is off-mic and not really felt.) Concluding this history lesson with this song proves to be an excellent choice when, to close her performance, Billie restates the title by inventing her own word as she goes, "Luv-ahhhhhhh...come back to me..." So much sizzle is present at this point that one can't help but see the wink and imagine the warmth that, no doubt, came with such a request.