The word jazz and the term "mass appeal" are seldom used in the same sentence. Occasionally, a well-marketed jazz artist will connect with popular culture -- singer Diana Krall, for example -- but label execs usually assume that jazz won't sell as well as rock, R&B, rap, country, adult contemporary, or Latin music. However, there was a time when jazz did, in fact, enjoy mass appeal. It was called the swing era, and Lionel Hampton was among the many swing stars who connected with popular culture even though he wasn't a pop artist. Assembled by Bluebird/RCA in 2002, this collection spans 1937-1940 and takes listeners back to a time when Hampton reached the pop market by playing warm, soulful, infectious, hard-swinging jazz. The disc is full of five-star gems from the vibist's early period, including "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Memories of You," and Hampton's signature song "Flying Home." And the list of sidemen reads like a who's who of swing -- people like Ziggy Ellman, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, and Nat King Cole. So why doesn't Ring Dem Bells merit a higher rating? For one thing, it isn't terribly generous by CD standards. The disc clocks in at around 49 minutes, and RCA could have easily provided another 30 minutes' worth of material. But the main problem is the sound quality; these recordings sound a lot scratchier and noisier on Ring Dem Bells than they do on other Hampton CDs that RCA has put out. This time, Bluebird/RCA's digital remastering leaves much to be desired. The haunting "Shades of Jade," for example, sounds a lot cleaner on Tempo and Swing (a 1992 release) than it does here. This carelessly assembled reissue simply doesn't do justice to an artist of Hampton's magnitude.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson