Various Artists

The Sound of America: The Singles Collection

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Conventional wisdom has it that jazz is a style of music best suited for long-playing formats, and that it was never meant for the singles charts. Of course, that isn't really the case -- plenty of great jazz records were recorded long before the invention of the LP (even if 78s made it difficult to document long improvisational jams), and jazz was a genuinely popular form before rock and other styles usurped it on the charts in the '60s and '70s. Even into the 1970s, stations geared for listeners with little interest in rock would regularly blend accessible jazz into the mix, before fusion alienated one part of jazz's mainstream audience in order to engage another. Jazz's relationship with the mainstream is the unspoken theme of The Sound of America: The Singles Collection, a five-disc box set that collects 100 tracks Verve Records issued as singles between 1947 and 1972 (one track from Diana Krall brings the set into the 21st century) as label head Norman Granz aimed for all kinds of listeners and not simply jazz snobs. While several of the early tracks on this set fall into the category of dance tunes and novelty items (the latter best represented by Slim Gaillard's "Opera in Vout"), there's plenty of "real" jazz on this set, with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Dizzy Gillespie all represented on disc one. As the set goes on, vocalists and stylish interpretations of old standards become a dominant force, performances that were expressive but still had one foot in the hit parade, and Ella Fitzgerald's many sides here demonstrate how formally innovative a performer could be and still please a crowd (her scatting on 1961's "How High the Moon" is a dazzling show of imagination and technique). By the mid-'60s, things start to slip a bit, as Fitzgerald gets talked into recording something called "The Ringo Beat" and show tunes and covers of pop hits replace standards and originals, but there's still plenty that allows soloists to shine (particularly Jimmy Smith's mighty organ workouts and Willie Bobo's sinewy Latin grooves), and "The Girl from Ipanema" by Stan Getz, João Gilberto, and Astrud Gilberto is a sterling example of jazz that could fit gracefully in with pop formats. Much of what's on The Sound of America: The Singles Collection is bold and brassy, but if most of this ignores the more experimental waters of bebop and beyond, nearly everything captures gifted and soulful artists working at the top of their craft, and it's hard to imagine how music as strong and approachable as this fell out of favor and was shunted into "specialty" programming. This is a fine set for jazz devotees, and a trimmed-down edition could be a convincer for folks who believe jazz is too esoteric for them; either way, it's a fascinating and entertaining look at an often forgotten aspect of a great record label.

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