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Music Review: Jazz Roots: The Music of the Americas

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Jazz Roots: The Music of the Americas is a two-disc collection of 41 classic tracks illustrating the history of jazz from its African origins and its early blues and Dixieland development through to its contemporary manifestations. It covers a wide variety of styles and movements and features the work of many legendary performers and their recordings.

Jazz lovers will find more than a few of their old favorites; neophytes will discover for themselves some of the iconic performances that have enchanted listeners for almost a century. This is a collection that defines what is recognized as the first truly American genre.

Beginning with Nigerian-born Babtunde Olatunji’s “Akiwowo” from his 1959 Drums of Passion album and ending with pianist Eldar Djangirov’s 2004 recording of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” Jazz Roots is nothing short of a series of highlights. It has something for everyone.

If you like the early piano, there’s Scott Joplin playing “Maple Leaf Rag” from back in 1916. If you like something more modern, there’s Dave Brubeck and the quartet featuring Paul Desmond on the saxophone doing “Take Five.”  

Bessie SmithBessie Smith sings lowdown blues; Ella Fitzgerald improvises with an angelic purity of tone. There are the big bands of the ’30s and ’40s: Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. You can’t help but get ready to swing when you hear the opening drum solo of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the piano intro of “Take the A Train,” or the riffs of “One O’Clock Jump.”

Bebop is represented by Charley Parker’s “Ornithology” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca.” Latin influences are illustrated by the Afro-Cuban bands of the late ’40s and ’50s, Tito Puente and Machito, as well as a more modern take on the style from Tiempo Libre’s 2008 “To Conga Bach (Conga)” inspired by Bach’s “Fugue In C Minor” from The Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1.

Brazilian jazz and the bossa nova craze of the ’60s and ’70s are represented by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Eliane Elias. Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis exemplify what the liner notes call “hard bop.” A variety of modern jazz movements—fusion, funk, contemporary and others—are also included with tracks from musicians like George Benson, Kenny G, Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock.

While some jazz aficionados may have some personal favorite song or artist they would have preferred to the selections included in the album, it is hard to argue with what producers did choose. Clearly the album is meant for the novice. The intention is to whet the appetite, and to encourage further investigation. It aims to be neither exhaustive, nor comprehensive.

After all, to limit the representation of Dixieland, for example, to three recordings, even if one of them is Louis Armstrong, can hardly be considered anything more than a taste. When you’ve got an album that includes Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Grover Washington, Jr., Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and Chris Botti as well as all the other masters already mentioned, it is somewhat mean to complain.

The two-disc set includes an informative 25-paged pamphlet that discusses each of the different jazz styles, lists some of the many musicians associated with that style, and explains the history and educational mission of the Jazz Roots project which began in 2008 when producer Larry Rosen was asked to create a jazz series for the city of Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Rosen, in collaboration with Carl Griffin, created a series of themed concerts as well as an educational program for students to learn about the music.

With the help of Sony Masterworks and Quincy Jones, the program was expanded to other cities and to this album, which tries to show “through these historic recordings the linkage of the Drums from Africa and the music of Western Europe, [and] to show how that marriage gave birth to The Music of the Americas.” If future projects are anything like this album, jazz lovers and jazz lovers-to-be have a lot to look forward to.

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About Jack Goodstein

  • John

    Amazing! I just love how jazz music is embedded into the African American culture. It is hard to figure out more music styles that had such positive impact to a whole generation of people (well rap music is another thing that brought both positive and negative).

    Quincy Jones and his policies regarding the Jazz Roots program is also worth mentioning.