Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am

One advantage of having a love for music recorded more than 50 years ago is that they are out of mechanical copyright and therefore available relatively cheaply on CD.

Many of the greatest recordings in jazz belong in this category, leading some record companies to throw together haphazard lo-fi compilations of poorly re-mastered vintage tracks.

Others are more conscientious, and among them is Britain-based Proper Records which, for a decade now, has been issuing exemplary mini-boxed sets it calls Properboxes. Each comprises four decent-quality, intelligently collated CDs for the price of one, plus a substantial booklet of informative, generally well-written liner notes.

Artists who have already received this treatment include many of the biggest names in jazz - Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis among others - as well as many less well-known figures. Other collections are thematically arranged, and feature a mixed bag of artists. The latest of these is perhaps the best to date.

Larkin's Jazz marks the 25th anniversary of the death of English poet-novelist Philip Larkin, who was also jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph from 1961 to 1971. The CD is compiled by two Larkin experts: English professor Trevor Tolley and history professor John White, a friend and colleague of Larkin's, as well as a fellow jazz fan who discussed the subject with him often over the years.

The collection is intended to represent Larkin's taste in jazz as deduced from his published writing and private correspondence, and from the recollections of friends, including the late Kingsley Amis.

On the basis of the excellent booklet essays and track-by-track notes, the compilers have done a good job, and listeners will find this an illuminating summary of one of Larkin's great passions.

Although he was a blinkered critic - he hated modern jazz from Charlie Parker on, reserving special loathing for John Coltrane's work - Larkin was a discerning connoisseur of the kind of jazz he loved. His favourite recordings include some of the finest music recorded by Sidney Bechet - the subject of one of his poems - Armstrong, Ellington, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Henry Allen, Fats Waller and more.

Those who love jazz from the 1920s to the 40s will find plenty to thrill them; those who haven't may also want to read the two volumes of his jazz writing, All What Jazz and Larkin: Jazz Writings.

Take Three

These three Properbox four-CD sets from Proper Records offer an excellent overview at a bargain price of a particular aspect of jazz.

BeBop Spoken Here (2000): chronicling the evolution of the most important mid-20th century movement in jazz, this well annotated set includes important recordings by Parker, Gillespie, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, and more.

Hittin' on All Six (2001): the history of jazz guitar up to the bebop era, told in 94 tracks from Django Reinhardt, Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Oscar Moore, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel and more. A superb primer.

The Arranger's Touch (2004): a reminder that jazz has been shaped by composers and arrangers as well as improvising soloists. The set starts with Jelly Roll Morton and goes all the way up to Quincy Jones.