OK, OK, I’ll admit it. I just dislike compilations, usually. Yes, sometimes a single artist’s best-of compilation is all you could possibly want of one single artist’s output (and even twelve to fifteen tunes are eleven too many), and yes, every once in a while a compilation of different tunes from some period in music or showcasing a style one is interested in might be a good place to start.
Usually though, I dislike them because they attempt to do my job for me. As a collector, I almost always disagree with the editorial selection and I’ve all too often discovered that many of the tunes included I already had floating around my collection. On top of that, when it comes to jazz, I’ve gotten so tired of the recent flood of remix compilations of classic tunes and the policy of some major labels that limit the output for any of their artists to a steady stream of market-“safe” reissue compilations (just try to find some decent Cal Tjader reissues from Verve and all you’ll really find are, yes, compilations) that I decided to unsubscribe from, for example, Verve’s and Blue Note’s newsletters that lately have been trying nothing more but pimp the crap out of those useless things.
Then you have those “theme” thingies, you know, “Jazz for Lovers”, “Bar Jazz”, Jazz for the Bathroom”, “Jazz Standards that Absolutely NOBODY Wants to Hear Anymore”, and whatever else those labels can come up with. Dreck. Nothing but dreck.
From experience then, I try to steer clear of anything that looks like a compilation, even if it’s dirt cheap, and I have to stop myself from droning on endlessly about these when the topic comes up.
In light of what I have just said, it is astonishing that André Francis and Jean Schwarz, two Frenchmen of repute, got it all done the right way – not only for one or two compilations, but a steady stream of high-quality 10-disc boxed sets that have hit the market every year, very competitively priced (if not downright cheap), one box at a time. In fact, they have done such a good job when compared to the junk I mentioned in my intro, that each new boxed set is awaited eagerly by me and, to be quite honest, I’ve made it a custom to preorder the upcoming boxes as soon as they are announced on Amazon France in order not to miss any. The “Les Trésors du Jazz” series is actually the only thing I ever preorder. The only one. I’d hate to miss one and I know that once the initial run is old out, any future release goes up by about 1/4 of the price.
That’s where another aspect that bugs me endlessly comes in. Why is it that dreck seems to be released with an almost unlimited amount of PR-money and hype backing it up, whereas these shiny diamonds of editorial capability, examples of stamina and passion as well as in-depth knowledge and editorial care regularly come and go without so much as a passing glance by both their labels and the international press? I mean, what we have here is as close to perfect as we can get in the department of making jazz history come alive, and aside from a bunch of insiders alerting each other in time for the release of a new installment in the series, they pass by virtually unnoticed. Released, shelved, (almost) gone. Hell, it was pure luck to catch some of these locally and finding them around the globe has become almost impossible.
That’s got to stop.
So, what are these, you ask? Well, starting with “Les Trésors du Jazz 1898 – 1943”, released by “Le Chant du Monde” and distributed by “Harmonia Mundi”, André Francis and Jean Schwarz have embarked on perhaps the most ambitious reissue series in Europe, trying to save masterpieces as well as rare and almost forgotten recordings from their positively huge collections. As Jean Schwarz states in the introduction to this first box:
The appearance of the CD in 1985 was revolutionary, to such an extent that the vinyl record was quickly relegated to near-oblivion. Even though a whole part of the repertory has been or is in the process of being reissued on CD, there are still some gaps as well as some bad reissues, hastily produced copies of the original records. For material and sentimental reasons, I copied my own LPs etc. onto CD as carefully as possible. Whilst I was doing this, I couldn’t help realize just how many forgotten masterpieces and unrecognized or misunderstood musicians there were. It became my duty to bring these wonders of the past to the attention of future generations.
Of course, you won’t have to look far to find jazz fans who disagree in respect to the masterpiece status of some selections or the classification of some artists represented here as “misunderstood” or even “forgotten”, but I have yet to find a fan who doesn’t recognize the sheer passion and quality that oozes from these boxes. If you then unearth the very little information that is around about the two editors of the series, you begin to understand that they are not the types to produce your average, run-of-the-mill reissue series.
For more information on the editors of this wonderful reissue series, I had to contact a good friend, Guy Kopelowicz (hailing from France), retired former chief photo editor of the Associated Press in Paris, jazz writer for such magazines as “Jazz Hot”, “Jazz Magazine”, “Jazz Monthly”, and “Les Cahiers du Jazz” and an avid jazz collector with several thousand LPs and CDs. He wrote:
For four decades, André Francis was THE voice of jazz on the government-owned radio stations that belonged to the ORF (then ORTF). His announcements are still heard on various official record releases of ORTF-sponsored concerts by the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, amongst others. He was born in 1925 and started his radio career when he was barely 23. By the time he finished his career there in 1987, he had produced concerts with around 10,000 jazz bands!
Jean Schwarz is from the same generation. Born in 1939, Jean Schwarz had a long career as an ethnomusicologist and composer. Musicians like Jean-Louis Chautemps, Michel Portal and Don Cherry have played his compositions. He has also written music for a number of films by Jean-Luc Godard, for example Comment Ca Va and Detective, amongst others.
So, what we have here are two people who have dedicated their lives to music and jazz and who are themselves avid collectors; Fans, really.
What’s even more important is that their objective with the series is not to outdo other editors or knowledgeable jazz fans, but a much simpler one: To help “the ordinary man in the street” find his bearings in a field that is often convoluted and complicated, flooded with reissues and reissue series, complete artists’ sets and multiple issues and reissues of the same material. They write:
A host of complete sets for individual musicians already exists, and most of them are well-produced and well-documented. But how does the ordinary man in the street find his way amongst them all? How does he separate out the wheat from the chaff? Our role is therefore to guide any such person through what is bound to be a selective and somewhat subjective choice, leaving him free to complete this later with some complete artist sets according to his or her personal taste.
Most importantly though, they both know that sound is an important factor in the reissue market, and they do their best to avoid the one thing so many of us hate: No-noising classic recordings to death in an attempt to reduce or remove surface noise and thereby eliminating the life from them. Too many other series have done just that and have turned great recordings into ones without any life and sounding like they come out of a tin can. You know, the sound that some people consider to be the true sound, digital sound. Jean Francis writes:
Maybe not enough importance has been attached to the quality of the sound and its balance via the different instruments of a group in this particular music. Kenny Clark used to tell me that the drummer should constantly be aware of what the bass-player’s doing, drum and bass should form a single unit, a solid block in terms of form and sound.
We had to put up with poor quality sound of 78s, EPs and LPs with their surface noises, clicks, scratches even on a new record, bad cuts, patchy sound levels, for a very long time, so as a true lover of good sound, I made it my task to make each recording as “clean” as possible without altering the original sound in any way.
Mind you, before this scares you off, Francis was talking about these earliest recordings dating all the way back to the beginning of the last century, and although they uphold this editorial stance throughout the as yet incomplete series, as they moved through the years the source material became a lot better and the meticulous remastering they employ has brought tunes I already have in other formats back to life in such a way that I often showcase tunes of any one artist included in this series by playing Jean Francis’ remastering rather than the other one I have, no matter who produced it (unless it’s Mosaic).
So, when the first box in the series became a celebrated success amongst many fans and was prominently displayed by dedicated shop owners who didn’t stop recommending it to people interested in finding out more about jazz and jazz history, André Francis and Jean Schwarz just continued putting these out, switching to an annual release schedule. Since the box covering the years 1898 to 1943, they have put out boxes covering 1944-1951 and, from then on, boxes covering one year at a time, 1952, 1953 and 1954. As I’m writing this, I’m eagerly awaiting the next set for the year 1955, which seems to be somewhat delayed. This kind of delay has happened with boxes in the past, but I’m not worried … André Francis and Jean Schwarz always came through and what they delivered was a joy to behold when it arrived.
Besides the box for 1952, which was a 5-disc set packaged together with 2 bonus samplers of material from the previous two boxes, each set contains 10 excellently remastered discs. The CDs are housed in simple cardboard covers which are numbered consecutively (currently, we’re at number 45, the last disc of the 1954 box) and are sold in identically-sized boxes which are slightly larger than your average CD jewelcase, which makes it easy for them to be stored next to those in a regular-sized CD rack.
Each box includes a CD-sized booklet with a short historical introduction assessing the events of those years/that year, liner notes and session information both in French and English and an index to help you find a specific artist or tune on the CDs.
It is simply impossible to cover the by now hundreds of tunes and artists presented in this series, so I’m just going to try to list a few highlights from the box covering 1954, the year that the editors consider to be the richest of the fifty-six years they had a look at and listened to for this ongoing chronological jazz history:
Looking at the artists presented, one can easily see that they have neither a Euro-centric view of jazz history, nor are they representatives of any other school of thought. Excitingly enough though, they do showcase a larger number of European musicians and bands next to their American counterparts and you’ll find Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Zoot Sims, Erroll Garner, Thad Jones, Sonny Rollins, Art Pepper, Thelonius Monk, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Lennie Tristano, Helen Merrill, Al Cohn and an almost countless number of other American artists next to, to name a few, Arne Domnérus, Bengt Hallberg, Nisse Engström and “The Modern Swedes” from Sweden or Henri Renaud, René Thomas, René Urtreger, Sacha Distel, Pierre Michelot, Bernard Peiffer and André Hodeir from France.
Artists are represented with several tracks if their output merits it and in the 1954 box, for example, the Clifford Brown and Max Roach quintet is represented with 5 of its most famous collaborative recordings (Delilah, Joy Spring, Midlama, Jordu and I Can’t Get Started With You) and Clifford Brown also appears again in sessions with Sarah Vaughan. Bud Powell has 6 tunes, Horace Silver 3, Thelonius Monk 6, Gerry Mulligan 3, Miles Davis 10, and so on.
The box contains both studio and live recordings, always shooting for the best or perhaps the most exciting version of a tune, be it rare or not. The aforementioned two tracks from the Brown/Roach Quintet, “Jordu” and “I Can’t Get Started With You” are, for example, presented live:
A live concert in the Pasadena auditorium with the Brown-Roach quintet making the most of their stay in California to import the exotic spicy tones of New York hard bop. After a conventional exposition of some lasting successes, Clifford moves away in a magnificent libertarian display, whilst Max, in spite of the distance he’s traveled, still shows influences from ‘Big Sid’ Catlett …
Another tune, “Gettin’ Together” by Charles Mingus (recorded in New York October 31, 1954) is equally well-described:
Mr. Mingus, 32 years old, in what were still his years of research. Here he’s on relatively ambitious ground for composition, the musicians he allows in tend to take some elegant sideways steps away from their rough leader when they play. Intriguing, nonetheless, meticulous, open and well-coordinated.
It is really those brief notes that give just the right perspective to a tune, especially to newcomers or casual listeners, making them aware of important nuances that one should be listening out for. In the end, I’ve learned quite a lot from André Francis’ and Jean Schwarz’s liner notes, especially since I consider myself to be less than knowledgeable when it comes to the background and historical aspects of the music I nevertheless love to listen to. In fact, in conversations with other jazz fans, I have often resorted to those brief notes to sound more, err, knowledgeable than I really am [place blushing smiley here].
In the end, this series is one of the highlights of my collection, especially because I often put it on when I can’t decide what else to listen to. As a result, the sessions presented here always take me down some road through my collection, seeking out more of a band and artist I just listened to. For someone not (yet) into jazz, it is perhaps the best and most affordable introduction to the highlights of this “genre”, showcasing what the music was and is about rather than limiting it to its most famous practitioners and stars.
The price, you ask? When released, these boxes go for around 30 to 35 Euro each, but I’ve heard from all over Europe that they have often been seen in second hand shops at half that price before disappearing from the shops altogether. Lately, they have become available from Amazon France again, now priced at around 45 – 50 Euro.
At either of the prices, the boxes are a steal, and if you have any interest in the music, these boxed sets are much more than worth checking out. If you manage to get hold of each one of them, plus invest into future ones, it might well be a series containing all the jazz you’ll ever need. If you should develop a definite interest in the music, you can use these boxes as an introduction and jumping board into a field so diverse that it makes the mind boggle.
Start here, and enjoy the trip.
And, like me, hope that André Francis and Jean Schwarz live long enough to complete the series.
Note: Amazon France is your best chance of finding these, new or used. Enter “Les Trésors du Jazz” into the search field and look for those colorful boxes listed among the two pages of search results. The most recent one at the top does not have a cover image yet, but all others do. Enjoy the hunt!