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LADY DAY: A new boxed set from ESP-Disk features heartbreaking tracks by the jazz great.

Billie Holiday Season

Jazzercize the holidays with our critic's picks

By Andrew Gilbert

BRINGING incalculable pleasure to the jazz lover in your life this holiday season doesn't require a government bailout. For starters, Reelin' in the Years Productions and Naxos of America recently released their third batch of DVDs in the "Jazz Icons" series, adding seven new titles featuring concert footage filmed for European television between 1958 and 1975. The two previous batches contained numerous revelations, and the new one is no different, with astonishing performances by Cannonball Adderley (1963), Sonny Rollins (1965 and 1968), Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1963 and 1967), Lionel Hampton (1958), Bill Evans (1964–75), Oscar Peterson (1963–65) and Nina Simone (1965 and 1968).

If your jazz fan has been very, very good, the entire collection can be purchased as a box set ($107.99 from Amazon), which includes an eighth bonus disc that's not otherwise available, with additional performances by Rollins, Kirk and Simone. Individually, each DVD goes for $14.99, and includes a booklet with sharp photos, incisive commentary on each track and informative biographical notes that place the concerts in the context of the musician's career.

If you have to choose just one Icon set, alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's DVD is an easy call. The disc captures one of his greatest bands performing two concerts for studio audiences in West Germany and Switzerland. Featuring Cannonball's younger brother Nat Adderley on cornet, Yusef Lateef on tenor sax, flute and oboe, pianist Joe Zawinul, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes, the sextet tears though a program of adventurous hard bop.

Among the many highlights are torrid versions of Nat's "Jive Samba" and "Work Song" and Lateef's Coltrane tribute "Brother John," which features his eerily beautiful work on oboe. For anyone who never had the chance to see Adderley in action (he died in 1975 at the age of 46), the DVD's crisp sound and images bring the altoist's searing, blues-drenched sound and suave stage persona to life.

The Icons Nina Simone DVD captures the soulstress in her bracing protest mode. For experiencing the full range of this singular artist, there's To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story, a handsome though awkwardly shaped four-disc package with three CDs and a DVD of a 22-minute television special featuring performances and interviews ($44.99). More than anything, the album is a potent reminder that Simone was a supremely versatile singer. She puts her inimitable stamp on American Songbook standards ("I Loves You Porgy") and British folk songs ("Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair"), turns Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" into a haunting reverie and brings out the mystical undercurrent of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" (on a previously unreleased live rendition).

If you're looking for something that comes with a little frisson of exclusivity, I highly recommend the SFJAZZ Collective's three-CD set Live 2008: Fifth Annual Concert Tour. The title's not romantic, but the all-star octet has evolved into one of jazz's most consistently rewarding ensembles, and this album is a limited edition only available through SFJAZZ ($35;

Featuring recent additions Dave Douglas (trumpet), Joe Lovano (tenor sax), Robin Eubanks (trombone) and Stefon Harris (vibes), as well as Matt Penman (bass), Eric Harland (drums) and founding members Renee Rosnes (piano) and Miguel Zenon (alto sax), the Collective last season tackled the gorgeous universe of Wayne Shorter, developing original arrangements of classic compositions such as "Footprints," "Black Nile" and "Infant Eyes." Each member also contributed an original piece, and their work stands up quite well next to Shorter's, an impressive feat by any measure.


Finally, you can't go wrong with Lady Day for the holidays. ESP-Disk's transporting Billie Holiday: Rare Live Recordings 1934–1959 contains one heartbreaking track after another. Considering the steep price ($126.98), the liner notes are sadly deficient, with far too little information and commentary about the tracks. But this five-disc set collects the vast majority of live and rare Lady Day, from a 1935 performance with the Ellington Orchestra to radio transcriptions and all-star sessions sponsored by Esquire.

The bulk of the set comes from the downside of her career in the 1950s when her voice was uneven, including her performance at the first Monterey Jazz Festival. A supremely effective jazz artist until the end, she often brings devastating honesty to the material.

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