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Jazz & Classical Treats in Our Holiday Gift Guide

Joseph V. Labolito
Temple University

In search of the perfect gift for the music obsessive in your life — or looking to drop a few hints for family and friends? The 2022 WRTI Holiday Gift Guide has your answer. All year long, we’ve kept track of the most covetable boxed sets, books and other special items for the classical music or jazz fan in your life, at a healthy range of price points.

Below, find some of our favorites. Because prices fluctuate according to where and when you buy, we opted not to list them here; all the info you need is just a click away. So is a sustaining membership at WRTI — a rewarding gift in its own right. Just saying.

Joseph V. Labolito

John Adams, Collected Works | Nonesuch Records. 40 discs.

“Monumental” is the word that best describes the compositional corpus of John Adams, who has never shied away from big statements or ambitions. Nonesuch Records, his longtime label, has produced a boxed set of fitting grandeur, featuring historic operas like Nixon in China (on CD and in The Metropolitan Opera’s high-def broadcast, on Blu-Ray) as well as symphonic pieces like On the Transmigration of Souls. Among the illuminating booklet essays is one by composer and pianist Timo Andres, who recalls his early attempts to reckon with the breadth of Adams’ work: “Eclecticism never came at the expense of focus; it all sounded like the work of the same person, talking about different subjects, moving among them with playful authority.”

Joseph V. Labolito

Albert Ayler, Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondation Maeght Recordings | Elemental Music. 4 CDs.

Holy Ghost: The Life & Death of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler | Jawbone Press.

The visionary saxophonist Albert Ayler died in November of 1970, under notoriously cryptic circumstances. Four months earlier, he’d given a spectacular pair of performances at the Fondation Maeght in the South of France, with a small group that notably featured his partner and business manager, Mary Parks, on vocals and soprano saxophone. Previously excerpted for a pair of cult-classic albums, the full set of recordings has now seen release on Revelations — in excellent sound quality, thanks to engineer Kevin Gray, and with a deluxe booklet featuring testimonials from Ayler’s surviving band members and other expert witnesses.

Speaking of experts, Richard Koloda devoted more than 20 years to the research of Holy Ghost, a scrupulous and propulsive biography with a stated agenda: to clear up some of the myths and misperceptions surrounding one of jazz’s most mysterious major figures. Koloda bases his account on the existing literature and dozens of first-person interviews — while allowing for the flights of poeticism that the music would seem to require. “Ayler’s story compares to Greek tragedy,” he writes in his preface, setting the table for the story he’s about to tell.

Blue Note Records: Enter the Blue | Z2 Comics, multiple editions.

What is The Blue? A specific and highly mystical answer to that question can be found in Dave Chisholm’s graphic novel, produced by Z2 Comics in cooperation with Blue Note Records. With gorgeous and evocative illustrations, Enter the Blue tells the story of a frustrated musician, trumpeter Jessie Choi, and her journey into an alternate dimension — a plane where elite improvisers like Clifford Brown find a magic flow state. Along the way, Chisholm shrewdly riffs on jazz history and Blue Note iconography, while adhering to a touching human tale.

Joseph V. Labolito

Miles Davis, That's What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series Vol. 7 | Columbia/Legacy. 3 CDs, 2 LPs.

Miles Davis Funko Pop! | Funko.

In the many-splendored career of Miles Davis, the ‘80s often meet with a dismissive shrug. But this was simply another period of searching reinvention, as the Prince of Darkness looked to Prince, among other pop mavericks, and drafted hungry young talent like John Scofield and Marcus Miller. That's What Happened 1982-1985 sheds light on the era with previously unreleased material from the sessions for Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest — as well as a blazing concert recording from the 1983 Montreal Jazz Festival, which is also available in a standalone vinyl edition.

And speaking of Electric Miles on festival stages, the Miles Davis featured in a new Funko Pop! figurine can be traced to the Newport Jazz Festival on July 5, 1969 — when Davis showed up in bug-eye sunglasses and a denim leisure suit, with a prototype of his Bitches Brew band. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the detail on the figurine. But doesn’t it help to understand precisely how Miles put the funk in Funko Pop?

Jeremy Denk, Every Good Boy Does Fine | Random House, Hardcover.

The illustrious classical pianist Jeremy Denk is also a lucid and personable prose stylist, as he has shown in the New Yorker and elsewhere. His cheekily titled memoir revolves around a lifetime of musical pedagogy — revisiting his studies in Bach and Brahms to explore his own coming-of-age story, with an openhearted flair.

Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio (10th Anniversary Edition) | Blue Note. 3 LPs.

A decade ago, pianist Robert Glasper released an album that synthesized his equal investment in various strains of contemporary Black music. With an assortment of guests like Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu and Ledisi, Black Radio went on to win Best R&B Album at the Grammys — an honor that might well be repeated next year, by Black Radio III. For a 10th anniversary edition, Blue Note Records has packaged the original album with a few outtakes, and the remix EP Black Radio Recovered, featuring contributions from The Roots, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Solange and more.

Freddie Hubbard, The Complete Freddie Hubbard Blue Note & Impulse Studio Sessions | Mosaic Records. 7 CDs.

Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard forged his incandescent legacy during the early-to-mid 1960s, in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and with an array of brilliant peers. He also made 10 studio albums (most for Blue Note, with two on Impulse!), proving himself a compelling bandleader and composer. Those albums — like Hub-Tones and Breaking Point — were remastered from hi-res files of the analog masters for a momentous new Mosaic box, which includes a booklet full of Francis Wolff session photos and extensive analysis from veteran jazz critic Bob Blumenthal.

Ahmad Jamal, Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse | Jazz Detective, 2 LPs.

The incomparable pianist Ahmad Jamal was at the top of his game in the 1960s, and a new series of recordings — originally made for radio broadcast from The Penthouse, a Seattle club — captures him with a succession of elite rhythm partners, including bassists Richard Evans and Jamil Nasser and drummers Frank Gant and Vernell Fournier. Vol. 1 spans two engagements in 1963 and ‘64, and Vol. 2 covers ‘65 and ‘66; both are just out as limited-edition Record Store Day vinyl, and both will soon be available on CD.

Elvin Jones, Revival: Live at Pookie’s Pub | Blue Note, 2 CDs or 3 LPs.

Recorded only two weeks after the death of John Coltrane, Revival finds his former drummer, Elvin Jones, in formidable shape and determined mood. It’s the latest archival discovery shepherded to release by producer Zev Feldman (whose labors are also well represented elsewhere in this Guide), and it furnishes valuable context; it’s a must-hear for admirers of Jones, especially as a bandleader, and a testament to the underrated powers of Joe Farrell, on flute as well as tenor saxophone.

Lacrimosa | Devir Games.

Arts patronage might seem an unlikely subject for a board game – but that’s the premise of Lacrimosa, which asks its players to continue the work that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart left unfinished: the “Lacrimosa” section of his Requiem. As one of his patrons, you (the player) have five rounds to consult with his widow, seek out and pay other composers to finish specific parts of the movement, and gather resources to bring his work to a fitting conclusion. On its official website, Devir Games recommends Lacrimosa for “Diehard Gamers” and “Rules Lawyers,” neglecting to include another pertinent type: “Mozart Maniacs.”

LEGO Ideas: Jazz Quartet | LEGO. 1606 pieces.

One of the latest enticements from the LEGO Ideas lab is this scenario featuring a posable jazz quartet onstage — not obviously inspired by any musicians in particular, but still suffused with personality and retro charm. There are just over 1,600 pieces in the set, which comes with four booklets so you can build with family or friends. Recommended listening while you do: Horace Parlan, Speakin’ My Piece.

Joseph V. Labolito

Robert Levin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Piano Sonatas | ECM Records. 7 CDs.

There have been other complete collections of Mozart’s piano sonatas on record — but how many were performed on the composer’s own 1782 fortepiano? The answer: only this one, a singular achievement by American pianist and Mozart scholar Robert Levin. The musical offerings go beyond the complete sonatas, including improvised ornamentations and unfinished fragments. An accompanying booklet features Levin’s performance notes and insights from German musicologist Ulrich Leisinger.

Charles Mingus, The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s | Resonance. 3 CDs or 3 LPs.

Earlier in this Charles Mingus centennial year, Resonance Records issued a previously unheard recording from his 1972 engagement at Ronnie’s Scotts in London. Featuring regular associates like alto saxophonist Charles McPherson as well as newer partners like trumpet Jon Faddis (then all of 19) and drummer Roy Brooks (doubling on musical saw), the band is raucous and ready — bringing depth as well as dynamism to marathon versions of Mingus compositions like “Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues.” This lovingly produced official package stands not only as a tribute to the composer-bandleader himself, but also to his widow Sue Mingus, who authorized the release before she died this year at 92.

Joseph V. Labolito

Meredith Monk: The Recordings | ECM Records. 13 CDs.

Meredith Monk — the resolutely transcendent singer, composer, choreographer and director — just turned 80, in full creative fettle. ECM is marking the milestone with a compendium of recordings, from Dolmen Music (1981), made with choice collaborators like Collin Walcott and Julius Eastman, up through On Behalf of Nature (2015), featuring Monk’s trademark Vocal Ensemble. “Right from the beginning, I was interested in primordial utterance,” she reflects in an essay for the handsome 304-page booklet. “I thought of voice as sound, as a reflection of nature, of the urban world, of the stars.”

Joseph V. Labolito

Kate Molleson, Sound Within Sound | Abrams Books, Hardcover.

“I write this book out of love and anger,” explains BBC Radio 3 host and veteran classical music critic Kate Molleson in the introduction to Sound Within Sound: Radical Composers of the Twentieth Century. The book, a mind-expanding suite of 10 artist profiles, sustains both emotions with its penetrating insight and empathic tone. Molleson comes bearing a transparent agenda: to elevate figures traditionally excluded by the gatekeepers of the classical canon. Her heroes’ gallery includes figures like the Mexican microtonal specialist Julián Carrillo, the French electronic minimalist Éliane Radigue, and intrepid AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams.

The Philadelphia Orchestra 2022-23 Season Tote | Official webstore.

Our friends at The Philadelphia Orchestra keep a smart online gift shop, and one of the current offerings is this eye-catching polyester tote bag. Made available for the current concert season, it features a mod design, boxed corners and cotton handles, and will instantly convey your proud support of our own leading classical institution.

‘Round Midnight | Criterion Collection, Blu-Ray or DVD.

Bertrand Tavernier's noir-like 'Round Midnight, one of the greatest jazz films ever made, has long been out of print, and unavailable for rent or on streaming services. So it was no small thing when The Criterion Collection rereleased the film in a 4K restoration, featuring a host of bonus features. The main attraction, of course, remains an indelible performance by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (who was nominated for an Academy Award) and an earthy, authentic score by pianist Herbie Hancock (who won one).

Joseph V. Labolito

Sun Ra: Art on Saturn | Fantagraphics, Hardcover.

Subtitled The Album Cover Art of Sun Ra's Saturn Label, this glorious objet d’art — effectively a museum exhibition in the form of a coffee table book, curated by Sun Ra estate administrator Irwin Chusid and veteran collector Chris Reisman — is a testament to the far-reaching DIY visual sensibility of the original Afro-futurist (and adopted Philadelphian). Some of these album covers are expert pieces of graphic design; others are hand-lettered or hand-assembled, in the spirit of outsider art. They exist here in a loose context, thanks both to the chronology and to perceptive essays by John Corbett and Glenn Jones. (But a word to the wise: as this Gift Guide prepared to publish, Fantagraphics was temporarily out of stock.)

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.