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Jazz and classical treats for every taste, in our 2023 Gift Guide

WRTI's 2023 Holiday Gift Guide
Joseph V. Labolito
Temple University
The 2023 WRTI Holiday Gift Guide

In search of the perfect gift for the music obsessive in your life — or looking to drop a few hints for family and friends? Look no further than the WRTI Holiday Gift Guide. All year long, we’ve kept track of the most covetable boxed sets, books and other special items for the jazz or classical music fan in your life. Below, find some of our favorites.

'Dorothy Ashby With Strings Attached'
Joseph V. Labolito
'Dorothy Ashby: With Strings Attached 1957-1965'

Dorothy Ashby: With Strings Attached 1957-1965 | New Land. 6 LPs.

The queen of jazz harp has enjoyed a reputational renaissance of late, thanks in part to the advocacy of heirs like Brandee Younger — who testifies, in the foreword to this set’s extensive liner notes: “Dorothy Ashby taught me that the harp has no limits.” A compendium of her first six albums, each made for a different label, the box is a treasure trove, especially for audiophiles. (All but two of the LPs were remastered from original analog tapes.) Don’t sleep on this limited run of 1,000, or be prepared to identify with the title of “Lamentation,” a foxtrottish original from Ashby’s auspicious debut.

George Booth Cartoon T-Shirt | New Yorker Store.

The prolific, ever-mischievous New Yorker cartoonist George Booth, who died one year ago at 96, drew a number of classical-themed cartoons — including this 1974 classic, captioned “Now, last time, near the end of Ravel’s ‘Bolero,’ I heard a scream.” Get it printed on a T-shirt, a mug, an iPhone case or even a throw pillow at the magazine’s online store, where you can do the same with classical cartoons by William Steig, Mischa Richter, Jack Ziegler and others.

Maria Callas, La Divina: Maria Callas In All Her Roles | Warner Classics. 131 CDs, Blu-Ray, DVD.

For Maria Callas, the luminous soprano often described as “larger than life,” here is a fitting tribute: an obsessive compendium of every studio recording she ever made, along with many live recordings, documentation of her famous early-’70s Juilliard masterclasses, and ample ephemera. The box, weighing in at more than 11 pounds, arrives just as the opera world prepares to celebrate Callas’ centenary — an occasion WRTI will commemorate with a lavish tribute of our own. (Stay tuned for more details.)

Mosaic and Resonance Records boxed sets
Joseph V. Labolito
A few of Mosaic and Resonance Records's 2023 boxed sets.

The Complete Sonny Clark Blue Note Sessions | Mosaic Records. 6 CDs.

For his boppish fluency, his lyrical economy and his ever-crisp touch, Sonny Clark was in many ways the consummate Blue Note pianist of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. All of the albums made under his name during that span, from Dial “S” for Sonny through the lesser-known Leapin’ and Lopin’, have been remastered for this Mosaic box, with a typically authoritative essay by Bob Blumenthal. (Note: currently on backorder, this set is expected to be restocked in January.)

Classic Jazz At The Philharmonic Jam Sessions 1950-1957 | Mosaic Records. 10 CDs.

Norman Granz, the mastermind behind Jazz At The Philharmonic, saw his touring concert productions of the 1950s as a form of evangelism — for jazz as an art form, and for the jazz soloist as a heroic exemplar. This glorious heap of recorded jam sessions, featuring aces like the saxophonists Flip Phillips and Illinois Jacquet, is the apex of that swashbuckling ideal. It’s presented with detailed annotations by John McDonough. (Note: currently on backorder, this set is expected to be restocked in January.)

A 2023 reading list: Brad Mehldau, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Threadgill.
Joseph V. Labolito
A 2023 reading list: Brad Mehldau, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Threadgill.

Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound | Z2 Comics. Hardcover.

With this gorgeously evocative graphic novel, Dave Chisholm portrays the life and music of Miles Davis in a fresh and vivid light. Drawing extensively from Miles’ own words, the book moves back and forth in time to illuminate the restless instinct that made the trumpeter such a towering influence — and also such a problematic fave. Chisholm deftly balances word and image with an architectural command of form and a feel for the music of hue. Comic book fans and newcomers alike will marvel at the synthesis he’s managed in bringing Davis to the page.

Becoming Ella Fitzgerald | W.W. Norton. Hardcover.

The key word in the title of Judith Tick’s commendable Ella Fitzgerald biography is “Becoming” — a nod to the new illumination she has shed especially on the early life and formative experiences of The First Lady of Song. Reframing Fitzgerald as a savvy and ambitious artist with the heart of a survivor, Tick pushes back against some of the paternalism that has often underscored her story, highlighting a trailblazer who always remained true.

Laraaji's 'Segue to Infinity'
Laraaji's 'Segue to Infinity'

Laraaji, Segue to Infinity | Numero Group. 4 LPs.

Born Edward Larry Gordon in Philadelphia 80 years ago, Laraaji is a gentle giant of ambient and new age music — a reputation that began with the amplified zither music on Celestial Vibration, his 1978 debut. A series of contemporaneous recording sessions, unknown until their recent discovery by an eagle-eyed college student on eBay, rounds out this calmly transfixing set. “In 1978 as it does today,” attests guitarist Vernon Reid in a liner essay, “his music had me thunderstruck with its otherworldliness and air of total freedom.”

Yo-Yo Ma, 6 Suites for Unaccompanied Cello — The 1983 Sessions | Sony Classical. 3 LPs or 2 CDs.

Though he’d already played for two U.S. Presidents (and Johnny Carson, to boot), Yo-Yo Ma made a career breakthrough with Bach: The Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites, at 26. And while he has twice rerecorded the suites, those original 1983 sessions — tracked over a period of months, producer Richard Einhorn recalls, and amply fueled by takeout sushi — retain their magic glow. This handsome anniversary edition, with Bach’s score printed on three picture discs, honors Ma’s achievement as both a landmark and an ongoing affair.

Les McCann, Never a Dull Moment! Live from Coast to Coast 1966-1967 | Resonance. 3 LPs or 3 CDs.

When pianist Les McCann, now 88, first heard the live recordings gathered here, his response (as he recalls it) was succinct: “Daaamn!” Culled from across three trio engagements at two leading clubs, the Penthouse in Seattle and the Village Vanguard in New York, the set captures every bit of McCann’s soulful, swinging fire. Resonance is dropping this as a limited-edition Black Friday Record Store Day exclusive, before CD and digital releases on Dec. 1.

Brad Mehldau, Formation: Building a Personal Canon, Part One | Equinox. Hardcover.

Always one of the more literate and self-reflective musicians of his generation, pianist Brad Mehldau has raised the bar for himself with Formation, a book that combines elements of the bildungsroman, the confessional, and keen-eyed cultural reportage. It’s a valuable portrait of the New York jazz scene around the turn of this century, as well as an elegant memoir of keen insight and unsparing candor.

Wes Montgomery, Maximum Swing: The Unissued 1965 Half Note Recordings | Resonance. 3 LPs or 2 CDs.

Smokin’ at the Half Note, by Wes Montgomery with the Wynton Kelly Trio, is rightly upheld as a landmark for jazz guitar. This marvelous collection, mostly culled from live radio broadcasts in the same time period, only expands its legend — with Wes really stretching, beautifully supported as always by Kelly and drummer Jimmy Cobb, with a series of stalwart bassists. Another rare gem from the Resonance Records team, and a must for any Montgomery fan during his centennial year.

Classical music goodies from WRTI's 2023 Holiday Gift Guide.
Joseph V. Labolito
Classical music goodies from WRTI's 2023 Holiday Gift Guide.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin Bobblehead | Met Opera Shop.

Anyone familiar with the kinetic, whole-body conducting style of Yannick Nézet-Séguin will understand why a bobblehead stops short of an accurate portrayal. But it does capture the welcoming flair that Yannick has brought to both The Philadelphia Orchestra and The Metropolitan Opera. And if the attire seems unusually sedate by this Maestro’s standards, dig the red soles — a nod to his fondness for Christian Louboutin.

Eugene Ormandy with The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Columbia Stereo Collection 1958 - 1963 | Sony Classical. 88 CDs.

Eugene Ormandy’s 44-year tenure with The Philadelphia Orchestra, the longest by any conductor at an American orchestra, receives a deluxe treatment in this monumental plinth of a set. Featuring a stockpile of stereo albums made for Columbia over a five-year span — including some never before issued on CD, like a 1962 recording of Bach’s Mass in B minor with the Temple University Chorus, and works by the Philly-born composer Richard Yardumian — the collection makes a compelling case for Ormandy’s sensitivity and polish at the podium. His stewardship of Those Fabulous Philadelphians set a course for the sound we know today.

Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet, The Complete Columbia Album Collection | Sony Classical. 12 CDs.

The Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet began with an impromptu invitation: pianist Rudolph Serkin, rehearsing Beethoven with the Orchestra in 1950, “was so taken by the artistry and tonal colors of the first chair winds,” writes Tom Laskey, “that he approached them about making a record together.” That album, of quintets by Beethoven and Mozart, kicks off this set; what concludes it is The Music of Ornette Coleman, in ‘68. Along with that range of style, what impresses here is, well, everything: the cohesion, precision and lyricism that forged this group’s legend.

Chris Raschka, Mary’s Idea | Greenwillow Books. Hardcover.

This has been a fine year for the legacy of Mary Lou Williams, whose Zodiac Suite just garnered a Grammy nomination more than 75 years after its premiere. Caldecott Medal-winning children’s author and illustrator Chris Raschka adds to the laurels with Mary’s Idea, a picture book that frames her achievement in gently encouraging and beautifully simple terms; her hands at a piano keyboard practically invite little fingers to play along on the page.

The Pharoah Sanders boxed set 'Pharoah.'
Joseph V. Labolito
The Pharoah Sanders boxed set 'Pharoah.'

Pharoah Sanders, Pharoah | Luaka Bop. 2 LPs.

The 1977 album Pharoah saw tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders wafting away from fire and brimstone into what Harmony Holiday calls a “heraldic quietness.” That description appears in Holiday’s liner notes to this Luaka Bop reissue, which presents the album as a sacred relic — complete with reproductions of photographs, a lead sheet and a newspaper clipping. Best of all: an LP recorded on tour in Europe, offering two distinct versions of “Harvest Time” by a quartet that includes Chicago pianist Khalid Moss and a former Sun Ra Arkestra bassist, Hays Burnett.

'Four Women: The Nina Simone Complete Recordings 1964-1967'
Joseph V. Labolito
'Four Women: The Nina Simone Complete Recordings 1964-1967'

Four Women: The Nina Simone Complete Recordings 1964-1967 | Verve. 7 LPs.

In 2016, when Verve released a 7-LP set titled Nina Simone: The Philips Years, Pitchfork rated that reissue a perfect 10. The same unimpeachable body of work — encompassing albums like I Put a Spell on You and High Priestess of Soul — has been assembled in this new set, housed in a faux-alligator hardcover slipcase with an astute essay by Ashley Kahn. Remastered from original analog sources, it also sounds first-rate; Pitchfork might have to crank their score to 11.

The Story of the Saxophone | Holiday House. Hardcover.

“The story of the saxophone doesn’t begin with Dexter Gordon or Charlie Parker,” writes Lesa Cline-Ransome at the outset of this picture book, richly illustrated by her husband, James E. Ransome. Tracing Adolphe Sax’s invention from his native Belgium through the streets of Paris, the Prussian battlefield and beyond, it’s a story that informs as it inspires, with an underlying message of unshakable belief in your own dream.

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Arkestra, 'Space is the Place'
Joseph V. Labolito
Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Arkestra, 'Space is the Place'

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Arkestra, Space is the Place (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) | Sundazed Music. 3 LPs or 2 CDs, with BluRay and DVD

Space is the Place — the early-‘70s sci-fi film, not to be confused with the coterminous album — stands as an Afrofuturist landmark, full of weirdness and wonder and a few different kinds of jive. Sun Ra’s soundtrack, first released in full 30 years ago, is paired here with a previously unissued LP from the same sessions. (Its title track, “The Mathematics Of The Altered Destiny,” finds Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and others in saxophonic cacophony, before Sun Ra and June Tyson start issuing runic pronouncements.) Both CD and LP versions of this reissue feature restored versions of the music and film, but only the vinyl set comes with a cotton tote stamped with the logo of the Outerspace Employment Agency. (Slogan: “Eternally Open.”)

Henry Threadgill, Easily Slip Into Another World | Knopf. Hardcover.

“This book is not a listening guide,” asserts Pulitzer-winning composer Henry Threadgill more than halfway through his riveting and unpredictable memoir. “If anything, it is an extended defiance of that expectation.” More than that, Easily Slip, deftly made with coauthor Brent Hayes Edwards, is a visionary manifesto, a harrowing Vietnam diary, a firsthand account of the AACM, and a collection of yarns too wild and vivid to be untrue. Threadgill’s musical voice has always been instantly recognizable, and he and Edwards somehow manage the same thing here.

Cal Tjader, Catch The Groove: Live at the Penthouse 1963-1967 | Elemental Music. 3 LPs or 3 CDs.

A crisp, engaging vibraphonist who helped bring Latin jazz into the pop mainstream, Cal Tjader has been quietly underserved by our recent archival-discovery boom. This is his first release of previously unissued music in almost two decades — in vibrant sound quality, featuring a series of sparkling quintets. In conjunction with Zev Feldman’s Jazz Detective imprint, Elemental Music will drop the 3-LP set as a Record Store Day Black Friday exclusive, with CD and digital releases to follow.

WRTI receives no compensation for the endorsement of these items. We rely instead on the support of our members. Consider the gift that keeps on giving, and donate now!

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.