Mingus leads best boxed sets

Historical recordings stand out

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This year's best boxed sets look deeply into jazz and blues history:

Bessie Smith: "The Complete Columbia Recordings" (Columbia/Legacy; $79.98). When Columbia/Legacy began reissuing Smith's recordings in boxed sets in the 1990s, the releases unfolded over several years in a series of lavishly produced double-CD packages. A great deal has changed in the record industry since then, and this time the label has brought all the recordings into a smaller, more manageable 10-CD box. Either way, Smith's magisterial instrument thunders, from the opening cuts of the rough-and-tumble "Down Hearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues" (both recorded in 1923) to sleeker, more polished cuts, such as "Do Your Duty" (recorded in 1933), accompanied by future jazz eminences, among them trombonist Jack Teagarden and tenor saxophonist Chu Berry.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band: "50th Anniversary Collection" (Columbia/Legacy; $59.98). Whether you value the timeless qualities of classic New Orleans jazz or consider its importance mostly historic, you have to admire the work of Allan Jaffe, who gave an early generation of Crescent City musicians a home in which to play (Preservation Hall) and, eventually, helped them develop an international audience for their indelible work. This four-disc set opens, appropriately enough, with Jaffe's voice, as he introduces the musicians, and proceeds to chronicle nearly five decades of Preservation Hall jazz. Of key importance are the contributions of senior New Orleans players, such as brothers Willie and Percy Humphrey, clarinetist George Lewis, trombonist Louis Nelson and cornetist De De Pierce, their music a direct link to the prehistory of jazz.

Charles Mingus: "The Jazz Workshop Concerts: 1964-65" (Mosaic Records; $119). Over time, the world slowly but surely is recognizing the genius and enormous output of bassist-composer-bandleader Mingus, and "The Jazz Workshop Concerts" should go a long way toward advancing that recognition. Its seven CDs include a great deal of music never released before, Mingus performing live alongside Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Charles McPherson and Clifford Jordan, among other major figures. Throughout, the man's virtuosity on bass is matched by his audacity as composer-visionary. Available at mosaicrecords.com.

Louis Armstrong: "The Okeh Columbia & RCA Victor Records — 1925-1933" (Columbia/Legacy; $79.98). Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, made when he was based in Chicago during the mid-1920s, represent one of two templates for defining early jazz (the other being Jelly Roll Morton's releases with his Red Hot Peppers). If Armstrong never had recorded again or never had become a pop-culture icon, his position as a codifier of the art of jazz improvisation would be undiminished. The latest reissue of this music, like the aforementioned Bessie Smith box, is less gilded and more compact than earlier releases. In addition, it stretches beyond those seminal recordings with Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven ensembles to include his collaborations with Earl Hines (in various contexts in Chicago), and Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (in New York), spread across 10 CDs.

Duke Ellington: "The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection — 1951-1958" (Columbia/Legacy; $74.98). Ellington's centennial, in 1999, saw so many reissues of his music that one might have thought the subject was closed. But this nine-CD set represents an accessible way for listeners unfamiliar with Ellington's music to become acquainted with it and an opportunity for connoisseurs to re-evaluate his often underappreciated work of the 1950s. Albums such as "Masterpieces by Ellington" contain the hits audiences around the world will recognize (such as "Mood Indigo" and "Solitude"), while "Such Sweet Thunder" attests to Ellington's ambitions to craft larger scores and to the profound contributions of his composing-arranging partner, Billy Strayhorn.

Also of note:

William Parker: "Centering: Unreleased Early Recordings 1976-1987" (NoBusiness; approximately $72, depending on the exchange rate); six CDs; visit nobusinessrecords.com.

Coleman Hawkins: "Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-47" (Mosaic; $136); eight CDs; visit mosaicrecords.com.

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The Grammys 2011