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Goldmine takes select box sets for a test drive in time for the holidays

When it comes to giving the gift of music — either for the music-lover in your life or helping Santa choose a gift for you (since you have been so very good this year) — there's no shortage of choices. Jazz. So how — and what — do you choose?

By Mike Greenblatt

When it comes to giving the gift of music — either for the music-lover in your life or helping Santa choose a gift for you (since you have been so very good this year) — there's no shortage of choices. Jazz. Pop. Blues. Big Band. Soul. Rock. So how — and what — do you choose? By educating yourself, of course. Here are reviews of a handful of releases available this year to help you on your quest.

The Brecker Brothers, The Complete Arista Albums
Jazz, funk, soul, disco, wild jams and syncopated surprises greet the listener on this eight-disc set. Starting with The Brecker Brothers (1975) and on through Back To Back (1976), Don’t Stop The Music (1977), Heavy Metal Be-Bop (1978), Détente (1980), Straphangin’ (1981) and two incredible 1979 live albums with keyboardist Warren Bernhardt, vibes/percussionist Mike Mainieri, guitarist Larry Coryell and bassist Eddie Gomez—Blue Montreux and Blue Montreux II—this box captures trumpeter Randy Brecker and tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker (1949-2007) at the height of their glories (especially the double live sets at Switzerland’s prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, the obvious highlight of this box). Suggested Retail Price: $69.98.

Rage Against The Machine, XX 20th Anniversary Edition Deluxe Box Set
Has is really been 20 years already since Tom Morello, Zack de la Rocha, Brad Wilk and Timmy C came out of left field with their self-titled debut of metal/hiphop political invective? RATM was such a kick to the balls, it had folks who listened to neither rap nor metal sit up and take notice. Here was a new kind of 1992 rock, with no synthesizers, keyboards or samples, heavily politicized, pissed-off to the gills (and rightly so), armed and dangerous. Now newly remastered, and still standing tall with the test of time (in fact, it’s more relevant now than ever), the box is a doozy. Two CDs: the remastered album and a fascinating collection of demos. Two DVDs: a June 2010 free concert in England, live material from a 1997 video compilation on DVD for the first time, their first public performance and all their videos. Add liner notes by Chuck D, 12-inch vinyl, 40- page booklet plus poster and you’ve the ultimate Rage. Suggested Retail Price: $129.98 (also comes in lesser packages)

Brecker Brothers Complete Arista Albums Collection
Rage Against The Machine box set

Louis Armstrong, The Okeh Columbia & RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933
Whether it was with his Hot Five band or Hot Seven, ol’ Satchmo (1900-1971), on these seminal recordings, The Holy Grail of Jazz, blew his brains out on his cornet, improvising madly, wildly and like no one ever before, pioneering jazz forward, inventing scat-singing when his lyric sheet dropped to the floor, entertained like crazy with material on the hilarious side, and jammed righteously with others. Thus, CD #4 has him working with legendary piano man Earl “Fatha” Hines and letting him shine. CDs #7 and #8 have a full orchestra complete with such legendary fare as “Georgia On My Mind,” “Stardust,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and oh so many more. On CD #10, he even backs Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, with wife Lil Armstrong on piano. (The first seven CDs have been out-of-print since 1993.) Suggested Retail Price: $79.98

Charlie Christian, The Genius Of The Electric Guitar
When it comes to jazz guitar, it all comes back to Charlie Christian (1916-1942). He wrote the book. He may not have been the first, but he took the existing vocabulary and broadened it to such brilliant proportions that jazz guitarists, inadvertently or on purpose, have been playing his licks ever since. His ascent within the Benny Goodman band is nothing short of astonishing. He had auditioned at 22 in 1938 for an integrated sextet that also featured pianist Fletcher Henderson and vibes guru Lionel Hampton. Two months later, he was a star. CDs #1, #2 and #3 document this meteoric rise (38 master takes and 37 alternate takes). CD #4 has him taking full flight with a nonet and a full orchestra. Charlie Christian died at 25 in a Staten Island sanatorium. Suggested Retail Price: $44.98

Louis Armstrong Okeh Recordings
Charlie Christian The Genius of The Electric Guitar

Michael Jackson, Bad 25th Anniversary Special Edition
totally rocks with the remastered original Thriller follow-up, complete with a second studio disc of 13 additional tracks, six of them previously unreleased demo recordings, an un-released French version of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and a Pitbull/Afrojack remix of the title tune that has to be heard to be believed. CD #3 and the DVD is his never-before-seen 7/16/88 concert in London at Wembley Stadium. Michael is riveting. You can’t take your eyes off him. The material—from The Jackson 5 on—is soul-satisfying. The effect is mesmerizing with Michael in full form, proving his mettle as one of the greatest live performers in history. Suggested Retail Price: $49.98

Duke Ellington, The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958
By the 1950s, what started out as a dance band—and a damn good one, at that—turned into the most sophisticated orchestra in the world with its leader composing longform suites rivaling the most complex European classical composers. Edward Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974) was an erudite, polished master whose skillful arranging and understated pianistic brilliance coincided perfectly with the rise of the 33 1/3 long-playing album. These nine albums represent a seismic shift from the three-minute 78s he had also mastered. Whether it was with vocalists Rosemary Clooney (Blue Rose) or Mahalia Jackson (Black, Brown And Beige), The Duke spun webs of intrigue that sound as vital and progressive today as when they were first recorded. Suggested Retail Price: $74.98

Michael Jackson Bad25
Duke Ellington Box Set

Bessie Smith, The Complete Columbia Recordings
Bessie Smith (1894-1937), The Empress Of The Blues, recorded 160 tracks for Columbia from 1923 to 1933. Her influence over a wide assortment of female vocalists—from Dinah Washington and Nina Simone to Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin—cannot be denied. Signed when she was 28, her songs have become the very language of the blues itself: “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” “I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” “T’Aint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I do,” “Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Down Hearted Blues” and “Empty Bed Blues” just skim the surface. Backing her up on many of these sessions, among others, are Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. Bessie Smith died in a car crash on a Mississippi road at the age of 43. Legend has it she would have survived but the nearby hospital wouldn’t admit her because she wasn’t white. Suggested Retail Price: $74.98

Bill Withers, The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums
Bill Withers is so much more than “Lean On Me,” “Use Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Those three songs may be forever cemented in our brains as some of the most memorable hit singles of the early 1970s but Withers recorded nine beautiful albums from ’71 to ’85. Just As I Am (1971), Still Bill (1972), Live At Carnegie Hall (1973), +’Justments (1974), Making Music (1975), Naked And Warm (1976), Menagerie (1977), ‘Bout Love (1979) and Watching You Watching Me (1985) are filled with an easy-goin’ soul pop, influenced slightly by country and gospel, and sung with the golden-throated world-weary voice of experience. Somebody please urge Bill Withers to come on back! Suggested Retail Price: $74.98

Bessie Smith Complete Albums
Bill Withers Sussex and Columbia Albums

Charles Mingus, The Complete Columbia & RCA Albums Collection
Charles Mingus (1922-1979) channeled his rage, his unquenchable thirst for the avant-garde and his limitless creativity into his bass playing, composing, arranging and band-leading. It took him and those who worked with him into totally uncharted waters that still sound fresh and invigorating today. These seven masterworks—10 CDs in all—from the late ‘50s to the early ‘70s, are among the most historic, culturally significant, exciting genre-busting pieces of music ever recorded. Tijuana Moods (1957), Mingus Ah Um (1959), Mingus Dynasty (1959), Alternate Takes (1959), Let My Children Hear Music (1971), In Concert (1971) and Gunther Schuller’s 1989 all-star Epitaph tribute make for some sweet hotly boppin’ swingin’ craziness. It’s Mingus in all his confounded, conflicted, carnivalesque glory. There’s never been another one like him. Suggested Retail Price: $69.98

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Preservation Hall 50th Anniversary Collection
With 58 tracks on four CDs, the music — and even the city itself — comes thrillingly alive in syncopated New Orleans jazz glory. The big news here is that there are five unissued tracks—from ’67, ’70, ’81 and ’86—recovered after Hurricane Katrina. Lovingly culled from 19 albums between 1962 and 2010, the songs are sequenced thematically, rather than chronologically, to give the listener an appreciation of the depth of sustained artistic traditionalism…and of joyous birth and rebirth. Special guests abound: Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, Tom Waits and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Suggested Retail Price: $59.98

Mingus Columbia and RCA Albums box set
Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Elvis Presley, Prince From Another Planet
The 40th Anniversary of Elvis Presley’s 1972 Madison Square Garden shows has manifested itself into a box containing both hour-long performances, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, each on its own CD. The DVD contains never-before-seen afternoon footage of the show, taken by a fan with a hand-held camera, that the label bought decades later, plus the press conference with Colonel Parker, Vernon Presley and Elvis Presley, where the usually crusty entertainment press was totally won over by Elvis’s good-natured answers and jokes. The show includes Elvis covering Buffy Sainte-Marie, Don Ho, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Three Dog Night, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield and Lowell Fulsom, as well as dipping into Presley's own catalog of beloved material. Suggested Retail Price: $34.98

Elvis Presley Prince From Another Planet