Author

Gary Giddins

Things Ain't What They Used To Be; Bon Voyage

Despite his immense influence, Tyner’s recordings in the 25 years since he played piano in the John Coltrane Quartet are almost as uneven as they are diverse. Consider these two releases. The first, Things Ain’t What They Used To Be, is his most enchanting album in years – a retrospective of pieces with which he has been associated, played solo or in congenial duets with guitarist John Scofield and tenor saxophonist George Adams. No new ground is broken, but he has already broken enough to house a city of imitators.

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Nineteen years after his death, Armstrong remains the supreme embodiment of jazz aesthetics. Louis in New York is the fifth volume in Columbia’s comprehensive survey of his early years, and though lesser performances are included amid the masterpieces (including three gruesome vocals by Seeger Ellis), this portrait of Armstrong’s assault on the East Coast in 1929 is spellbinding.

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Armstrong was a frequent guest on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night TV show between 1956 and 1966, and The Sullivan Years collects — for the first time — 18 performances from those shows. Several of the arrangements were painfully abridged for TV, but Armstrong is in good voice and the instrumentals are animated. The selections include most of his hits from the period, from ”Blueberry Hill” and ”Mack the Knife” through ”Hello Dolly” and ”Cabaret” (an unusually slow and persuasive reading).

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Nat King Cole died in 1965, but this year the easy-swinging singer, pianist, and trio leader has sold more records, won more prizes, and earned more plaudits than most living performers. So the news of yet another collection of his work is bound to land with the thud of an anticlimax. Yet Nat King Cole, a generous four-CD sampling of his trio and pop recordings, includes almost all of his hits as well as a couple of previously unissued jewels (an affecting duet with his wife, Maria Cole, ”Ev’ry Day (I Fall in Love),” and a droll send-up, ”Mr.

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Ian McEwan — along with Peter Ackroyd the most impressive novelist of Britain’s boomer generation — writes long, meticulous sentences that draw you in with their claustrophobic intensity. He reimagined Venice in The Comfort of Strangers and 1950s Berlin in The Innocent as deadly labyrinths in which evil sounds a louder echo than the people who are its agents. Like Graham Greene, McEwan writes serious entertainments motored by suspense; the payoff is less a soothing catharsis than a sustained lament for missed connections and failed lives.

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By the time he recorded Rushing Lullabies in 1959, Jimmy Rushing’s voice had lost some of the purity that helped establish him as the premiere blues singer with Count Basie’s band in the 1930s. But it had gained a gruff edginess that made his charged, fiercely rhythmic, and ebullient phrasing all the more exciting. From the opening chorus by pianist Ray Bryant on ”You Can’t Run Around” to the rocking finish on ”Russian Lullabye,” in which drummer Jo Jones and saxophonist Buddy Tate buoy the singer to ever grander heights, everyone is inspired.

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Is there anything in life funnier than Buster Keaton at his best? Directed by James W. Horne, College isn’t Keaton’s best (his Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator are unavailable on video), but it gives him full rein to show off his extraordinary athletic prowess as a stuffy student who fails, hilariously, at every sport imaginable, as well as his tryout as a soda jerk. And Keaton’s combination of deadpan precision and painful tumbles never fails.

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Branford Marsalis’ recent hiring as leader of the Tonight Show band isn’t mentioned in this 58-minute film The Music Tells You, but it gives you some understanding of why he took the gig. He grumbles frequently about the nonstop touring that is the life of a jazz musician. You also see why codirectors D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop) and Chris Hegedus — not to mention NBC — were attracted to Marsalis; he’s charming, articulate, and candid. Unfortunately, the filmmakers show little interest in his art.

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