Monday, June 24, 2013

New from Mosaic: Coleman Hawkins

For 30 years, Mosaic Records has reissued beautifully packaged box sets of important jazz and blues on CDs and vinyl. The series, usually limited to 5,000 copies per set, comes in distinctive pizza-size black boxes with a large photographs on the front and silver lettering on the spine. Each Mosaic set has an oversized booklet with stunning black-and-white photos and scholarly liner notes.
The superbly remastered recordings include many of the most important 20th Century artists going back 90 years, from Albert Ammons to John Coltrane and Miles Davis to Larry Young and much more.

Among our favorites is Sam Rivers’ “Complete Blue Note Recordings” from the 1960s. Rivers grew up in North Little Rock and was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame in 2006, when he was in his 80s. He played lovely music on his saxophone and flute during his induction with an oxygen tank at his side.

The Mosaic series is the musical equivalent of the Library of America, whose uniform editions of classic authors with their distinctive black book jackets, from Sherwood Anderson to Edmund Wilson, look similar to the Mosaic sets. They both celebrate the creative genius of the American spirit and belong on everyone’s bookshelf and record collection.

You could start your Library of America collection with the first two volumes of the five-volume William Faulkner collection. As for the Mosaics, check out the just-issued “Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947,” with eight astonishing CDs — half the history of jazz is here — and liner notes by Loren Schoenberg, the artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, plus the usual great photos, except this booklet is on glossier paper than the older sets.

The Mosaic series now includes a new generation of music scholars, such as producer Scott Wenzell. Wenzell produced the monumental Hawkins set, which has some of the earliest music in the series, starting with Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds from December 1922, then on to the Dixie Stompers and Chocolate Dandies and Fletcher Henderson.

The Hawkins set, which includes his big band and small group recordings, is a history of early jazz and the evolution toward modern jazz, when the music wasn’t just for dancing but turned into an art form and became America’s classical music and our gift to the world.

Hawkins helped invent modern saxophone and influenced such future stars as Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Hawkins, who was born in St. Joseph, Mo., in 1904, had a stately presence who moved from vaudeville to modern jazz in 20 years. Some of the most important music here includes Benny Carter, Chu Berry, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Milton Hinton and Max Roach. The sound is pristine, as if the music were recorded much later.

The set has several surprises: Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Fats Navarro, Buck Clayton and Teddy Wilson show up, as do Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney from the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Nate King Cole, June Christy and Frank Sinatra appear toward the end of this encyclopedic collection.

Hawkins often appears just for a few minutes on some of the recordings, but this is historic material and it’s good to have it available.

Michael Cuscuna, the critic and producer, co-founded Mosaic with the late Charlie Lourie in 1983. The first Mosaic set was released 40 years ago this month: “The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk (Cuscuna’s favorite), followed by “The Complete Gerry Mulligan Quartet and Tentette with Chet Baker” and “The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.” (The boogie-woogie pianists Ammons and Lewis were the first artists recorded on Blue Note Records in 1939.)

Many of the Mosaics were first issued by Blue Note, now owned by EMI, which also owns half of Mosaic.

Cuscuna, who produces most of the Mosaic series, has discovered unissued recordings by Monk, Herbie Nichols, Count Basie, Andrew Hill and others and restored their work with care and erudition. He has issued single LPs of traditional jazz recordings from Blue Note’s vaults dating back to the Second World War, particularly New Orleans pioneers such as Sidney Bechet and Edmond Hall and small-group swingtets with Lionel Hampton and others.

Mosaic sets, along with a smaller line of Mosaic Selects, are available by mail order at

There’s a thriving secondary market on eBay and elsewhere, but be careful: Prices are often inflated. The used sets are worth at least their original cost, but some sellers often ask hundreds of dollars for them.

You can find some of the old ones online at nonprofit thrift stores that received them as gifts from collectors. You should own at least one of these box sets.