Listening to Billie Holiday, one of the most expressive, vulnerable and visceral vocalists of the 20th century, is much like falling in love. You just can't help yourself.
Despite a self-destructive heroin addiction that led to her early death at age 44 in 1959, Lady Day is an irresistible life force.
A wonder to hear and behold, the young Billie Holiday cut some of the greatest jazz vocal recordings ever during her fruitful association with Columbia Records. And she made them in the darkest of times in America, from the height of the Depression through World War II.
In what is the best and most significant box set of 2001, Columbia/Legacy celebrates her artistry with "Lady Day: the Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)" ($169.97). Consisting of 230 digitally remastered tracks, the superb 10-disc compilation contains the entire output of Holiday's known recordings during that period.
What makes Holiday so addictive - even aside from the cliffhanging drama of a life tormented by agonizing relations with drugs, lovers and cops - is her sometimes jubilant, sometimes world-weary voice. Its range is limited to little more than an octave and a quarter or so. But its powers of seduction are infinite.
Why? Because her phrasing is moving and elegant, always intimate. It's graced with the warm feeling of one-on-one rapport that only a few singers achieve with their listeners.
With its sensuous hint of huskiness, the haunting Holiday sound is accented with an uncanny sense of swing and style and what sounds like a deep understanding of life, love and sex. She sings with sagacity and wit about joy and heartbreak.
Musically and metaphysically, Lady Day makes even the tinniest of Tin Pan Alley sentiments sound transcendent. She could sing the most banal greeting card poem and make it sound as deep as a Shakespearean love sonnet. Only it would have far more impact because it would swing, and you could understand it immediately.
Among the gems in the Columbia/Legacy treasure chest are Holiday's classic small-group collaborations with pianist Teddy Wilson, including masterworks with her stylistic soul mate, tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
Columbia/Legacy's "Lady Day" is this critic's No. 1 choice for a holiday gift box set. It's a sure bet for a Grammy Award for best historical album. So three cheers for Columbia for having the courage to think way outside the box when putting together this ultimate set.
Aside from this landmark release, there's a wide range of box sets to pick from this season.
Stylistically, boxes range from a five-CD set featuring Big Band-era clarinetist, band leader and arranger Artie Shaw's best work to a seven-CD collection of live recordings made in Europe by the cutting-edge saxophonist John Coltrane.
"Artie Shaw: Self Portrait" (Bluebird BMG, $79.97) presents nearly 100 performances by this last living icon of the Swing Era. Shaw, who's as sharp as ever at 91, made the selections himself. The material, which ranges from Big Band to classic Gramercy Five tracks, is a vivid reminder of what a splendid clarinetist and keen musical intelligence Shaw was in his prime.
This self-portrait of the artist just might rekindle the old battle over of who was better, Shaw or Benny Goodman. If your first response is Goodman, give these excellent sides a listen before you cast your final vote. You just might be converted.
"Live Trane: The European Tours" (Pablo Records, distributed by Fantasy, $106.97)) is freighted with brilliant performances by the eternally questing tenor and soprano saxophonist John Coltrane. His touring companions include the great Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison. If you love Trane, you'll want to ride these tracks over and over again.
Pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, one of Coltrane's gurus and bosses for a brief period, is honored in a Columbia/Legacy three-CD set "Thelonious Monk: the Columbia Years: 1962-1968" ($39.97). It represents the crème de la crème of the eccentric master's Columbia oeuvre. Included are quartet collaborations with Monk's most empathetic disciple, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, as well as solo and ensemble pieces.
Fantasy Records, through its subsidiary Galaxy Records, celebrates alto saxophonist Art Pepper with a box full of spicy jazz. Pepper wasn't an innovator like Coltrane or a superstar like Shaw. But he was a searing saxophonist blessed with a soaring imagination.
Galaxy's "Art Pepper: the Hollywood All-Star Sessions," a five-CD set ($79.97), is packed with Pepper's heat as a hard swinger as well as his sweetness and light as a ballad player. Among his all-stars are Lee Konitz, Russ Freeman, Shelly Manne and Bill Watrous, a Middletown native.
If, in our present time of turmoil, you're shopping for a gift with a strong patriotic flavor, there's Bluebird's "Glenn Miller: Army Air Force Band" (Bluebird, BMG, $63.97). A four-CD box, it consists of performances from 1943-1944, including such special wartime numbers as "G.I. Jive," "Jeep Jockey Jump" "Enlisted Men's Mess" and "Peggy the Pin-Up Girl."
In a bold, patriotic gesture, a middle-age Miller in October 1942 disbanded his popular orchestra, joined the Air Force, was commissioned as a captain and formed a band to entertain our troops.
In December 1944, Miller died in a plane that crashed somewhere over the English Channel on a flight to Paris. No trace was ever found. It was a great mystery. Miller, a pop superstar, was hailed as a war hero by a nation that mourned his death. Later, he was canonized in the 1954 movie "The Glenn Miller Story." The patriotic maestro's music helped boost America's morale abroad and throughout the homeland.
So here are some of the authentic sounds listened to and danced to back in those dark, troubled years by what Tom Brokaw has called America's Greatest Generation.
If you're looking for a boxful of romantic ballads, Verve Records has whipped up a sweet and lovely four-CD set loaded with warm ballads performed by an all-star cast, including Abbey Lincoln, Stan Getz, Shirley Horn and Ben Webster. It's called "A Jazz Romance: A Night in With Verve." ($29.97). It could also be the ideal Valentine gift.
If you're shopping for a box set steeped in unadulterated, straight-ahead jazz, then your sunniest prospect is Sonny Stitt's nine-CD set on Mosaic Records. Mosaic is a Stamford mail order firm internationally renowned for its quality boxes of reissues.
The focus for "The Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions" ($144) is the nine remarkable albums the alto and tenor saxophone great recorded for Roost between 1955 and 1965. Stitt's sidekicks include Jimmy Jones or Hank Jones on piano and Shadow Wilson, Charlie Persip or Roy Haynes on drums.
If you're looking for one-stop shopping for box set gifts, Mosaic's catalog of meticulously crafted compendiums might well provide that one stop, which can be made by phone or on the Internet.
Stylistically, Mosaic's anthologies range from New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory to the iconoclastic saxophonist and composer Sam Rivers. Its releases are available only through the mail. Mosaic is at 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902-7533. Information and orders: 203-327-7111 or www.mosaicrecords.com.