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Box of delights

22 October 2011

2:00 PM

22 October 2011

2:00 PM

I don’t know about you but I have to steel myself these days to turn on the Today programme in the morning. There is always the terrifying prospect that an infuriatingly overexcited Robert Peston will come on, barely able to contain his glee as he reports that one’s own bank or pension fund has just gone spectacularly bust. And when that dire day comes, as I increasingly fear it will, Peston will doubtless be followed by a sanctimonious government minister who will inform us that we are all going to have to work until we are 80 before we can receive our meagre state pensions.

What’s scariest of all, I find, is that when one runs into people who really understand money, they always seem to take the most apocalyptic view of all. Apparently, we should all have converted what savings we have into gold a long time ago and hidden it safely under the floorboards. I suppose there might be a quid or two in loose change down the back of the Spencer family’s sofa, but of bullion there is unfortunately not the faintest trace.

But this is a column that always tries to find a silver lining. Few sectors of the economy can be in quite such desperate straits as the recorded music industry, from record labels like EMI to the retail chain HMV, one of whose branches has probably recently closed on a high street near you. The young these days are so savvy that they have almost all found ways of downloading whatever music they want for free, and even an old fogey like me now buys fewer CDs   because you can listen to so many of them on the music-streaming service Spotify, for which I pay a mere fiver a month.

In times past I would have been queuing up at HMV in Oxford Street to get my hands on volume 2 of the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 CD, featuring further numbers recorded during their legendary tour of England and Europe almost 40 years ago when the band were at the height of their powers. More recently, I would have purchased it from Amazon, at a cheaper price than in the shops. But what’s the point of doing either? The entire album was available on Spotify even before it was released in this country. To pay £12 or more for yet another live album by the Dead, of which I already have several dozen, strikes even a spendthrift like me as an extravagance too far.

But I still love collecting records, and having the physical albums to hand rather than the music arriving through cyberspace. And here the current economic difficulties of the music industry are a blessing rather than a curse. Albums are far cheaper now than they were even a few years ago, and some of the bargains available are breathtaking. Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap seems to be the new mantra of the music moguls, because it must be better than not selling them at all.

My greatest musical pleasure in recent months has been discovering Sony’s two box sets, the Perfect Jazz Collection vols 1 and 2. The discs are neatly packaged in CD-size versions of the original LP covers, but with the sleeve notes still readable with the help of a magnifying glass. And each sturdy box contains 25 albums originally released on the Columbia and RCA Victor labels, which were both famous for their jazz catalogues. Many of the recordings feature additional bonus tracks. And each box also contains a booklet containing personnel details and recording dates.

The quality of the music here is superb, and many of the albums are much loved classics, among them Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out. There are also two of Louis Armstrong’s finest later recordings, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and his tribute to the great Fats Waller, Satch plays Fats. For a newcomer to jazz these two sets are a treasure trove, since they range from Dixieland and big bands to the wilder shores of jazz-rock. The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire, which first knocked me out as a student, still strikes me as almost terrifyingly wild and inventive, while Nina Simone is in magisterial form on her Sings the Blues album.

It’s true that many jazz buffs will probably already own quite a few of these records, but what a starter kit these sets are for those discovering jazz for the first time. They are great, too, for the car, turning long journeys into musical adventures.

So how much would you expect to pay for 50 handsomely packaged jazz albums, many of them among the greatest ever recorded? The answer is peanuts. Amazon currently has each box at around £30, meaning that each disc costs little more than a pound, while other merchants on the Amazon site are offering them for under £25 a set. Forget the dire economic climate and have a splurge. These collections will help you through the dark days ahead.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph

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