VARIOUS Larkin’s Jazz (Proper) 

As described by the compilers of this 4 CD set, “Our purpose in “Larkin’s Jazz” is to make available – for those who care to listen – those sounds that Larkin declared “once made life sweet””. And as the poet himself once said, “I can live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz”. Perhaps conveniently for Proper, Philip Larkin’s musical tastes ran predominately to, as Alastair Cooke described it, “jazz from the earliest New Orleans days up to the 1940s”, having no truck with bebop, Miles, Coltrane, Rollins or pretty much anything post-World War II. Consequently, even the freshest recordings in this box are upwards of half a century old, the newest being  Jimmy Witherspoon’s October 1959 rendition of “No Rollin’ Blues”, falling into the public domain in the United Kingdom. This neatly explains how the company can sell five hours of music in a box with a substantial, essay- and annotation-heavy booklet for a derisory 13.

The sheer weight of the music here, despite its chronological presentation, can make listening as much of a jumble as the cover illustration, and I found that it was only the songs that I was familiar with through other versions that really caught my attention. Larkin, remember, would have coveted and consumed these tunes one 78 rpm side at a time: acquiring and listening to them in one big glut renders them all too similar for me to appreciate fully. I am grateful, though, to finally have a few Bessie Smith tracks in my collection, and the Steely Dan fan in me can’t help but be charmed by Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”.

The fourth disc is predominately post-war, so we’re finally free of the metallic swish of needle on shellac, and there’s even the odd performance in stereo. The aforementioned Jimmy Witherspoon track’s scuzzball blues is quite unlike anything else in this set (although the booklet has the gall to criticise it for being “poorly recorded” after making the listener sit through three discs of transfers from 78s, compared to what it’s anything but), and there’s some Brubeck, albeit not the famous kind.

Unfortunately, though, “Larkin’s Jazz” is a treat only if your taste in the genre is as constricted as the poet’s or far more catholic than this box has proved mine to be. I found it monotonous and gristly to chew through in ways that my Miles and Coltrane box sets most definitely aren’t.