various artists,
Hot Java Jazz
(Polygram, 1997)

I've always liked the music I heard in Starbucks. Maybe it's because I'm so hyped on coffee that everything is two shades more intense than it would be while not under the influence of caffeine. Frappuccino is a corrupting factor when it comes musical choices, perhaps.

When I finally got the nerve up to ask the perky brunette behind the counter what they were listening to, she pursed her fashionably intellectual deep red lips and thought for a second before saying, "I think it's something the company sends us. It's on repeat all day, so I kind of space it off." Another girl leaned away from the milk frother, and pointed at some CDs on the counter. "It's the Hot Jazz one." I promptly bought it.

Surprisingly, for a Starbucks blue-light special, it's recorded well and has a wide variety of musical artists represented. From Billie Holiday's crooning on "Comes Love" to Mark Whitfield's steamy "Harlem Nocturne" to a great rendition of "My Baby Just Cares For Me" by jazz diva and throaty-voiced Nina Simone.

What isn't surprising is that it's a Verve compilation, with some tracks rescued from the annals of history. This time it's from the "Jazz at the Philharmonic" (JATP) sessions in Los Angeles in 1944 that launched the career of Verve's founder. It's also not surprising, then, that something titled Hot Java Jazz is filled to the brim with a majority of songs in the late '40s California "cool" jazz vein. Each song is filled with fantasy and energy, enthusiasm and drive, but maintains that cool swing that was so popular during the period.

Apparently, "Hot" was a descriptive term for the java, not for the jazz.

The exception to that rule is track 2, Christian McBride's "Night Train," which is a quintessential early hard/bebop song, complete with ticking drumsticks and bowed upright bass. It has a space-agey feel, and striking clarity of the various intwined melodies -- one of the hallmarks of jazz music that's eloquently presented on this track.

There is much gold to be mined from this album. The aforementioned song by Whitfield, "Harlem Nocturne," is one that is rarely recorded; through it, we can almost see the steam rising from pavement in the middle of the night, streets dampened by a summer rain. The low bass leads our inner eye to windows that look wavy from the heat, abandoned streets and long nights ahead.

Though I'm generally not a fan of compilation albums (they raise K-tel disco album flashbacks for any child of the '80s), this one rates high enough as a unit that I can see past that fact. As a beginner's sampler or as musical accompaniment for an outdoor barbecue, it's well worth the $10 cost.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]