Friday, April 18, 2008

The Box Set Problematic

Hancockbluenote_2If you are a jazz collector, you are confronted with a problematic over box sets. Last summer I purchased John Coltrane: Fearless Leader, a collection of all the sets Trane recorded as leader in 1957-58. This kind of collection looks irresistible to a jazz fan, at least until he or she buys it. In the first place, you get a lot of music for your dollar. Fearless Leader included about a dozen Coltrane albums that I don't have to look for anymore and only one that I already had. Second, a box set typically includes a lot of previously unreleased material: alternate takes, etc. Third, it documents a period of time in a distinguished career and fourth,and most important of all, the material in jazz box sets is usually arranged by recording session. A single recording session is a lot like a single malt scotch: it is not necessarily better, but it does have its own unique character and allows the connoisseur to taste that.

On the other hand, box sets tend to gather dust on the shelf and remain unplayed on the iPod. Because the box is such a big lump of material, it's hard to remember what you listened to last. I solved the problem with Fearless Leader by replacing the disc 1, disc 2 album identification with recording session info., and tagging each song with the album title it was released on. That has made it easier to slowly listen my way through the material. But that was a lot of work, and the work is maintained only on my home desk top and my iPod.

I was recently tempted by two more box sets. One of them was Coltrane's European Tours. This represents the classic quartet: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums. But I had to ask myself: do I really need four versions of Naima? It is a great composition, one of the best standards in jazz. But how many live versions is enough? I passed, and picked out three of the individual albums on EMusic: Bye, Bye, Blackbird and The Paris Concert (62), and Afro Blue Impressions (63). All three are excellent examples of the quartet in this period, but the last is superb and ranks with almost anything Trane put out. Naima is there, along with My Favorite Things. The polish of each performance and the interplay between the four makes it look like they wanted this to be their legacy.

But I did acquire Herbie Hancock's Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions. This is a priceless collection, including seven complete albums. Two of them, Maiden Voyage and Empyrean Isles, I already had, but most of the rest of the material was to die for. Taken as a whole, it documents a jazz master and brilliant composer coming into his own. The above mentioned albums are essential items in any core jazz collection. Each composition has the colors of the sea-voyage theme woven into its fabric, and one can almost smell the salt air.

The collection is also interesting for including Inventions and Dimensions, a very experimental work that, well, doesn't quite work out. Hancock gave his side men nothing more than time signatures and some general indications to go on. That's cutting edge! As Mark Twain said of Wagner's music, "it's not as bad as it sounds." The sixties would be the decade when a lot of jazz giants succumbed to the general disintegration of the culture. This material is worth listening to at least once. Everything else on the Blue Note box is worth listening to over and over. Hancock's work for Blue Note in the early sixties is one more reason any American has to be proud of her country.

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