Jazz: The timeless appeal of the music box
Wednesday 24 December 1997
Once, we could be satisfied by a measly couple of CDs tricked up with some heavy-duty cardboard, a few pages of liner notes and a grainy old snap or two. Then came bigger and bigger boxes of four discs, five discs, even six or more, complete with lingerie-drawstring ribbons, 70-page essays and whole portfolios of glossy prints. Now, as a matter of course, the boxes look like they've been specially constructed by ancient craftsmen in Peru, their 200-page booklets lovingly bound in luxury llama-skin slipcases and printed on hand-made paper of the type favoured by the emperors of China. The old master-tapes have been re-mastered, re-plastered, pointed and polished into a buffed sheen of state-of-the-art audiophile quality.
But still nothing quite prepares you for the 18-disc box-set of "The Complete Bill Evans on Verve", which costs nearly pounds 200. The box itself is a small, coffin-like slab of heavy metal that has been designed to rust in a natural yet pleasingly decorative way, and it weighs about as much as an electric toaster. Ironically, as a pianist Bill Evans was something of a miniaturist, composing and playing small, quiet tunes with great delicacy and understatement. Needless to say, there's an awful lot of them here. Another irony is that Evans's best work was completed mostly for the Riverside label before he joined Verve, and though there's hours of wonderful music you have to be something of an Evans obsessive to really need as many incomplete and alternate takes as the box gives you. That of course, is part and parcel (and what a parcel - the postman risks a hernia) of the box-set ethos. For Evans' devotees, 18 discs will still not be enough.
The compilers of the six-CD set "Passions of a Man: Charles Mingus - The Complete Atlantic Recordings" (see, even the titles are getting out of hand) claim that they're "taking the lead with their quality-produced jazz reissue series," but can this be true? The hand-made paper is undeniably beautiful but the box, well, it's still cardboard. The contents, however, are sublime: Mingus's series of five truly great albums recorded between 1956 and 1961, together with material later issued as "Tonight At Noon", an album released under the name of vibraphonist Teddy Charles, a live concert from Antibes heard in its complete form for the first time, and a 70-minute interview between Mingus and producer Nesuhi Ertegun. The various essays, notes, pictures and references are impeccably scholarly, and while most of the music will be familiar to Mingus fans, this really is a box worth having.
"Sonny Rollins: The Blue Note Recordings" is a mid-price five-CD set that shows its limited budget. There's no special booklet or pictures, just the original albums in a flimsy cardboard case, although purists will approve that the original covers, liner notes and track listings remain the same. Indeed, these are the same five CDs that you can buy individually, just bunged in a box. While the presentation won't please commodity fetishists the music is, for once, the thing: Rollins tanking his way through "A Night in Tunisia" is one of the greatest moments in the history of jazz. Rollins also gets boxed in the six CDs of "The Complete RCA Victor Recordings" (BMG), and though the music might not be quite as incendiary as the earlier Blue Note dates, it's almost all good stuff.
With "John Coltrane: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings" (Impulse, four CDs), the commodity and the music reach a satisfying balance in an exhaustive archive of four nights (there was a fifth too, unrecorded) from Coltrane's legendary 1966 engagement at the New York club. This is improvisation at its highest point. Also from Impulse comes the five CD box of "Keith Jarrett: The Impulse Years 1973-74", which documents the latter half (there's an earlier box set too) of the incredibly prolific spell the pianist had with his quartet (Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman and Paul Motian). But just wait until the time comes for "Keith Jarrett: The Complete ECM Recordings". This will be an HGV container-load of discs, the booklet a ten-volume treatise and even now Peruvian craftsman are working on the binding. There may not be enough llamas left to do the job.
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