Pop: ...while Phil Johnson takes a deep breath before examining the latest offerings from the wonderful world of jazz

Phil Johnson
Friday 18 December 1998 00:02
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This box-set business may be getting out of hand. The Blue Note Years comprises 14 CDs, contained in 7 digi-packs, all set in an LP-sized box. The set also includes a 48-page booklet of session photographs by the label's co-owner, Francis Wolff, along with some contemporary pictures by Jimmy Katz. For this 60th anniversary celebration - 1939-99, and still going - of the greatest jazz record label there has ever been, you pay a price closer to the cost of annual car insurance than to normal impulse buys at Virgin or Tower. It's no wonder that it's a limited edition. The dedicated fans and collectors at whom the artefact is presumably aimed will already have most of the tracks featured on the discs, which are programmed according to both chronology and genre in seven volumes, such as "1955-1960: The Jazz Messenger" and "1956-1967: Organ and Soul".

Both the final volume, where tunes associated with the label's old artists are reinterpreted by the current roster, and the previous one, which includes tracks by Earl Klugh, Ronnie Laws and Bobby McFerrin, are less than essential, and that's putting it kindly. Almost everything else, however, is reliably great. Some of the best shots come from the earliest sessions recorded by Blue Note's founder, Alfred Lion. The boogie-woogie of Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, Sidney Bechet's stunning version of "Summertime", and Edmond Hall's "Profoundly Blue", with its melancholy-sounding celeste, are intensely musical performances that testify to Lion's eminently humanist approach to the recording of jazz by black Americans.

Compared to the Blue Note biggie, the 8 CD box, The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse Studio Recordings by John Coltrane, is, at pounds 60 or less, relatively cheap and cheerful. There is a wealth of previously unreleased material, and the chronological tracking of Coltrane's incredible journey from the conventional, if beautifully rendered, standards of the Ballads album of 1962, through A Love Supreme, and on to the deep interior-space of Transition and Sunship from 1965, makes for the most fascinating listening.

If there is a fault, then it is this: that box-sets in general are just so unwieldy and uncomfortable to use. To assert that the original albums have the status of definitive texts might be untenable, given that the selection of their contents was always rather contingent, but somehow they remain more satisfactory, and more real than the warts and all of the "complete" versions.

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