Thinking inside the box

The year's best in box sets provides obsessed fans of country, jazz, blues and rock with some treasures and some trash.

Published December 16, 1998 4:54PM (EST)

The CD box set is one of capitalism's great innovations. Record companies tap music scholars for unreleased material the record companies already own, give it to technicians to remaster and put together with the old stuff according to some comprehensible but always arguable principle, and then put it all in a fancy box with lots of background material. The record company has a profitable product at precious little cost; the musician in question feels honored to see his history canonized and preserved in a fashion that will likely outlast his life. And fans can achieve in just one purchase a completeness -- to say nothing of the insights frequently garnered through listening to the previously canned material -- that would otherwise take years of searching and collecting.

Perhaps more importantly, box sets give devoted fans plenty to argue about. Should the new Impulse! Coltrane box have been chronological according to recording schedules or release schedules? Does Herbie Hancock sound more proficient on his own Blue Note box, or more inspired by the Miles Davis Quintet on Columbia Legacy, which was recorded more or less simultaneously? And why oh why did Bruce Springsteen leave out "The Fever," his greatest bluesy moan, once again?

Needless to say, such high-quality arguments don't come cheap. Every year I worry that the old mines will finally give out, but this year's yield demonstrates an impressive array of precious musical ore. For the generous stocking stuffer, here's a list of the year's best.

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Country and Western

Oxford University Press' new Encyclopedia of Country Music credits Hank Williams with "almost single-handedly ... setting the agenda for contemporary country songcraft." Williams is country music's Louis Armstrong. He took something that was private and regional -- indecipherable to the larger culture -- and made it part of our national language. During his career, Williams' talent for self-destruction and drunken antics often threatened to overshadow his uncontrollable talents as a writer and singer. An unreliable singer, he was playing beer-hall dances in East Texas while charting the No. 1 song in the country with "Jambalaya." This wonderful 10-CD collection, a limited edition of just 10,000, contains multiple editions of all the great Williams compositions, as well as considerable evidence of the great man's decline and occasional debasement through kitschy self-promotion. In this regard, it resembles the ne plus ultra of box sets, Verve's 10-CD Billie Holiday collection, which, in its original form, is almost impossible to find today. The same goes for Mercury's 10-CD "Complete Hank Williams." Sure, it's pricey, but if you have any feeling for country music at all, it's priceless as well.

Ray Charles' country albums are honored with another thoughtful bit of Rhino repackaging, "Ray Charles: The Complete Country & Western Recordings, 1959-1986." If Michael Jordan were a better baseball player, he would be the Ray Charles of sports. Here, the man who practically invented modern R&B brings his unique talents for gospel, jazz and soul singing to various country classics. Charles' Hank Williams covers are particularly illuminating, and, even after all these years, it's hard to resist the emotional wallop of "I Can't Stop Loving You."

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Columbia Legacy has done a fine, unpretentious job of summing up Taj Mahal's inventive career in the three-CD "Taj Mahal: In Progress & In Motion, 1965-98." This set contains a marvelously eloquent autobiographical essay by Mahal, whose country blues talents turn out to have been honed in the Delta country of Springfield, Mass. If you think Mahal's gift for pleasing audiences cuts into his claims to be an authentic musical son to the likes of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson, listen to these discs and you'll find that such nonsense ain't nobody's business but your own.

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Impulse! Offers up an eight-CD "John Coltrane: The Classic Quartet." These beautifully remastered discs catch the great sax man just as his inspiration is moving from melody to spirit, between 1962 and 1965. (Last year's standout box, Coltrane's four-CD "Complete Village Vanguard Recordings," preceded these recordings by a year.) Featuring McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass, the early discs cover Coltrane's "pretty" period, while in the middle he starts moving toward -- though never fully reaches -- outer space. It's therefore a good cross section of his entire career, including, as it does, the entire "A Love Supreme" suite, along with a final disc of previously unreleased material. Because Coltrane's incredible creative energies took him to many different labels in many different guises, however, many of your favorites, including "My Favorite Things," "Afro-Blue Impressions" and "Blue Train," along with the wonderful
Johnny Hartman and Duke Ellington sessions, must be found elsewhere.

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The big news from Columbia Legacy's vaults this year was spelled "Miles." In what may be the most dedicated mining of any one artist's archives, the label released two boxes this year. The first and more ambitious is a re-creation of the magic Miles Davis Quintet, with everything the all-star band (featuring Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Ron Carter) recorded between 1965 and 1968. This is one of the most influential (and democratic) groups in jazz history. No other band leader ever made such great use of the creative talents of a small combo. Beginning in 1964, Davis and the band's co-composers, Shorter, Hancock and the 19-year-old Williams, began to write music that flowed inexorably like a mighty untamed river with uncountable tributaries. The songs had no noticeable bridges, complete turnarounds or simple demarcations. This breakthrough was all the more amazing because at the same time it was making this melodic break with the past, the band was also writing the proverbial book on jazz standards with its magnificent live appearances, captured on the magisterial, eight-CD, "The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, 1965," released in 1995. The new studio collection, spanning more than 12 official album releases, will take any serious listener at least a year to imbibe; just enough time to prepare for the release of the great Miles/Coltrane quintet years, which preceded these.

"The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, 1969-1970," while featuring an incredibly diverse lineup, is a more iffy proposition. For many it's an inspiration, a door opening to previously uncharted musical vistas. For others, it's the moment where jazz lost its bearings and veered disastrously toward the siren song of fusion and funk, robbing bebop of the talents of not only Davis, but Hancock and Shorter as well. When Hancock was not anchoring Miles' band during this period, he was
recording his own version of the band. It featured Carter, Shorter, Williams and some great session men and guest soloists as well, most notably Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. These sessions, which provide a more melodic complement to the Davis studio sessions, have been collected on the six-CD "Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions of Herbie Hancock." Like Miles, Hancock is both loved and hated by Jazz purists. He is loved because of the music on this set. Like Miles, young Herbie found a groove that was both hot and cool at the same time. The clear highlights are the "Maiden Voyage" sessions from 1965. The booklet also features each album's original liner notes. Some of the tunes here are so wonderful it makes you want to grab Herbie by the lapels and demand "Headhunters! What were you thinking?!"

Two of the most ambitious boxes of the year come from the old jazz war horse Verve, which continues to mine its catalog with a degree of dedication and attention to scope and detail that both inspires and amazes. Boxed in its own little wooden house, the 10-CD, "The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic on Verve, 1944-1949," is a kind of movable feast of jazz at mid-century. The JATP concerts were labors of love for energetic producer Norman Granz, and featured everyone from Charlie Parker to Dizzy Gillespie, Nat "King" Cole, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jacquet and many, many others. The box is a veritable embarrassment of riches bringing together these historic performances under one roof. Much of it was previously unreleased. Some of it was available only
on 78-rpm records, and some appeared only on Armed Forces Radio. Nevertheless, no one who calls himself a jazz fan could possibly be less than delighted with this box. The sound quality is not always stellar, but the performances -- in which the musicians goaded one another before uniquely integrated concert audiences -- reach for the moon.

Verve has also brought out an elegantly packaged eight-CD "The Ella
Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington
Cote D'Azur on Verve." The music is pretty straightforward; you either love it enough to want eight CDs of it or you don't. More than 80 percent of this music will be new even to fanatics, and there's a bonus CD with an Ellington rehearsal on it. While few would contend that the mid-'60s were the best years of the great man's orchestra, it is nevertheless driven by a powerful second wind, largely inspired by the amazing playing of Paul Gonsalves on tenor. The band is also joined by some its most illustrious alumni, including the immortal Ben Webster. Ella, however, never sounded better, before or since. Goofing on one song after another with Duke's orchestra, her singing on this set is a happiness drug.

A final elegiac note: the now-defunct Smithsonian Records division put together another one of those boxes that only it could have done -- crossing, as it does, not only genres but labels, egos and all kinds of legal hassles. "The Jazz Singers," is a five-CD history and introduction to virtually all of the greats. Snap it up for the budding jazz fan if you can find it, but don't go looking for any follow up.

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For intelligent rock fans, the first and last word this year is "Bruce." After 25 years of storing more finished material than he released, Springsteen finally cleaned up some old tapes, added a few overdubs and dumped more than four hours of new music -- 66 songs in all -- on the world. Much of it has never even been bootlegged. (Springsteen gives the Dead a run as the most bootlegged artist of all time.) The box, issued by Columbia and titled
"Tracks," is similar in conception to Bob Dylan's "bootleg" series. Probably no other rock musician could dare to present an entirely alternative career in one shot without destroying the one he first created. The Bruce Springsteen represented in "Tracks" is a bit more light-hearted than the one we knew, though each of his many musical personas is amply represented. Springsteen failed to release these songs not because they were inferior to the ones he chose, but because he considers his albums to be musical novels of a sort. All of these songs, for one reason or another, would in his incredibly hyper-cautious mind risk upsetting either the theme or the flow of the larger work he originally had in mind. Like the Dylan bootlegs, the release of "Tracks" gives musicologists plenty to worry about. What if Bruce had released the stark, acoustic version of "Born in the USA" on "Nebraska" instead of waiting and releasing the rebel-rousing version that so confused Reaganite America? What if the uncertain gender relationship in "Blood Brothers" had confused Springsteen's hardcore heterosexual audience before he released "Streets of Philadelphia"? And where the hell are "The Fever" and "The Promise," for God's sake? Why is it that after the release of a four-CD box set of historic material, rock's greatest performer continues to remain its greatest tease?

While Springsteen's box is a four-hour cornucopia, Capitol's four-CD John Lennon anthology, "Wonsaponatime," turns out to be hard work. While Paul McCartney has, rightly, been given a hard time for the slight nature of his post-Beatles career, Lennon has been given a free ride. His first two albums were pure genius. (But McCartney has two good albums to his name as well.) The rest have been entirely forgettable. Most of what's on the box set is stuff that Lennon was correct to leave off albums that weren't so great in the first place.

God's gift to box-set collectors are the nuts out at Rhino Records, who excel at creating needs we never knew we had. This year's greats include the wonderfully awful nine-CD '70s collection, "Have a Nice Decade" and the two-CD "Bar-b-que Soul-A-Bration" (recipes included).

More serious are recent collections of the music of Randy Newman (four CDs "Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman") Burt Bacharach (three CDs: "The Look of Love") and '60s psychedelic garage band music (four CDs: "Nuggets: Original Artifacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-68"). Each one is, to a considerable degree, a matter of taste, but the renaissance collector in your life will want all three. Newman is probably the most intelligent composer in rock without even the pretensions of a profitable career. (I recently saw him at a television taping pleading with the audience to buy tickets for his real show the same week.) The box draws on most of the highlights of his wonderfully nasty career, and features one CD of new/old stuff and one of the artist's film songs. The liner notes from his latter career ("Toy Story," "James and the Giant") suggest the sardonic Newman's inability to take his compositions seriously. About "Going Home" Newman explains, "I didn't listen to it." For "Interiors," he tells us that he thought "Woody Allen's 'Interiors' was his funniest picture." For "Yellow Man," Newman explains, "I like the idea of relegating 5,000 years of Chinese history to a component of our culture."

The Bacharach box is kind of a goof. A little bit of Dionne Warwick, I think, goes an awfully long way. There's some great stuff on this thing, and no martini/Twister party should be without it. But three CDs in a row has pretty much the same effect as does failing to pick your tracks carefully when listening to "Have a Nice Decade." Do not, I repeat, do not, listen to Herb Alpert singing "This Guy's in Love With You" while lifting heavy machinery.

The "Nuggets" box, on the other hand, makes me wonder how I ever lived without it. The only place I've ever found the Swinging Medallions perfect single, "Double Shot of My Baby's Love," this stuff was probably considered worthless by the people who were making it. Instead, it speaks to the sprit of its times -- and the timelessness of rock as rebellion/party music -- with a power that died just around the time people started drawing smiley faces instead of dotting their i's. Virtually none of the bands on this collection have a single CD in print anymore, so all of this wonderfully nutty music would have died without Rhino's diligence. The packaging, for better or worse, preserves the ugliness of the original, and I suppose is intended to put one in mind of a bad acid trip. But this is not acid rock. This music kicks acid rock's ass. The fact that it was recorded at the same cultural moment as the Miles Davis Quintet is enough to make one wonder if San Francisco and New York were on the same planet at the time, much less in the same country.

By Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman last piece for Salon was "Confessions of a box-set sucker."

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