Thursday, September 15, 2005

Boxed Sets Can Be Gems
The first boxed set of music I ever got was a set of Wagner's Orchestral works on three albums that I bought in 1981. It has remained with me in one form or other ever since, and remains on my iPod to this day. The next one I got was 'Miles Davis - The Columbia Years 1955 - 1985'. This wasn't bad - I had the majority of the music, but there were some new tracks, and the presentation format - one CD for 'Blues', 'Standards', 'Moods' and 'Electric' - made it great car listening in those pre-iPod days.

Then my wife got me 'The Complete Columbia Studio Sessions, 1965-68', which has always been one of my favorite periods of Miles' stuff; some of my favorite music of any type. The problem was I already had all of the music from that period, and for the few extra 'alternate takes' it just wasn't worth having, so I returned it and got some newly released Miles live stuff from the 70's (Black Beauty, At Philharmonic and Dark Magus).

Since then my box set purchases have been a decidedly mixed bag - 'Complete Bitches Brew Sessions' is a tremendous 4-CD set of music that shows the creative genius flowing through Miles at the time of the Bitches Brew sessions, and comes across as a tremendous augmentation of the original 2-CD set, making it a must have for any fan of the music. 'Complete In A Silent Way Sessions', on the other hand, represents much of what is wrong with boxed sets. First off, it isn't all from the 'In A Silent Way' sessions - much of it is from earlier. Also, lots of the music is previously released, and much of the unreleased material consists of lesser alternate takes and rehearsals. Only a couple of songs - such as Ghetto walk" - are remarkable and worth having. This is not a very good value.

The latest addition to my boxed set collection is a newly issued set called 'The Cellar Door Sessions'. This is a 6-CD set recorded live over a four day stint that Miles and his sextet of that time played at the Cellar Door Club in Washington DC. In these appearances, Miles was playing with a band consisting of Gary Bartz on saxophones, Keith Jarrett on keyboards, Michael Henderson on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Airto Moreira on percussion. Heavily edited sections of the final concert of the stint on December 19th, with John McLaughlin on guitar as a guest musician, were previously released as part of the Live-Evil album. But until now, the Bartz-Jarrett-Henderson-DeJohnette-Moreira band on its own had never been heard on official releases.

Now this is what a box set should be – ‘beyond the music’, as it were. The ‘Live Evil’ CD has always been a favorite of mine, as it captures so much of where Miles was going at that time. To take that vision, and expand it from 2 (album length) CD’s to 6 full-hour CD’s allows us a look into everything the group was doing at that time. Despite there being largely 5 songs repeated in each session, there is a huge variation in the music presented. The amount and level of improvisation – and not just solos, but actual twisting of the rhythms and themes and structures of the tunes from performance – is simply staggering. As Michael Henderson put it, "we were vicious. This band was on the edge and off the rails." And Keith Jarrett adds in the liner notes “His (Miles) playing is so strong here that I need not comment on it. If it doesn't knock your socks off, you aren't wearing any."

The songs features across the sets were: Directions, Honky Tonk, What I Say, Sanctuary, Inamorata and a few short interludes titled Improvisations. Yesternow – one of the songs from the Tribute to Jack Johnson – is featured on the first day only. While I have know of these songs from their various appearances on live recordings of the period – such as at the Fillmore East and West recording and the ‘Black Beauty’ concerts – it is amazing how much variety is put into them here. The band really is thrilling, and every minute of every CD is worth listening to.

This set has taken a high-listening spot on my iPod, and has reaffirmed my faith that the box set can represent the possibility to fill in the musical space in a way that single CD’s can never approach.

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