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Big and pricey jazz anthologies light up the holiday season

By Greg Cahill

Christmas cash--ya gotta love it. There's nothing better than a stocking full of peach-tinted twenties spilling onto the carpet, that stone-faced Indian killer Andrew Jackson glaring from beneath a wild pompadour, his curly locks cascading over the high collar of a dandy Carnaby Street jacket.

One of the beauties of being blessed with this bounty (we can all dream) is the opportunity to make a guilt-free purchase of a pricey CD box set. After all, George Bush might be trying to convince you that the economy is raging like Don Rumsfeld at a Pentagon press briefing, but most of us know those Yankee dollars are hard to come by (unless you have a sweetheart contract in Iraq).

Reissues are a cash cow for a recording industry banking on them to bail it out of the current slump (as evidenced by the torrent of recent classic DVD-A and SACD titles). After all, the sale of box sets and multidisc anthologies is pure gravy (might as well savor that cash cow) and they're often a great deal for fans.

This year saw some impressive jazz anthologies hit the racks.

Epic/Legacy has continued its admirable repackaging of the Miles Davis catalog. In the wake of The Complete Miles Davis at Montreaux, last year's 20-CD megabox (and you definitely needed a rich uncle to help purchase that gem), come two more box sets devoted to the late, great jazz trumpet master. The four-CD In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete, restores what in the past have been sloppy representations of these live 1961 club dates. It features 13 previously unreleased tracks from one of the greatest jazz quintets of all time, with tenor sax great Hank Mobley replacing John Coltrane on some decidedly muscular solos.

The five-CD, 24-bit digitally remastered Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (Epic/Legacy) is nothing short of a revelation. In 1971, Davis and producer Teo Macero spent 16 weeks recording tracks for this groundbreaking fusion album. From those groove-laden sessions (found here in their entirety, with false starts and alternative takes galore), Macero patched together a single two-song album that became what reviewer Thom Jurek has called one of Davis' most apocryphal. It certainly is one of Davis' most overlooked works, but this collection helps set the record straight.

The phenomenal lineup includes Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, and Jack DeJohnette. These raw tracks highlight lots of material left off of or given short shrift on the original two-song version, especially guitarist Sonny Sharrock's incredible slide work. The box set's substantial portfolio is beautifully bound with a heavy copper strip and includes a 120-page booklet with rare photos and insightful essays.

The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige and Pablo Recordings (Prestige/Pablo) gathers material from eight albums, first released between 1952 and 1985, from this landmark ensemble, which brought concert-hall respectability to hard bop and swing. Unfortunately, there is little previously unreleased material here, but this four-CD set showcases the elegant and often bluesy sound that issued forth from vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay, one of the genre's greatest and most enduring ensembles.

Biographer Peter Pettinger once described the life of jazz pianist Bill Evans as "a slow suicide." Racked by drug abuse and weakened by liver disease, Evans--renowned for his long lyrical lines and introspective style--displayed an unmistakable sense of urgency during the sessions heard on Consecration: The Final Recordings, Part 2 (Milestone), an eight-CD box set that captures the Bill Evans Trio live at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco in September 1980, just weeks before Evans' death at age 51. Technically, this follow-up to 2000's acclaimed box set Bill Evans Trio: The Last Waltz came out late last year but was sorely overlooked. And, hey, I'm a huge fan of this introspective genius, so no apologies offered.

These tracks reveal Evans at the height of his powers as a player, composer, and improviser. While there are several repeated songs--"Song from M.A.S.H. (Suicide is Painless)" appears three times--these 68 tracks show that, despite the demons that dogged him throughout his troubled life, the artfulness of his improvisational work remained a driving force until the bitter end.

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From the December 18-24, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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