Edward W Batchelder

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The Complete Columbia Recordings
Miles Davis & John Coltrane

album cover of Complete Columbia Recordings

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin once considered selling off his entire set of the works of Franz Kafka to buy one, beautifully bound edition of a single Kafka story. This collection confronts us with the opposite dilemma—do we now have to sell off our individual, jewel-like copies of ’Round About Midnight, Milestones, and even Kind of Blue in order to afford this new, six-CD monument?

The set certainly fills in some historical gaps. In addition to collecting tunes scattered across some fourteen different releases, it also offers ninety minutes of new material, mostly alternate takes with some false starts and stray comments. But then, even much of the previously released material may not be in your collection. Davis’s work has been rearranged and anthologized in so many different guises that a major-label, total-coverage-guaranteed assemblage should give the collector a certain amount of relief—particularly if, like the Pokeman kids, you gotta catch ’em all.

For instance, you may have the Columbia Legacy release, ’58 Sessions, but how about the 1973 Jazz at the Plaza, vol. 1, which contains a live version of “If I Were a Bell” left off the ’58 Sessions? Or what about 1956’s What Is Jazz?, a disk made to accompany a Leonard Bernstein TV show that contains a Davis Quintet version of “Sweet Sue, Just You”? The Complete Columbia Recordings has all this, and even tosses in two alternate takes of “Sweet Sue” and a false start with Bernstein directing the group through the intro.

Although Davis had given birth to the cool back in 1950, these sessions from 1955 to 1961 show him leading the band from the rapid switchbacks of bop out into the open fields of the modal. By presenting the tunes in the order recorded—alternate takes alongside the primary ones—the set achieves an encyclopedic feeling. You can investigate how, repeatedly, it’s the soloists other than Miles who need a second take to get their bearings, and how it’s generally the latter version of the tunes that was released. You can also see how repeat takes become unnecessary as the group coheres—by the time of Kind of Blue, only “Flamenco Sketches” needs a second attempt.

Most illustrative of the band’s development are the two takes of Jackie McLean’s “Little Melonae,” recorded three years apart. The first is restrained, with Miles gently probing his way through his solo, while in the second he flies immediately into the upper register, sailing beautifully over the top of the rhythm. Where Chambers’s bass walks in the first, it positively throbs in the second. More than anything, though, it’s the contrast between the bluesy melodicism of Coltrane’s first solo and the driving, inquisitive runs of the second that shows how the band has moved, well, miles away from its earlier self.

However, like any encyclopedia, the set as a whole seems designed more for reference than pleasure. Few will want, as a regular experience, to listen to three successive covers of “Al-Leu-Cha,” or even two six-minute back-to-back versions of “Milestones.” Perhaps because of this, there’s a reprieve from the chronological order on the last two disks, which present the band in two separate live performances from 1958. Add in the Kind of Blue sessions, and you’ve got at least three discs just made to drop in the player.

So, sell off the old to buy the new? Sure, if necessary. As the good Dr. Benjamin might have said, “Muss sie all’ fangen!” (Gotta catch ’em all!)

© Edward W Batchelder
(from Signal to Noise: The Journal of Improvised and Experimental Music)

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