Although the 9-CD Complete Stax Singles collection still stands as the consummate soul experience, the lavishly packaged Beg, Scream & Shout is the new box set standard, if not the definitive box set. Definitive may be a strong word, but a picture of this durable 45 rpm singles carrying case, complete with handle and latch, is surely bound for Webster's. Open the case, and there are six CDs encased in pull-out 45 sleeve replicas -- an idea so simple and efficient it could replace the bulky jewel case altogether. But as great as the packaging is, this isn't just a gold-painted turd. Rhino, as always, has compiled this set meticulously, fully cognizant of soul history and musical flow. As such, they've wisely avoided a pacing bottleneck by breaking this 144-song set into three, 2-CD components: beg, scream, and shout. The crooning balladry of the first set has predictable, but stunning, fare from Smokey Robinson, Al Green, Ray Charles, and the Impressions, as well as a chunk of underrated gems -- from Lorraine Ellison's "Stay With Me" to Joe Hinton's 1964 run through Willie Nelson's "Funny." Meanwhile, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin fill in the middle "scream" section with excellent but straightforward material, while the "shout" set not only rocks its way though "Harlem Shuffle," "Shake a Tail Feather," "Cissy Strut," "It's Your Thing," and "Some Kind of Wonderful," it also includes Dallasite Bobby Patterson's ultra-funky "T.C.B. or T.Y.A." and Archie Bell and the Drells' cruelly neglected Houston dance tribute, "Tighten Up." Best of all, Rhino has taken the time to track down the rights to some righteous rarities, including Lee Rodger's "I Want You To Have Everything," Sir Mack Rice's pre-Wilson Pickett "Mustang Sally," and a gorgeous tune from Atlantic's Soul Clan supergroup (Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex). What really makes this box so necessary, however, is that rather than attempting to capture the complete work of several key artists, it rightfully approaches soul as a singles-driven medium, which means no matter how many individual greatest hits packages or label anthologies your collection has, it still has nothing with this kind of broad scope. And perhaps that's what makes The Big Ol' Box Set of 60's Soul the greatest gift of all -- even if it won't fit in a stocking.
4 stars -- Andy Langer
Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino)
With the excessive flow of box sets during the holidays, it might be tempting to write off Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection as superfluous, following Rhino's two previous Ray Charles collections. While those sets focused exclusively on Charles' amazing nine-year R&B tenure at Atlantic Records, Genius and Soul wraps up the Atlantic era a few songs into the second disc of this 5-CD collection, which spans five decades of Charles' work. Heard chronologically, his seemingly drastic stylistic shifts blur into a more logical flow, with wonderful surprises at every turn. Growing up in deep backwoods Florida, Charles absorbed healthy doses of gritty blues, low-down gospel, and hardcore country-western before being exposed to the big bands of the day blasting from his radio at the school for the blind. Charles devoured it all, learning to play by mimicking everything he heard. His first recordings display an already keenly developed talent for arranging and producing, and from the beginning of his recording career, Charles called the shots. "He had the total sound," marveled R&B producer Jerry Wexler. "We were the students, he was the teacher. We merely turned on the lights -- which he didn't even need." Charles' sound began to reach fruition when he let his voice soar, the sound of the church creeping into his bluesy romps. And though he tepidly denies it, Charles is widely credited with creating soul music; there's no doubt the haunting "Come Back Baby" was one of the very first soul recordings. Charles assembled his classic band with Fathead Newman around this time, and the hits kept on coming. In the Sixties, Charles produced a string of singles as strong as anything from his Atlantic days. "Sticks and Stones" and "Them That Got" gave way to further experimentation; a series of great collaborations with Percy Mayfield, and a big band jazz session that yielded the classic "I've Got News for You," with Charles' Hammond growling beneath stuttering, screaming horns. His crossover breakthrough came from the most unlikely of places, the country classic "I Can't Stop Loving You," and it marked a turning point toward a more middle-of-the-road sound for Charles. He handed over much of the writing and arranging to others, yet for the next two decades he continued to run the stylistic gamut. The later years have their rough spots -- Beatles covers, half-hearted disco, lame duets -- yet, more often than not, the music holds up amazingly well. The set is nicely packaged, with commentary from Charles and writer David Ritz, who collaborated on Charles' autobiography 20 years back. Minor complaints: The cheesy gold plating on the disc covers is already flaking off; why two versions of "Tell the Truth" and "Drown in My Own Tears"; and why, no matter how good Charles thinks it is, would anyone want to listen to a Pepsi commercial? Still, it's all here, nearly 50 years of classic recordings from a musical giant, a wired, kinetic, flailing ball of energy, swaying his head and pounding his feet while his hands finger the keys, a chorus of Raylettes chiming in behind that voice -- god, that voice. It cries, whispers, takes us up on emotional highs, and then down in the dirtiest of gutters, bridging stylistic barriers a sighted man would never have dared cross. At 67, Ray Charles, a man who began his teens as a blind orphan without a dime in his pocket, has it all. Here's to the next 50, Brother Ray.
4 stars -- Jeff McCord
The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse)
Talking casually with saxophonist Lee Konitz on a ride back to his hotel after a gig here at the Ritz Theater some years back, the topic turned to John Coltrane. It was Konitz's assertion that Coltrane's premature demise was the result of having played his horn so hard for so long that he literally used himself up -- blew himself out. Whether or not you agree with Konitz, the one aspect of Coltrane's live recordings from the Village Vanguard I find most astonishing is just how much and how passionately he blows! And let's remember this was only 1961; by mid-decade 'Trane would be totally out in the stratosphere. Even so, the jazz establishment was not fully prepared for the musical upheaval wrought by Coltrane and company when they reached the famed, subterranean Village Vanguard near year's end. Some labeled the music "anti-jazz," others called it "musical nonsense." Today, with a perspective of 36 years, you can judge for yourself. At the time, Coltrane was heading a powerhouse aggregation with drummer Elvin Jones, bassists Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison, and pianist McCoy Tyner in the rhythm section. The incomparable Eric Dolphy, who appeared as "George Lane" on the Ole sessions (released earlier that year), contributes mightily on alto sax and bass clarinet, complementing and stimulating Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxes. They were the two major voices of the radical "New Thing," and together on the frontline, they pushed each other and the music to ferocious flights of frenzy. In a time before anyone had ever encountered the full-on electric throttle of rock & roll, seeing this band within the intimate confines of the Vanguard must have been an unparalelled, transcendent experience! Except for three previously unissued performances, all the music on this handsomely packaged 4-CD set has been released on various albums over the years. Only nine different tunes appear here, so there are multiple renditions of such Coltrane evergreens as the beautiful duo of "Naima" and "Spiritual," and the hard-charging blues of "Impressions" and "Chasin' The Trane." One of the most significant aspects of these sessions was Coltrane's continued exploration of modal improvisation and Far Eastern motifs with "India," replete with oud and oboe. This is by no means easy listening music and you might be advised to sample it in modest portions. Still, it's safe to say these sides will stand as some of the greatest "live" jazz any of us will ever hear. And, as an interesting footnote to Konitz's conjecture above, McCoy Tyner recently explained in an interview regarding these Vanguard dates how Coltrane was so wrapped up in the music he would retreat into the kitchen at the end of a set and rather than socialize, he would blow nonstop until it was time to go back up on stage again. Perhaps Konitz was right.
5 stars -- Jay Trachtenberg
The Complete Roost Recordings (Blue Note)
Except for three 1954 performances with Count Basie, the selections on this 3-CD set were cut by quartets and quintets led by the great tenor saxophonist Stan Getz or guitarist Johnny Smith from 1950-52. In this period, Getz was in top form, leading groups featuring some of his best and most simpatico sidemen: pianists Al Haig, Horace Silver, and Duke Jordan, guitarist Jimmy Raney, and drummers Roy Haynes and Tiny Kahn. Here, Haig and Raney, consummate artists, are at their best. Silver owes more to Bud Powell and is less funky than he would be by 1954, but he too performs superbly. He's so tasty. And be sure to check out the adventurous playing of Kahn, who varies his cymbal rhythms stimulatingly. As for Getz, he plays like the prodigy he was, on the road with Jack Teagarden by 14 and on the same bandstand as Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman before reaching his 20th birthday. In 1946, he cut his first records for Savoy; they're excellent, but markedly different from Getz's characteristic late-Forties/ early-Fifties playing. He displays outstanding technique and exhibits a steady flow of ideas, but his tone is relatively hard and indistinctive. Around that time, however, Getz played in a band with Herbie Steward, a tenor man who had a softer, very pretty timbre, and was a lyrical, very melodic soloist. Apparently Getz was influenced by Steward, because he refined and softened his tone, which, though small, became very attractive. In 1948, he played an extremely pretty solo on Woody Herman's "Early Autumn," which gained him instant attention, and from 1949 to 1952 he cut a series of records for Prestige and Roost that were well-received and very influential. At that time, he received a great deal of attention for his lovely ballad work, a number of outstanding examples of which can be found here. Note how well he uses the upper register to create a singing effect. Getz is also at ease in the lower octaves, and during the up-tempo tracks he eats up the changes. Something that separated Getz from other tenor men of that period, who are associated with him because of their roots in Lester Young's style, was his penchant for playing fast. His solos were more complex than theirs, partly because of his terrific chops. From 1952 to 1954, Getz's playing evolved; his tone became larger and somewhat breathier, and he emphasized playing with more earthiness. With Basie, he's certainly excellent, but I enjoy his exquisite 1950-52 work more. It's a matter of opinion, though; he went on to play memorably for decades.
5 stars -- Harvey Pekar
Those Were the Days (Polydor)
Hard to imagine where rock & roll would be today had Alexis Korner and John Mayall never existed. As purveyors of American blues in the London of the early Sixties, the two formed bands that became the musical equivalents of Oxford, their graduates moving through either band's revolving doors to form seminal groups like the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, the Yardbirds, and Cream. Hard to imagine where rock & roll would be today had Cream never existed. The power trio to end all power trios, Cream came together in 1966 when ex-Yardbird Eric Clapton joined Mayall's Bluesbreakers then featuring bassist Jack Bruce. When jazz drummer Ginger Baker suggested starting a band with Clapton, the guitarist anted up Bruce, who Baker had already played with in Korner's Blues Incorporated. In a little over two years (July 1966 through September 1968), Cream would then change the face of traditional blues, supplying another ex-Yardbird, Jimmy Page, with a blueprint for Led Zeppelin, and spawning modern hard rock/heavy metal. Like the Police's Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings, Cream's 4-CD Those Were the Days box set collects most of the band's recorded legacy, and with the godfather of modern CD box sets on board as compiler, Bill Levenson (Crossroads, Dreams), it makes its point loud and clear: Cream was the shit. Meticulously sequenced, the set divides the band's live and recorded legacy into four equal quadrants: disc one begins with the band's first single "Wrapping Paper," goes into the entirety of their debut LP, Fresh Cream, and before tossing off the band's masterpiece, Disraeli Gears, it separates the albums with a demo version of "Strange Brew," titled "Lawdy Mama." The second disc starts with the studio tracks from the band's third LP, Wheels of Fire, and then collects the three studio tracks from the band's farewell album, Goodbye, together with some demos. The final two discs mix and match live material from Wheels of Fire and the Live Cream compilations, most of it coming from 1968 live sets at S.F.'s Winterland; if you want some live stuff to go head-to-head with your Allman Brothers' Live at the Fillmore East, this is it. In fact, from the moment the band hits its furious blues groove on side two of Fresh Cream, where Clapton's furiously and forever screaming guitar runs charge Baker's steam engine drums with Bruce's bass chasing the other two like a hellhound, there's no denying Baker's liner notes assertion that the trio was "made to play with each other." Hard to believe it takes only three seconds of "Sunshine of Your Love" to understand this intrinsically -- leaving Those Were the Days with several hours of some the heaviest, most bottom-line crunching psychedelic rock & roll you may ever hear. God bless Cream.
4 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Bonfire (Eastwest America)
In what's ultimately a better garage sale than tribute, Bonfire has been designed to acknowledge the 17th anniversary of original AC/DC frontman Bon Scott's death. Why 17 years, not 15 or 20? Who knows? Why Bonfire is five discs is a better question. Disc one, a live session recorded at Atlantic studios in 1977, and discs two and three, the 1979 concert soundtrack to the Let There Be Rock home video, are indeed stunning reminders of Scott's live powerage. And if sold separately, either concert would have fit perfectly into AC/DC's catalogue -- bookending 1978's classic tour souvenir, If You Want Blood, You Got It. Yet, for as undeniably great as these performances are, particularly Let There Be Rock's nine-minute proto-thrash take on "Rocker," Eastwest has trivialized their importance simply by including them in this box; at the minimum, both sets deserve their own proper liner notes. Amazingly, neither set is even mentioned in Murray Engleheart's excessively rudimentary Bonfire notes. Worse yet, given the way the accompanying two discs manage to singularly decrease the sets' value and drive up Bonfire's retail price, Eastwest has put some of the band's finest material outside all but the diehard's price range. So what's on the other two discs? Try Back in Black -- the album -- in its entirety, as disc five -- the dirtiest deed of all. Sure, the 1980 album -- ostensibly a tribute to Scott -- has been remastered, but what AC/DC fan doesn't have it, and what Scott-era fan that didn't buy into Brian Johnson as the replacement back then would want it now? Still, the biggest disappointment about Bonfire has to be disc four, "Volts." It collects five aborted tunes, a few live leftovers, and a pair of semi-appropriate album tracks ("It's a Long Way to the Top if You Want to Rock and Roll" and "Ride On"). Unfortunately, AC/DC's blessing -- that they could make a career out of re-writing the same song over and over again -- is "Volt's" curse. A peek at early, work-in-progress versions of prime Highway to Hell material like "Touch Too Much," "Beatin' Around the Bush," and "If You Want Blood, You Got It" just isn't very insightful; these demos are simply minor variants of the same song we already considered minor variants of the same song. The exception are a "Whole Lotta Rosie" precursor, "Dirty Eyes," and a raucous take on Chuck Berry's "School Days," previously available only on the Australian version of TNT. Like the live discs, Scott shouting the classic "Hail! Hail Rock & Roll" chorus while cementing the Berry/AC/DC connection could have been a priceless moment -- if only it weren't packaged inside a Bonfire that's turned into such an expensive false alarm.
2.5 stars -- Andy Langer
HOLDING UP HALF OF THE SKY: WOMEN'S VOICES FROM AROUND THE WORLD, THE COLLECTION
It's pretty bold to title any release "The Collection" as if it were so good that it's the only album of a particular style or artist you should own. This title is particularly presumptuous when the release attempts to represent voices from half of the world's population -- women. But given the fact that this 4-CD set only draws from four parts of the Big Blue Marble (the individual discs are titles "African," "Celtic," "Jamaican," and "Asian"), Shanachie clearly isn't going for quantity here. No, the relative question is whether the tracks chosen deliver on quality. The artists are a good mix of well-known names (Chinese Bill Laswell collaborator Liu Sola and South African songstress Miriam Makeba) with the more regionally famous (American-Gaelic puirt-a-beul-style singer Talitha McKenzie and Thai teacher and singing poetess Chawiwan Damnoen). Likewise, the songs are a nice sample of the traditional (such as "Iirigh Suas A Strsrin" by Irish vocal stalwart Maire Nm Bhraonain), a few hybrid styles (Tuvian Sainkho Namchylak and Belgian wünderproducer Hector Zazou's reinterpretation of the traditional "Tanola Nomads" is a good example), and just plain great tunes (the horn-happy deep groove on "Tshibola" by Zairian Tshala Muana is just about worth the price of the collection). Unfortunately, many box sets contain useless and wasteful packaging; thankfully this release is not one of them. Each CD contains simple but beautiful original artwork by Taylor Barnes. And with most folks in a holidaze during this time of year, Holding Up Half the Sky is a welcome relief from the barrage of what have become cheesy holiday standards and their insipid contemporary interpretations. Not everyone will dig every track here (about 14 on each disc), and I won't say this is a desert island collection of women's music (mainly because there are so many great examples out there), but this release has a fine bang-for-your-buck ratio. It's no surprise that, as with the rest of reality, women the world over have gotten the short end of musical exposure and credit. This release, the first box set in Shanachie's near quarter-century history, goes a long way in fixing that wrong.
3.5 stars-- David Lynch
THE BEACH BOYS
The Pet Sounds Sessions (Capitol)
You've gotta hand it to Brian Wilson. It's one thing to create a pop masterpiece alongside John Lennon or Paul McCartney, but it's quite another when you're dealing with people who put out stuff like "Kokomo" when left to their own devices. Although all of the Beach Boys deserve credit for harmonizing the California myth and carrying it around the world, it's impossible to deny that the creative integrity of the group rests squarely on Brian's shoulders now and forever. Pet Sounds was recorded when Wilson was at his creative peak as a composer, arranger, and producer. Songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "I Know There's an Answer," "God Only Knows," and "Caroline, No" worked together to create a lush netherworld of love and loss that still resonates today even as other "concept" albums of the era are swallowed by their acid-happy indulgences. Dedicating an entire 4-CD box set to one 35-minute album might seem like overkill to the average listener; however, if you're serious about the nuts and bolts of making and recording music, The Pet Sounds Sessions provides an indispensable dissection of a masterpiece that is both fascinating and educational. Perhaps the biggest selling point is the first ever stereo mix of Pet Sounds (because he was deaf in one ear, Wilson always worked in mono). Engineer Mark Linett returned to the original multi-track masters for the new mix, resulting in a much greater degree of depth and clarity; the bottom end comes through particularly strong in stereo, allowing you to hear elusive parts of the album that were lost in mono. For the sake of comparison and completion, the original mono mix of Pet Sounds is also included on a bonus disc. In between the two mixes are the "guts" of the album -- separate vocal and music tracks, alternate takes, and highlights from the tracking dates at Western Studio 3. Hearing the backing music tracks sans vocals opens your ears to a bevy of awe-inspiring nuances previously obscured by singing. At the same time, the isolated vocal tracks are nothing less than spiritual in their emotive wallop. The box set is accompanied by a 118-page booklet containing first-hand accounts of the Pet Sounds sessions from studio legends like drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye, and guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Their words provide the background for the outtakes from tracking sessions. Being able to hear Brian and the musicians struggle to perfect the bridge in "God Only Knows" clearly illustrates a collective zeal to create something revolutionary and transcendent. Wilson's no-nonsense approach to recording and his creative rapport with the musicians is showcased in a manner that's quick to shut down anyone wont to dwell on the sandbox in his living room. Taken by itself, Pet Sounds is enough to provoke everyone from Paul McCartney to Thurston Moore in calling Brian Wilson a modern-day genius on the level of Mozart or Bach. The Pet Sounds Sessions gives us an enlightening array of clues as to how he got there.
5 stars -- Greg Beets
SIMON & GARFUNKEL
Old Friends (Columbia Legacy)
It's hard to listen to this new 3-CD Simon & Garfunkel retrospective and not think of the word "quaint." In an age of Jerry Springer and Marilyn Manson, the duo's tuneful observations about the passage of time and relationships seem almost trite. The hero of a typical Paul Simon song sits in a crowded café in a big city, watches the whirl of life around him, and scribbles some lines down about how much he'd rather be somewhere else. Usually there's a girl involved, along with a lot of poetic allusions and ringing seventh chords along the way. Feelings get hurt, but never irreparably. Words help people communicate, but only go so far. On a morning where Geraldo probes the depths of the Ed O'Brien teen murder case and Jerry leads his expletive-laced circus maximus through an hour of "I'm Pregnant & I Have to Strip," silence sounds like a most welcome alternative. But more than nostalgia drives this collection. The early chimes of the heretofore-unreleased "Bleeker Street," a pre-drums "The Sound of Silence," and "The Sun Is Burning," a dark nuclear fable disguised as a merry folk song, show the duo ever-mindful of the troubadour tradition, yet struggling to apply it to the modern world without broadening its definition. Music and society had always managed to maintain a respectful distance from each other, but the twin engines of Bob Dylan and the Beatles drove them together in the Sixties. Rock & roll refused to stop at the theatre exits; one of its defining virtues was how it spilled over into the streets. And Simon & Garfunkel's genteel Upper West Side avenues and boho Village haunts were as much a part of the revolution as the riot-torn byways of Detroit and Newark (Simon's hometown). Even if these old friends never fully embraced rock & roll's hedonistic abandon -- and the numerous live recordings newly released in the set reveal their natural milieu as two voices and one acoustic guitar -- they were entirely comfortable using its voices and arrangements to tell their particular stories. "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," "Richard Cory," "A Hazy Shade of Winter," and "You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies" are all worthy stateside companions to the best of the White Album as well as ancestors of Jesus Christ Superstar's Broadway rock, an area Simon has returned to this decade with The Capeman. And after 30 years, "Mrs. Robinson" sounds more than ever like a Springer episode waiting to happen.
3.5 stars -- Christopher Gray
The Complete Blue Note Recordings (Blue Note)
"His stretch was as wide as his imagination," jazz critic Leonard Feather enthused in his liner notes for Herbie Nichols' 1955 debut. A man of prodigious height whose huge hands danced over the keyboard with the most delicate of touches, Nichols wrote in short, off-kilter phrases that didn't fit neatly into a prescribed downbeat. His extraordinary compositions, more studied than Monk, less serious than Tatum -- like Jelly Roll Morton on a dark day -- were all but ignored in Nichols' short lifetime. Blue Note's Alfred Lion, the man who went out of his way to record undiscovered pianists such as Elmo Hope, Kenny Drew, Horace Silver, Sonny Clark, and later Andrew Hill, knew a good thing when he heard it. He offered Nichols a contract, which resulted in two 10-inch albums and one 12-inch LP. Some acclaim and no sales followed each, and Nichols went back to scraping for bad gigs at strip joints and cruise ships. He had his peers; Mingus helped him land his record deal and he was friends with Monk -- an obvious influence -- yet none of this stopped this relative straight arrow from regularly getting shooed off stage at Minton's. Still, Nichols was a composer, pianist, poet, painter, writer, an avid chess player; his earliest influences were not Tatum and Monk, but Prokofiev, Hindemith, Shostakovich. All this can be heard in his music, a unique goulash of brainy moves and joyful abandon that sounds as contemporary as anything recorded today. This Spartanly packaged 3-CD Blue Note set is a reissue of the long-deleted Mosaic collection, featuring every track he recorded for the label,
reproductions of the original album covers, and notes by Nichols as well as Frank Kimbrough and Ben Allison of the Herbie Nichols Project, an excellent present-day group dedicated to performing Nichols' works. Nichols would record only one more session of his material, for Bethlehem Records, dying suddenly of leukemia at the age of 44. A tragic flood in his father's apartment would later destroy over half of Nichols' 170 compositions, so his legacy is here, in these first trio recordings made on the quick in the mid-Fifties. Drum interplay fed Nichols' swift fleeting lines, and only Art Blakey and Max Roach could have pulled off this unique material so beautifully with so little preparation. Nichols toiled in isolation and obscurity most of his life. Now, many years later, he is slowly getting the recognition he so richly deserved. Treasures like this can only stay buried for so long.
4 stars-- Jeff McCord
The Complete Bill Evans on Verve (Verve)
Wondering what to get him/her for Christmas this year? How about 18 Bill Evans CDs in an ingeniously engineered metal box -- more than 18 hours of music, 269 tracks, many previously unissued! Arguably the greatest jazz pianist to come to the fore since he emerged in 1956, Evans is heard in all sorts of settings during his tenure with Verve (1962-70) -- unaccompanied, with guitarist Jim Hall, in duos with himself via overdubbing, in trios with outstanding bassists (Gary Peacock, Chuck Israels, Eddie Gomez) and drummers (Shelley Manne, Paul Motian, Philly Joe Jones, Jack DeJohnette), in quartets with tenorman Stan Getz and flutist Jeremy Steig, and backed by large ensembles. He's also heard as a sideman with Don Elliott in 1957. Evans had a strange career in that he evolved very rapidly from 1956-61, going from a pianist who featured dazzling pyrotechnical playing to one whose work was often spare and impressionistic. With Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Evans was one of the founders of the modal jazz movement. And while he recorded superb performances from 1962 until his death in 1980, his fundamental approach didn't change until the year before his death, when he became a more aggressive, percussive improviser. The varied contexts in which he performs on this set, however, minimize the elements of sameness, as does his inventiveness. Some sessions are better than others, but Evans' worst is better than the vast majority of other pianists' best. Among the highlights: Evans' duets with Hall, another extremely subtle, intelligent musician, and a mess of previously unreleased trio tracks done live in 1967 at the Village Vanguard with Philly Joe Jones and Eddie Gomez. It's also enjoyable and enlightening to contrast his 1957 solos to his later, more impressionistic performances. Obviously, not many people will sit down for 21 hours to listen to the contents of this box, just as they wouldn't listen to 18 straight CDs by 18 different performers. But for the many Evans devotees, it's a treasure that can be digested at leisure.
4 stars-- Harvey Pekar
RCA VICTOR 80TH ANNIVERSARY
THE FIRST LABEL IN JAZZ * VOLS. 1-8
One of the best box sets that doesn't exist, Duke Ellington: The Private Collection is actually comprised of 10 separate mid-line CD compilations on Atlantic. Sampling unreleased work from Ellington's last two decades, each individual volume has its merits, but taken as a whole -- all 10 volumes -- one suddenly finds themselves with a "box set" that's a first edition addition to any jazz musical library. So is it with eight volumes of BMG's RCA Victor 80th Anniversary series. Having been part of a staggered release schedule over the past several months, these eight, separately-available discs are an exceptional collection of jazz that -- taken together -- serve as the best introduction to the genre since The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a 5-CD box set that begins with Scott Joplin and ends with Ornette Coleman. These eight CDs will eventually be available as a box set, but regardless of the configuration, this set is well worth having -- especially if one's looking for a grade-A jazz primer. Kicking off the first disc with the ground-zero sounds of the Original Dixieland "Jass" Band, "Livery Stable Blues," Vol. 1 (1917-1929) swings through the seminal early work of Jelly Roll Morton, Bennie Moten, Fletcher Henderson, King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and Fats Waller in splendid, short-wave radio fashion -- a monaural dream montage of sounds from a different time and planet. Vol. 2 (1930-1939) catalogues the ascent of big bands like those of Henderson, Ellington, Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller with swinging ballroom visions; this disc, moving into an era of improved recording techniques, will be a natural favorite, as will the following volume (1940-1949), which mixes those beguiling big band sounds with smaller, all-star combos and the emerging sounds of bebop. Vols. 4-5 ('50-'59 and '60-'69) are the collection's centerpieces with the anything-goes melting pot approach of those eras resulting in two priceless mix CDs with everything from Art Blakey's 14-minute rent party on "Moaning" to Johnny Hodge's beautiful lyric, two-minute gem, "The Very Thought of You." The remaining volumes ('70-'79, '80-'89, '90-'97) ease jazz's transition from classic to contemporary smoothly, and overall, one couldn't ask for a more thoughtfully chosen or better sounding mix of collections, which isn't surprising given RCA/Victor's standing as one of the primary jazz legacies. Seeing how R&B fanatics both young and old have been flocking to Rhino's rather randomly chosen yet still-wonderful Beg, Scream & Shout: The Big Ol' Box Set of '60s Soul, it's time jazz enthusiasts both old and new discover one of the better jazz box sets this year.
4 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Passions of a Man: The Complete Atlantic
Recordings 1956-1961 (Rhino)
The great, innovative composer/bassist Charles Mingus began recording in 1946, but it wasn't until 10 years later that he began receiving the recognition due him thanks to his work for the relatively prosperous Atlantic label. For this 6-CD set, Passions of a Man, Rhino has gathered together the contents of all six LPs he cut for the label, plus four selections from an album he made with the provocative vibist Teddy Charles, and a long, recorded discussion he had with his producer Nesuhi Ertegun. A school of music unto himself, Mingus drew from gospel sources, Duke Ellington, bebop, and modern classical composers; he was already blending jazz and classical influences in the Forties, while his bass playing was derived from Ellington great Jimmy Blanton, as well as Charlie Parker. The title selection from his Atlantic debut, Pithecanthropus Erectus, demonstrates how advanced he was; it contains shifting meters, collective improvisation in a modern, not Dixieland context, and has sections that are of indefinite duration, which end when he cues group members -- all unusual devices in a 1956 jazz performance. And it's only one of a number of striking, starkly powerful tracks here. Mingus wrote lyrically as well, which Reincarnation of a Lovebird illustrates beautifully. As well, Mingus' improvising stands out; his technical mastery allowed him to play complex, hornlike solos on the bass, demonstrating that the instrument was capable of a wider range of expression than generally realized in the mid-Fifties. Like Ellington, Mingus brought out the best in his band members, including such outstanding soloists as Eric Dolphy and Jackie McLean, all of whom combine here to make rich, beautiful music.
4 stars -- Harvey Pekar
Box Set (Elektra)
"I don't know if you were aware," Jim Morrison told a rabid Madison Square Garden in 1970, "but this whole evening is being taped, for eternity. And beyond that. So listen, man, if you want to be represented in eternity with some uncouth language, then I hope you'll stand up on top of your seat and shout it out very clearly or we're not going to get it on tape." The band then launches into "The Celebration of the Lizard," 17 minutes of shamen, reptiles, hill dwellers, and various other erotic madmen littered over the stop-start, peaks-and-valleys soundscape fashioned by a musical interplay tight as Morrison's leather trousers. At moments like these, the legend is alive and well. Everything anyone ever admired or feared about the Doors is right here, caught on tape for eternity, uncouth language and all. The Rimbaud-on-peyote poetry of their frontman and his canyons full of rock-star charisma were not the only reason this band that started in film school was the most graphic of its time; look also to Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, and Robby Krieger. Charged with illustrating Morrison's phantasmagoria with music, the trio carried out its mission with the technical skills of classical musicians, the telepathic connection of fine jazzmen, and the ingrained metronome of bluesmen who ride their groove all the way down the line. They were really rock & rollers only by accident; rock & roll was simply the only music of the late Sixties still unexplored enough for the Doors to fit under its umbrella, though the drugs certainly didn't hurt. And today, when rock & roll has been debased to the level of the Verve Pipe and Third Eye Blind, it's even harder to picture them. Even this generous box set from Elektra, on top of the already voluminous (and lucrative) Doors catalogue, can't fully flesh them out. On top of a 1970, Morrison Hotel-era Madison Square Garden performance (all of disc two, "Live in New York"), there's a CD of hand-chosen LP favorites by the three surviving Doors ("Band Favorites"), and two discs devoted to demos, studio experiments, sound checks, and live performances ("Without a Safety Net" and "The Future Ain't What It Used to Be"). What all four of these discs reveal is a band constantly seeking out unknown extremes, whether in beauty or fantasy, debauchery or perfection, love or confusion. That was the Doors. That is the Doors.
4 stars -- Christopher Gray