They're Bo-o-o-xed!

The virtues and vices of completeness

The most vivid memory of live jazz '97 I take with me into the new year was sown at the Vanguard a couple of weeks back, when Jackie McLean fronted the incomparable Cedar Walton trio (David Williams, Billy Higgins). With nary a pause following a stoic ''Never Let Me Go,'' McLean stomped a breakneck ''Lover,'' and before he was 16 bars out of the starting gate, something unusual happened, a flashback to a wilder time: The audience got into the act. First, just an isolated shout and whoop, and then a mass low-level rumbling, with more shouts and applause for a particularly nimble turnback or long-legged phrase or spiral conceit. It sounded like an old Jazz at the Philharmonic album, the congregation midrashing the soloist, who at one point spun out the most befitting quotation in an evening of quotations: ''He flies through the air with the greatest of ease . . . ''—speaking for himself and Walton, who backed him with pulsing, vital chords and mixed in ''Melancholy Baby'' and ''Comin' Through the Rye.'' When McLean returned to initiate eights with Higgins, neither man could contain himself for long and the exchanges soon became an alto-drum duet, until the drummer took over with his usual savoir faire.

It may have sounded like JATP, but it wasn't the kind of performance that would or should get on an album. Some of the very moments that kept you leaning ever closer to the bandstand were those that would sound faltering or clumsy on record: the hesitation before choosing an entrance point, the suspense as the rhythm turned this way and that, the breath-catching moments of rumination—the exhilarating, rumpled cool of making it up on the spot. Quelle différence from the jazz records now edited and dubbed to a shine, creating a studio reality that makes the tradition of real-time recording seem astonishing—no retakes for Armstrong to get that ''West End Blues'' cadenza to line up right, and imagine Sinatra singing in the studio right there with the band, not in a glass booth with earphones. Yet when it comes to reissuing classic jazz albums, the opposite fallacy takes over. The ongoing excavation of studio archives continues to undermine model albums with bum takes, false starts, and flat chatter (what is so bloody enthralling about hearing someone say, ''Let's try it again, fellas, okay, untitled blues take seven''?) in a posthumous revenge on the gloried past. It's box time.Last year, even those of us who worship at the shrine of Miles and Gil learned more about their labors than we wanted to know—and it's a relief to have the superbly remastered classics available singly, with the better alternates packed off at the end. This year the box of choice is Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse!), not because it offered many surprises (only three previously unissued performances), but because in recreating the context for such landmarks as ''Chasin' the Trane'' and ''Impressions,'' it underscores the drama of Coltrane's evolution and provides a more realistic look at his ensemble as it was shaped. No excesses here.

Verve, which created my favorite CD box (The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books), initiated a series of 20-bit Master Editions that in many cases rank with specialist audiophile discs. For one example, Kenny Burrell and Gil Evans's Guitar Forms segregates the loser takes at the end and has as much depth as and greater radiance than the original vinyl. On the other hand, The Complete Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster, one of the most exquisitely realized of LPs, is now two discs, with original and alternate takes integrated in an attempt to re-create a day in the studio—a document of men at work, proving that music's labors are marginally more entertaining than watching an actor memorize lines or a writer revise a paragraph. The three-volume Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong isn't 20-bit, but the sound is excellent, and despite awkward packaging (an accordion photo album that barely opens) is an irresistible set—no alternates, just splendid music.

Verve's monster box, though, is the 18-volume Complete Bill Evans on Verve, an untreated metal box flaunting its designer rust and so arcanely packaged it can be discouraging simply to find the right disc. But that isn't the main problem. The main problem, believe it or not, is incompleteness, plus disingenuous annotation (you still won't find out what happened to the second volume of the Town Hall concert), and indifferent mastering. The chief disappointment is the absence of Evans's 1963 attempt at a commercial album, Theme From the VIPs and Other Great Songs, which I have never heard. It is by far his rarest LP and by all reports pretty dreadful—precisely the kind of thing you would expect to find in an inclusive crate, as it won't be released on its own. Also missing are all but one of his sideman sessions, including the Lee Konitz Half Note recordings that are much discussed in the booklet. Yet there is much compensation—mainly dozens of previously unissued selections from the 1967 Vanguard date, many of them superior to the numbers culled for Califonia, Here I Come. These will surely be issued on their own at a later date. If you think you know what kind of a dude Evans was from, say, his six-handed version of ''Spartacus,'' you'll want to hear him sing ''Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,'' madly giggling between takes.

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