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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.

Blue Note had one of the best midyear boxes with Dexter Gordon: The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions, which exudes that labor-of-love thing. Four of six discs close with monologues, and the booklet is peppered with a fascinating correspondence between Gordon and his producers. I wish they had retained the original sequencing, but this is an indispensable set, the master at his peak and beautifully mastered. More recently, Hot Jazz on Blue Note explores the label's pre-Monk past with Ed Hall, Art Hodes, George Lewis, and especially Sidney Bechet, who in a rare turnabout fared better in concert halls on the occasion of his centenary than on discs. Herbie Nichols: The Complete Blue Note Recordings suffers from an unaccountable profusion of dropouts, but don't miss Stan Getz: The Complete Roost Recordings, which has famously dim sound (apparently Roost destroyed original tapes), but who cares? The second of three discs collects the 1951 Storyville sides, which are fraught with the kind of drama Jackie McLean triggered at the Vanguard. They are often noted for the alloy of Getz and Jimmy Raney (not to mention Al Haig's memorable lyricism), but the real chemistry here is between Getz and the great drummer Tiny Kahn, who jumps on the saxophonist's Lestorian riffs, driving him mercilessly from one peak to another. Getz had not yet evolved his mature ballad attack, but he was never more gazelle-like than on ''Parker 51'' and Gigi Gryce's clever honeysuckle variation, ''Mosquito Knees.''

Rhino, which evenhandedly boxes the ridiculous and the sublime, made a strong showing with Charles Mingus: Passions of a Man, collecting his work during five years at Atlantic (1956?61), plus the subsequently released 1960 Antibes concert and a long interview conducted by Nesuhi Ertegun, though once again the original sequencing is pointlessly sacrificed to the great god Chronology. It's a strange and frequently electrifying trip, from ''Pithecanthropus Erectus,'' which was way ahead of the jazz curve, to ''Eat That Chicken,'' which was way behind it. Mingus's bass was handsomely featured in those days, and he surrounded himself with the best saxophonists. I hear people argue that Jean Shepherd's shtick on ''The Clown'' has dated badly. Unfair—it was just as preciously hip when it was first issued. Rhino's five-volume Ray Charles: Genius & Soul is a stellar survey, with a couple of minor missteps, reaching a predictable apex in the 1959?66 period, when his voice peaked in warmth and versatility. Another singer also celebrating a golden anniversary gets similar treatment from Mercury: Patti Page's A Golden Celebration tracks the nightmarish descent of the epitome of blond soul into a morass of questionably priced doggies, mockin' bird hills, and boogieing Santas. I shy away from absolutes, but ''Go On With the Wedding'' represents a nadir with few equals in any idiom. Yet what a richly expressive singer she could be with good material, her southern twang more decorous than Kay Starr's but no less resonant. Mercury's sister company, Verve, ought to collect her big band recordings, which are sampled on the last of four discs and merit rediscovery.

The Connecticut-based mail order company Mosaic (203-327-7111) is in the business of rediscovery and offered a major surprise with Classic Capitol Jazz Sessions, a 12-disc compilation of mostly forgotten singles. Some of it is pretty dire, but in this context even the dross has a certain fascination: The grab bag is so capacious that I find myself blindly running through one disc after another, marveling at the mixture of excellence, corn, and sheer desperation that went into Capitol's peculiarly regressive West Coast attempt to market jazz as metadixieland. Except for sessions by the fine clarinetist Stan Hasselgard and Red Norvo (who co-leads a Blues Band with Jesse Price that has a reed section of Dexter Gordon and Jimmy Giuffre, thus breaking the anomaly bank), this is a survey of the 1940s as they might have evolved if Charlie Parker had never been born. A few selections really are classic (e.g., Billie Holiday's ''Trav'lin' Light'' with Paul Whiteman) and some ought to be (e.g., Bobby Hackett's ''Pennies From Heaven,'' from a 1945 session on Melrose, half of which was never issued). But for the most part, we get performances by Benny Carter, Kay Starr, Mel Powell, Cootie Williams, Wingy Manone, and others that fell through the cracks, uncovering not a few gems—among them a soundstage recording of the title song from A Song Is Born, with Armstrong, Dorsey, Goodman, the Golden Gate Quartet, et al. Two other Mosaic boxes that trigger reassessments are The Complete Verve Recordings of Teddy Wilson, reclaiming the 1952?57 years as an immensely rewarding period in the career of a quintessential pianist who has been misjudged as too mannerly for modern times, and Complete Atlantic Recordings of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh, including the pianist's hypnotically Bachlike home recordings from 1954?61.

Hard to know what to make of RCA, which celebrated the 80th anniversary of the first jazz recording (the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, recorded by the Victor Talking Machine Company) with the halfheartedness of a schizoid conglomerate that can't quite believe it has a history worth commemorating. The eight-volume RCA Victor 80th Anniversary Collector's Edition can be had boxed or in separate volumes, depending on whether you require a few enchanting anthologies—the first five, to be exact—or a lesson in entropy. Actually, volume eight is so much better than six and seven that you might think the company was turning around, but there isn't much supporting evidence. Nor is there any overall quality control. In recent months, RCA released its Complete Sonny Rollins, six discs of exceptionally well-recorded music now rendered brazen and artificial, and The Complete Paul Desmond, five discs of music that wasn't recorded nearly as well, but is now expertly remastered and a significant improvement over previous reissues. Still, the Desmond (with strings and Jim Hall) is as dry as the martini he always wanted to be, and the Rollins (with rhythm and Jim Hall) is a shot of single malt injected straight into the vein.

For audiophiles, the outstanding boxed vinyl was issued with a nearly obsessive perfectionism and a high ticket by Acoustic Sounds (800-716-3553). The Great Prestige Recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet reshapes the marathon session albums with ambience and imaging to rival the original issues. The somewhat mistitled Riverside Tenor Sessions by Thelonious Monk (the European concerts with Rouse are missing, as is a Coltrane selection) is even more impressive—''Jackieing'' sucks the air out of the room, as it should, and ''Brilliant Corners'' is so unequivocal you can practically hear the fabled splices. The point here is to recreate original albums as finished and sequenced by the artists, without newfound scraps of studiospeak, flawed takes, and other desiderata of the anally compulsive. Not to say that digitization hasn't also made strides. I have no idea whether 20-bit or gold plate improves sound, but there is no question that sensitivity and care in mastering does—and the most-impressive examples I've heard this year are two Nat King Cole Capitol ballad albums engineered for DCC (818-993-8822), Love Is the Thing and the just-released The Very Thought of You. The Gordon Jenkins arrangements may cause toothache, but when the singer emerges from the strings on ''When I Fall in Love,'' you get the eerie feeling that Nat hasn't left the building. Soundman Steve Hoffman has found a way to set the strings back and bring the voice closer to the mike, almost shockingly so. If his voice ever sounded that intimate live, the audience would have been roaring as it did for his piano playing back at JATP.

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