Tombstone Territory


OK, OK, I hear you telling me to get over it, but I can’t. I’ve spent the month since November 2 sulking, seeking comfort in music I pretty much know by heart. My only pretense to doing my job is that this happens to be box set season, a time of year when there tends to be less curiosity about new jazz releases than about previously unissued alternate takes. Box sets come in various shapes and sizes, and their impracticality extends to the problem of where the hell to put them. Since everyone detested longboxes, the standard has become either Mosaic’s massive tombstones or cube markers of the sort that Columbia has chosen for its Miles Davis series, which though less commemorative, at least have the advantage of fitting on the shelf with your other CDs. Where the industry thinks boxes belong is under the tree. What to get that jazz fan on your list who already has everything? How about what he already has, in deluxe editions with innumerable extras?

Reissue producers Bob Belden and Michael Cuscuna have taken advantage of Sony’s mania for new product to connect the dots in Miles Davis’s discography. On first glance, Seven Steps—so named because it kicks off with the bicoastal studio sessions from the spring of 1963 that yielded the LP Seven Steps to Heaven and includes seven discs—doesn’t seem as logically assembled as the boxes that expanded on Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, or the ones that collected all of Davis’s recordings with Coltrane, Gil Evans, and the mid-’60s quintet. But there’s plenty here that hasn’t been on CD before, including the entire Miles in Europe and previously unissued concert performances from My Funny Valentine, Miles in Tokyo, and Miles in Berlin. And a dramatic story line emerges as Davis puts together his greatest band over the year and a half culminating in Wayne Shorter’s arrival on the final disc. Seven Steps serves as a prequel to an earlier box that presented the band with Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams in full blaze. Only Carter is on board in the beginning, along with Victor Feldman, Frank Butler, and George Coleman—a tenor saxophonist whose rippling, harmonically sophisticated solos offered everything but the urgency Davis was used to from Coltrane and the humor and suspense he ultimately got from Shorter. Might Miles’s displeasure with Coleman have been exacerbated by Feldman’s decision not to abandon the L.A. studios for the road? “Seven Steps to Heaven” and “Joshua,” Feldman’s contributions to the date, stayed in the band’s repertoire, which suggests Miles was looking most of all for a composer.

That need was filled by Shorter, whose tunes brought the rhythm section’s subtleties into sharp focus, although outside this set’s time frame. Here, what keeps you glued are Williams’s juggled meters (quite a contrast from Butler’s Philly Joe-like rimshots), Hancock’s discreetly funky solos and telepathic comping, and Miles’s unparalleled dynamics and tension-and-release, especially on ballads—and most especially on a devastating “Stella by Starlight” from Philharmonic Hall. With Sam Rivers trying out between Coleman and Shorter, leaping intervals and going as far out as the others, but in another direction, Seven Steps persuades us to hear tracks from 40 years ago as parts of a work in process. The story it tells is no less compelling despite our knowing the ending going in.

The story on the seven-disc Woody Herman Mosaic is one familiar from Gunther Schuller’s The Swing Era, a tome whose leitmotif was the conflicting tugs of commercialism and experimentation on big bands—never more intense than in the years immediately following World War II, when orchestras saw their survival threatened by the popularity of singers on one side of the divide and bebop on the other. No one straddled the gap as gracefully as Herman. Though frequently anthologized, this treasured material has never before been presented complete. Truth be told, you can do without most of the Herman novelties and the Frances Wayne or Mary Ann McCall ballads—not to mention the copious alternates, the majority of which differ very little from the masters—as long as your collection includes Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti’s landmark instrumental charts, Jimmy Giuffre’s “Four Brothers”(the pre-birth of the cool), and Flip Phillips and Bill Harris’s heroic solos with the small group Woodchoppers. But the box’s triumph lies in increasing your appreciation of the innovative stuff by forcing you to hear it in context. Besides, the more commercial material has its charms. Herman’s singing might be an acquired taste, but his jive numbers are often irresistible (“I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out,” for example), and his ballads are seductive for the impression he gives of being a regular joe stirred to passion after being dumped by his jane (my favorite is “Everybody Knew But Me,” forgotten Irving Berlin). As Loren Schoenberg points out in his astute notes, Burns’s backings for Herman and the woman are uncommonly adventurous; the odd combination of lushness and dissonance in his arrangement of “Laura” anticipates Bernard Herrmann’s theme for Taxi Driver.

Burns’s defection to Hollywood was a great loss for jazz. The first recording of Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto is here, as is Shorty Rogers’s cheeky “Igor,” but neither holds a candle to Burns’s four-part “Summer Sequence,” which wisely adds Ellington to the modernist mix. The last movement, written as an afterthought and recorded more than a year after the first three, made Stan Getz a star overnight, and you can easily hear why—few improvisers have ever communicated such restrained yearning (he’s also the soloist most conversant with bebop phrasing on “Four Brothers”). The box departs from chronology to put all the Woodchoppers sides on one disc; too bad Mosaic didn’t obey the same logic with “Summer Sequence,” which requires switching discs to hear Part IV. But that’s my only bone as I sit hoping for the inevitable Republican comeuppance in 2006.

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