Buying jazz by the box is worth the investment

There seems no limit to the appetite of music fans for CD box sets, and this seems particularly true in recent months as three ambitious jazz boxes, ranging from four to 14 discs, have hit the marketplace. This prompts a question rarely addressed by critics and fans: When are box sets a sound (pardon the pun) investment, musically as well as financially?

Take the example of one of the most sumptuous of the batch, the 14-disc The Blue Note Years, marking the 60th anniversary of that venerable jazz label. The cost? A mere $225.

Now if you're new to jazz and simply are curious about some of the major artists identified with the label (organist Jimmy Smith, pianists Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock, to name some of the most illustrious), you would be well advised to check out Volumes 1 and 2 of The Best Of Blue Note, offering two hours of superb jazz for about one-10th the price of a boxed set.

There are two discs focused exclusively upon musicians centered upon funk and R&B jazz colorations, another pair based upon avant-garde experimenters like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and yet another programmed to the talents of up and coming young players.

You emerge from the 17-hour listening experience with a dizzying sense of how much musical territory Blue Note encompassed - in spite of the fact that many jazz giants (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane) rarely recorded, if at all, for the label.

Saxophonist John Coltrane's most groundbreaking recordings were with the Impulse! label, and they've recently been boxed in a fresh fashion in John Coltrane: The Classic Quartet - Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings (GRP/Impulse!).

This eight-disc set offers seven previously available discs recorded in the 1960s along with a disc of previously unreleased performances. Which raises the question: Since seven-eighths of this box can be purchased gradually, singly, why bother with investing in this set ?

The answer is a surprising one: Only this set offers Coltrane's recordings in chronological order. What this means is that we are able to hear the evolution of the horn man's sound, a growth marked by a fervent desire to create a sacred jazz marked by translating to saxophone the vocalized growls and shouts found in the African-American gospel tradition.

These recordings were among my first jazz purchases more than 30 years ago, and they sound just as innovative and inspiring today. Another plus of this reasonably priced set (it lists for $89.95) is its 100-page booklet filled with rare photos and annotations by Bob Blumenthal, The Atlantic's jazz critic, who sets a gold standard for informative yet entertaining liner notes.

While the Blue Note box mines the riches of that label through styles, and the Coltrane box emphasizes the chronological development of one seminal quartet, The West Coast Jazz Box (Contemporary/ Fantasy Records) is a four-disc box encompassing a range of jazz by region.

Unlike the other boxes, there is no less expensive way to enjoy this bit of lively jazz history. Buying individual discs by many of the key artists here (pianists Dave Brubeck and Art Tatum, saxophonists Art Pepper and Sonny Rollins) would quickly exceed the cost of this set ($66.95).

Another point differentiating this from the other sets is the generous inclusion of obscure but moving recordings by bassist Charles Mingus (a heartbreakingly romantic "Body and Soul" as a piano duet) and a New Age/World Music bit of chamber jazz by the Chico Hamilton Quartet.

These jazz sets are vivid testimonies to the fact that carefully crafted, emotionally and spiritually exploratory jazz offers hours of enlightening entertainment.

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