Boxed sets of jazz CDs frequently pose the uncomfortable question, "Can you have too much of a good thing?" The answer is, often, yes.MILES DAVIS WITH JOHN COLTRANE: THE COMPLETE COLUMBIA RECORDINGS poses the question, "Can you have too much of a great
thing?" The answer is, resoundingly, no. Jazz on this level -- the level of the Miles Davis Quintet and Sextet with John Coltrane -- is so rare and so profound, so, in a sense, perfect, that we can only ask Columbia to bring it all on, every alternate take, false start, bit of studio chatter, all of it. And Columbia -- which has been lovingly sorting and rearranging Miles Davis' output into various crates over the past few years -- is happy to oblige. The question with this six-CD box is not whether or not you should have this music -- you should
have this music --but whether you should have it in this form, in this configuration, in this particular crate. The answer is a qualified yes.
In 1955, after years of playing with various different rhythm sections, Miles Davis hired himself a band -- pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and the young tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. He also signed a deal with Columbia Records, after years of recording for the small, independent Prestige jazz label. In less than a year, the group recorded MILES, COOKIN', WORKIN', STEAMIN', and RELAXIN' to fulfill the obligation to Prestige, and 'ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT to begin the obligation to Columbia. During the next five years, Miles Davis recorded the landmark orchestral albums with Gil Evans -- collected in another Columbia crate -- and a series of increasingly stunning albums with a version of this small group. Cannonball Adderley, the great soulful alto saxophonist, made it a Sextet in 1958, shortly before Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones made way for Bill Evans (then Wynton Kelly) and Jimmy Cobb. The band kept playing -- recording its pointillistic material, evolving into modal harmonies, being pulled by John Coltrane's increasing musical yearnings -- until, in 1960, Coltrane finally had to leave to pursue his own vision (although Miles lured him back for a couple of 1961 dates). With Coltrane gone, the band disintegrated and an astonishing new band --another perfect band -- was formed with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. That band has its own Columbia crate. (The title of this set is somewhat disingenuous --John Coltrane was a sideman in this band, never a co-leader.
Here's what's in this box: the albums 'ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT, MILESTONES and KIND OF BLUE in their entirety, the band's live performances at a Columbia party and the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, half of an album called JAZZ TRACK (the other half was Davis's soundtrack to the French film "L'Ascenseur pour l'echafaud"), and the two songs Coltrane joined on SOMEDAY MY PRINCE WILL COME. And there are numerous alternate takes, many of which have already been restored to Columbia's single-CD reissues of this material. So what -- aside from the usual fancy box and weighty booklet -- does this box set have that we haven't heard before? A lot. There are 13 previously unissued alternate takes and a previously unreleased version of "Little Melonae": a remarkable hour-and-a-half of extra music. There are also songs issued in their original 1950s stereo for the first time ever; a few scattered seconds of the famous but rarely heard Miles Davis rasp; and a false start or two (the only thing left to issue from the landmark KIND OF BLUE sessions was a minute-and-a-half false start of "Freddie Freeloader"). The extra music is, like the music we know, extraordinary. There is nothing revelatory here, just powerful alternates that, except for a flub or two, would have done everybody proud if they had been included in the original albums. And all the music is loaded with tension -- Coltrane and Bill Evans were two very different musicians, but, in these years, they were both forward-thinking seekers of something new, something just around the corner in the future of jazz. You can hear Trane pressing, impatient, chafing against the restrictions that he would burst through so astonishingly in his own albums for Atlantic and Prestige. And you can hear Miles respond to that --squeezing even more drama, more heartache from his horn.