"A beautiful monster" is what they affectionately call it at Legacy Records. And so it is -- as beautiful a monster as you will find among disc box sets anywhere.
We know what it means to see something gorgeously lavish between covers called "a triumph of the bookmaker's art," but surely "Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue': The 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition" is a stunning triumph of the "record-maker's art." It's far and away the coolest box set of the year thus far.
To quote verbatim Randy Haecker, senior media relations director at SONY/BMG Legacy: "It was a beautiful monster to put together."
You can believe every word of it.
Nothing less, really, would have done for the 50th anniversary edition of the most important album by the epochal jazz group so many of us would argue was the greatest group in the entire history of jazz and the greatest anyone will ever see: the Miles Davis Sextet of 1958-59.
With Miles Davis on trumpet taking jazz in radical new modal directions that would alter all kinds of music (one example: The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" would have been unlikely without "Kind of Blue" years earlier), his tenor saxophonist was John Coltrane, his alto saxophonist was Cannonball Adderly and his pianist was Bill Evans. In less than two years, all would be hugely successful bandleaders leading their own groups.
All were in their early 30s when the record was made. All, except Miles and drummer Jimmy Cobb, would be dead by the early 1980s, most from drugs or the delayed after-effects of very careless living. (Miles was 65 when he died in 1991. The implacable Cobb is still with us at age 79.)
Cobb and bassist Paul Chambers were the crucially laid-back glue that held the band together while their melancholy masterpiece went a long way toward reinventing American music. (A rarity in Miles Davis' bands. His usual affection was for drummers that breathed fire and smoked their surroundings.)
When Ashley Kahn, 10 years ago, published "Kind of Blue: The Making of Miles Davis' Masterpiece" (Da Capo Press, 240 pages, $16 paperback), he wrote this:
"Still acknowledged as the height of hip four decades after it was recorded, 'Kind of Blue' is the premier album of its era, jazz or otherwise. . . . Classical buffs and rage rockers alike praise its subtlety, simplicity and emotional depth. Copies of the album are passed to friends and given to loves. The album has sold millions of copies around the world, making it the best-selling record in Miles Davis' catalog and the best-selling classic jazz album ever. Significantly, a large number of those copies were purchased in the past five years and undoubtedly not just by old-timers replacing worn vinyl. 'Kind of Blue' is self-perpetuating, continuing to cast its spell on a younger audience accustomed to the loud-and-fast aesthetic of rock and rap."
Legacy's "beautiful monster" celebrating "Kind of Blue" is contained in a black box 12 inches by 12 inches (i.e. the old vinyl LP size that once allowed for such pictorial luxe in box sets). You get the original LP both on blue vinyl and on CD, with the addition of what few outtakes exist (almost everything the world heard was a first complete take). Another disc includes all the other recorded studio masterworks by that Miles Davis Sextet.
There's also a live 17-minute performance of "Kind of Blue's" "So What" recorded in Holland a year after the record was made, when the tune's tempo had already doubled. By then, Adderly was already gone and Coltrane was just about to leave Miles for good.
The true luxe of this beautiful monster, though, is a lavish 60-page book of cogent essays and photos,
The 81-minute DVD documentary enclosed is called "Celebrating a Masterpiece: Kind of Blue" and contains a legendary Miles Davis TV appearance devoted to his music from 1959 on CBS' "Robert Herridge Theater." Add to that free photos and a facsimile of Bill Evans' handwritten original liner notes.
Put it this way: If record labels are capable of something that actually resembles love, the collector's edition of "Kind of Blue" is what it looks like.
The music remains celestial even a half-century after its once-startling modal language has entered into music everywhere.
What made that sextet so phenomenal is that there are two entirely separate examples of riotous creative symbiosis by two different pairs of musicians going on within the same group. One was Miles and his pianist Evans, setting each other afire with ideas; the other was Coltrane and Adderly doing the same thing but in a different way (Adderly became more daring; Coltrane was suddenly earthier and more concise).
Inside, then, of some of the most lyrically graceful jazz ever played, a full-scale creative conflagration was going on inside these men.
On one of the outtakes, you can hear Paul Chambers so taken with the tune of "So What" that he can't stop humming it. At the same time, Adderly starts singing "Without a Song" with mock operatic grandeur.
It's as dead-on as jokes get: What made that music so radical once was the harmonic simplicity of it. What has made the gentle melancholy music so influential and indeed immortal is that the musicians playing it on those two days in 1959 were almost literally exploding with song.
"Kind of Blue": 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition
4 stars (out of 4)
A four disc set -- two discs, blue vinyl recording and documentary DVD -- celebrating the 1959 Miles Davis recording that is probably the most famous in modern jazz. List price is $109 but routinely available online and at record stores for $20 less.