Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

If Eric Dolphy was still alive, he might amend his most famous quote along these lines: “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone into the air. You can never capture it again – except for the boxed set.”

At a time when the CD is supposedly going the way of the dodo, boxed sets are currently being issued at an arguably indigestible pace: vintage Earl Hines sessions; Vancouver’s NOW Quintet’s complete self-produced recordings from the late 1970s; a heretofore unreleased passel of Miles Davis concert recordings from 1969; a trove of New York Art Quartet tapes; a multi-angle snapshot of the Wandelweiser movement of post-Cage composers and improvisers. Close listening of the 28 discs comprising these collections (granted, the NYAQ consists of five LPs and the Davis includes a DVD) would require being cloistered for a month or more. Otherwise, under normal, distractions-filled listening conditions, nuggets like Hines’ s 1940 electric piano solos, NOW Quintet’s unexpected and jubilant reading of Karl Berger’s “Five Feelings,” and prepared pianist Philip Thomas’ pristine minute-plus reading of Cage’s 1944 “Prelude for Meditation” might well slip by.

As daunting a proposition a six or seven-disc set may be for anyone with a life, the aforementioned collections are dwarfed by new behemoth sets of 50 discs or more. Such mega boxes have largely been issued to date by classical music labels, who have issued the complete works of Mozart on 170 CDs and the complete works of Bach on 155. Even conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler is the subject of a 107-CD set. Jazz boxed set have reached the 100-disc threshold with the Membran label’s collections, but, for the most part, jazz mega boxes like Columbia’s complete Miles Davis studio albums and Mosaic’s anthology of Commodore sides are substantially smaller – 71 discs and 66 LPs, respectively.

Additionally, jazz mega boxes have aggregated decades-old recordings by artists who have, for the most part, passed; to date, jazz mega boxes haven’t been barometers of the state of the art, let alone indicators of the shape of jazz to come. Granted, in the day, boxed sets like Keith Jarrett’s Sun Bear Concerts and Cecil Taylor in Berlin ‘88 had meteoric impact, even though they contained less than a dozen discs. However, we may now be a crossroads of sorts where artists who have been prolific for decades but are still considered to be on the music’s cutting edge will increasingly become the subjects of boxed sets of 50 discs or more.

Two recently released collections will undoubtedly serve as milestones, whether they prove to be anomalies or trend-setters: the 54-disc Instant Composers Pool and the 50-disc Paul Dunmall: The FMR Years. The former includes every CD and DVD issued to date on the Amsterdam-based ICP records (plus a CD’s worth of unissued rarities), while the latter amasses the prolific saxophonist’s recordings of the even more prolific British label. Both retrospectives include substantial books – Pieter Boersma’s photographic chronicle of ICP’s first 45 years is presented in a 120-page, large-format volume; the FMR box includes a 274-page book that includes Music in the Big Key: Paul Dunmall’s Musical Vision, Beni Williams’ 80-page treatise on Dunmall’s omniharmonic approach. And, the ICP box includes a blueprint for making Misha Mengelberg’s iconic camel from a chair.

The price tags of the respective sets point up the seeming randomness of mega box pricing, generally. While the FMR’s is retailing for as little as $200, the ICP box goes for more than $700. However, compared to $340 (plus shipping) for the NYAQ box set, the per-hour-of-music cost of the ICP box is roughly a tenth of the NYAQ. Still, even the FMR box costs more than Menbrane’s 100-CD Bebop Story.

Granted, quantitative comparisons are a blunt, usually irrelevant tool. This is improvised music, after all – not bulk trail mix. There’s no way to compare the respective values of, say, a previously issued, but long out of print recording like Instant Composers Pool, the 1967 meeting of Han Bennink, Misha Mengelberg and John Tchicai, and NYAQ’s previously unissued 1965 Museum of Modern Art concert – or, for that matter, Dunmall’s 2003 solo bagpipes album.

While there are as many rationales for buying one boxed set, and not another, as there are consumers, there is really only one motivation for living artists to produce them, one as old as the Lascaux paintings: leaving one’s mark. Coincidentally, both Bennink and Dunmall are also visual artists; Bennink designed the ICP box cover, individualizing, numbering and autographing each one; 34 pages of the FMR book are devoted to Dunmall’s etchings and paintings.

Yet, leaving one’s mark in this way reinforces the irony of the ICP and FMR boxed sets monumentalizing music that, by mandate, is temporary – here one moment and gone in the air the next. Commercial jazz recordings have always insidiously reinforced this irony; but mega boxes go a step further, conferring a comparable air of permanence upon Mengelberg and Bennink’s 1974 duo, einepartietischtennis and Regeneration, a live 2007 album by Dunmall and bassist Paul Rogers, as they do on Bach’s St. John’s Passion. That’s why, partially at least, Max Roach contended that recordings distort what jazz really is in practice, and have an inflated influence on current and future histories.

There’s one innocuous feature of commercially issued live recordings that widely misses the mark in terms of representing a concert or gig – the convention of separating each track with just a few seconds of applause and/or silence. The disfiguring impact of this consumer-friendly practice became evident when I recently heard an almost 50 year-old, privately held performance recording where the tape kept rolling between tunes, creating lulls of upwards to two or three minutes. The tape also ran for about fifteen minutes after the music ended; there were announcements after the applause, and the ensuing chatter dissipates in a few minutes, leaving long stretches of silence only occasionally punctuated by faint bits of conversation and laughter. It presented me with a different representation of decay – not in a conventional acoustical sense, but in terms of the residue music leaves upon the environment in which it is heard – provoked by, of all things, the image of an Andy Goldsworthy leaf sculpture.

Inspired by Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a 1970 earthworks sculpture built on the shore of the Great Salt Lake – now submerged to varying degrees, depending upon water levels, and discolored by the water’s salt content – Goldsworthy has made the environmentally induced decay of artworks a central tenet of his work. While many of his works are built to last, just as many are made to last only days, if not hours or even a split second: coils of stitched hazel leaves set afloat in a stream; arches of beach sand washed away by the tide; a bunch of hickory sticks thrown up into the air from the top of a steep hill.

Of course, we only know about these works through photographs. The odd thing about photographs of Goldsworthy’s temporary sculptures – particularly when his collapsing kivas of twigs, melting snowballs full of debris, and oxidizing leaf constructions fill the frame – is that they pull the viewer into the moment, rather than create a formal distance. Perhaps a similar metric should be applied to boxed sets: If the music draws the listener into the milieu of the music and its times – be it early ‘70s Amsterdam, when bargemen could pass for improvisers; a few years later at the Western Front, when Vancouver was still the frontier; or recently, inside the stillness of an English church – then it has real value. The rest are just reference volumes.

The rub is that it takes a lot of time to fully experience a mega boxed set, time most folks don’t have or can’t afford. It can take weeks for some with a schedule just to hear the music and watch the videos included in the ICP box, let alone fully appreciate its history. Boxed sets may be comprehensive but they’re not time-efficient delivery systems. That’s where live performances come in; if you catch ICP Orchestra on its spring US tour, you’ll hear the gist of 45 years in little over an hour.

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