It's a great time to be a Miles Davis fan. Miles is arguably the greatest and most influential jazz musician of all time. Inarguably, he changed his musical course more frequently than any of his contemporaries, and his creative flights were sometimes dizzyingly abrupt and confounding. He was frequently so far ahead of the curve that many in his audience couldn't even recognize the landmarks along the road, and it is only in retrospect that we now see the genius. Along the way he introduced the world to musicians and arrangers as great and as diverse as Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, and John McLaughlin.
Columbia Records, God bless them, is in the process of unleashing the most comprehensive aural record of any musician ever recorded. Miles released more than 100 albums during his long and exceedingly prolific career, but that's nothing compared to the riches that Columbia is slowly doling out from the inexhaustible Miles vault. Every nine to twelve months sees the release of another seemingly essential boxed set. In roughly chronological order, here's what's come out:
-- 1998 -- The Complete Birth of the Cool
-- 1998 -- The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
-- 1999 -- The Complete Columbia Recordings: Miles Davis and John Coltrane
-- 2000 -- Complete Savoy and Dial Recordings
-- 2001 -- The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions
-- 2002 -- Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973 - 1991
-- 2003 -- The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
-- 2004 -- Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963 - 1964
-- 2005 -- The Cellar Door Sessions 1970
But that bare list doesn't truly do justice to the music. By way of comparison, note that 2004 release. In 1963 Miles released an album called Seven Steps to Heaven. It was a transitional album, one recorded between his first and second great quintets. And it spanned six songs and about forty-five minutes. The corresponding boxed set, in contrast, spans 7 very long CDs, and contains live versions and innumerable outtakes of the songs on that album. Instead of 45 minutes of music we get more than 8 hours of music. And that's the kind of treatment that Miles has been receiving for most of the past ten years. The man's recorded output has almost tripled since his death; no mean feat if you can pull it off.
But it begs the question: how much is too much? I have that Seven Steps boxed set, as well as a couple of the others. It's not only exhaustive, but exhausting. Seven Steps to Heaven is a good, not great Miles Davis album, and at 45 minutes it was just about right. But I now have 8 hours of music, and if I want, I can hear five different takes of the song "Joshua" from the original album - two abortive studio efforts, two live recordings, and the original album track, all recorded during 1963 and 1964. But I don't want. It's simply too overwhelming. And that's the conundrum in which I currently find myself. I love Miles Davis. And I would have thought that it would have been impossible to shovel too much Miles Davis music at me. But Columbia has found a way to do it. There have been nine boxed sets over the past eight years, with each boxed set containing 5 CDs on average. Hmm, I could listen to music or write a novel. Life is too short.
The temptation with any re-issues project is to cram it full of outtakes and unreleased songs. It's a way to entice longtime fans to ante up on the prohibitive cost of these sets; give the people something new in addition to what they already know. But I'm starting to see the wisdom of a less-is-more approach. I could now, if I chose, listen to Miles Davis non-stop for the next several months, and never repeat a song or performance. But there's a big, wide musical world out there, and I don't want to listen to Miles non-stop. Overkill is overkill, even in the wondrous world of my favorite jazz musician.