Box sets sound best in the fall and winter. Colder weather means less daylight and more hours for introspection, reading and listening. Great box sets tell a story—guiding the listener through music but also painting a portrait of the artist through liner notes and chronology. Here are six boxes that I've been listening to for hours over the past few weeks...
The Complete Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions: 1934-1941 (Mosaic). This box is easily the most important historic set released this year for multiple reasons. First, you're able to hear the emergence and rise of Ella Fitzgerald—America's premier female jazz-pop vocalist. Listening to this box is like standing on shore and watching the world's largest ocean liner come into port. Though her voice's early appeal was its upbeat spirit, flexibility and ability to sound like a muted trumpet, her import continued to grow year by year as novelty gave way to strength and technique. Second, you get to hear the great Chick Webb Orchestra in action—a rhythmic tonic and swinging sensation (just listen to "Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie!"). And third, you hear Fitzgerald's leadership skills after she took charge of the Webb's band after his death in 1939. Over the course of eight CDs (166 tracks) and liners by John McDonough, senior contributor at Down Beat, you realize that Fitzgerald's lengthy Verve relationship was really retirement. And unlike many box sets, there are no duds here. You click on the first track and you're good to go, with one surprise after the next. What's most astonishing is that such hip vocal and orchestral perfection could be sustained over so many singles and years. If you want to know why Ella reigns supreme, her story starts here.
Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Collection: 1972-1988 (Sony). Equally as impressive as the Fitzgerald box but for different reasons, this Herbie Hancock megaset in a 5.5-inch gray cube features 34 CDs. Though pianist Hancock had a stellar career in the 1960s as a sideman and leader on Blue Note, he pushes jazz forward several times in the '70s and '80s while on Columbia with electronic-funk and fusion. When you listen to the albums in this set chronologically, you realize there were three Hancocks at work on parallel tracks. First, there was the visionary on masterpiece albums like Headhunters (1973) and Thrust (1974), the proto-MC scratcher on Future Shock (1983) and Sound System (1984), the jazz-disco blender on Sunlight and Feets Don't Fail Me Now (both 1978) and the soul-techno whip on Perfect Machine (1988). But folded in between these was an acoustic jazz giant on albums by V.S.O.P., a quintet at its core featuring Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and trumpeter-flugelhornist Freddie Hubbard. The third Hancock was the composer of movie scores for Death Wish (1974) and 'Round Midnight (1985). For me, the electro-funk is most exciting, but it's equally fascinating to set iTunes to random mode and have all types of Hancock tracks pop up. Timeless music from jazz's thump and glam era.
Sly and the Family Stone: Higher (Sony). If you want to understand the direction of funk, rock, jazz and disco after 1968, you need to be familiar with the evolution of Sly Stone. His crossover appeal and sheer number of important black and white musicians who leveraged his exotic eclecticism makes Stone significant. This four-CD box holds the DNA for so much music that came next. The first disc holds his recordings for the San Francisco Autumn label. The breakthrough comes on disc #2 with Dance to the Music. If all Stone recorded was Are You Ready, M'Lady, Family Affair, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf), Hot Fun in the Summertime, Stand! and Higher, that would have been sufficient. But there also are plenty of lesser-known gems, such as Runnin' Away and You Caught Me Smilin'. The set comes with a 104-page, 10-inch book with liners by Jeff Kaliss (author of Stone's only authorized biography). Sun Ra, George Clinton and Stax combined.
Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot (Rounder). This six-CD set plus one DVD is an intimate portrait of a folk pioneer and the father of what would become the '60s singer-songwriter. Guthrie and his recordings inspired Bob Dylan, who in turn smashed the pop-rock machine and unleashed a generation of self-aware artists with a voice and conscience. This set is a handy companion to the wonderful Grammy-nominated Woody@100 box set (Smithsonian Folkways) released last year. The first four CDs feature the complete Library of Congress Recordings made by Alan Lomax, who interviews Guthrie before each song. While the gab can be viewed as annoying interruptions, they also are informative and educational, since they help explain where many of Guthrie's songs came from. Think of them as audio liners. Songwriting from the heart about things that needed to change.
Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings (Sony). First, full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes to this set—but I don't make a dime off sales. This box features Davis' first nine albums for Columbia as they were recorded originally in mono. Why should you care? As I write in my notes, mono is how producers George Avakian and Teo Macero as well as Columbia's engineers envisioned the music to sound when the material was released. Stereo didn't exist until 1958 at Columbia and when it was available for Davis' albums starting in 1959, it was still considered an upscale gimmick for those who could afford stereo systems. As you listen to the mono albums—'Round About Midnight, Miles Ahead, Milestones, Jazz Track, Porgy and Bess, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come and Miles & Monk at Newport—you're taken on a different trip. The music sounds conical rather than wide range, coming at you through a narrow zone. As George Avakian told me during our sit-down for the notes, the music was pure and your ears worked to hear the beauty coming out of the speakers rather than the lazier delight of stereo, which can provide too much information at once through audio separation trickery. The mono recordings are re-released for the first time, just as they were intended. Miles in mono the way purists will want to hear him.
Donny Hathaway: Never My Love, the Anthology (Rhino). Say the name Donny Hathaway and most people think of Where Is the Love, The Closer I Get to You and This Christmas. But the smooth-voiced soul singer—who died in 1979 after a fall off a 15th floor balcony at the Essex Hotel in New York that was ruled a suicide—was much more. In fact, the artist who most closely compares to Hathaway's vocal embrace was Stevie Wonder. On uptempo songs, socio-political manifestos and love ballads, Hathaway brought gospel power, conviction and a beautiful round sound. On this four CD set, all the hits are here as well as rich songs such as The Ghetto (parts 1 and 2), Memory of Our Love and When Love Has Grown with Roberta Flack. A tender retropsective of a soul artist long forgotten.