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All Ears 

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Miles and Trane: Two jazz greats whose legendary partnership early in their careers only set the stage for the heights they would achieve in the years to come.
As a gift, what is it that makes a four-disc box set more exciting than four individual CDs? Is it the fancy packaging, the photo-laden book offering scholarly appreciation or scandalous memoirs? Maybe. But just as likely, it’s psychological: They just feel lavish. Whatever the reason, here’s a roundup of the season’s highlights. (You’ll note a dearth of female artists here. Sadly, that’s a reflection of the marketplace. With the exceptions of Björk, whose Surrounded was reviewed here when it came out, and Tori Amos, whose A Piano scares the bejeezus out of me, there just isn’t much new out there.)



Corporate restructuring has been a boon for jazz fans, with the Concord Music Group cranking out new releases from the Prestige archives. Noteworthy small sets devoted to Sonny Stitt and the Monk/Coltrane Riverside Recordings came out months ago, but the two biggies are John Coltrane: Fearless Leader and the Miles Davis Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions. For both men, these sessions represent early periods in their careers as leaders, with their most groundbreaking work yet to come. But each set represents an absolute must-have chapter in the story.



Forget disco when considering the Bee Gees’ The Studio Albums 1967-1968; the only Fever here is the trippy hangover of the brothers’ early stabs at Beatles-y psychedelia, which, though overshadowed by later blockbusters, remain highlights of lush symphopop. Similarly, don’t assume you know what you’ll get on What it is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves: Rhino’s anthology happily avoids tracks you own on four or five other collections, going straight for the stuff heard more often in hip-hop samples than on oldies radio.



In the ever-popular career-retrospective category, we have two different kinds of rehashes: The Byrds’ There Is A Season replaces a very similar four-discer from 1990, but adds a DVD of TV appearances; on Perception, Doors fans who bought the earlier “complete” box set get to ante up again for brand-new surround-sound remixes of the whole thing — with some hitherto unheard bonus material thrown in to ease the pain. Billy Bragg, on the other hand, never got the box-set treatment until Yep Roc’s Volume I and Volume II — and they’ve done a job so thorough, pairing each original record with a second disc of rarities, that it’s hard to imagine anybody trying to make these tidy boxes obsolete a few years from now.



In-concert material makes for some box-set highlights, whether you want an examination of finely honed showmanship (the expanded Johnny Cash At San Quentin, offering all the supporting acts and banter of the full Cash experience) or a peek at a performer with his guard down (Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953, where a tipsy Big Bill Broonzy talks more than usual about the social ills that inspired his famous blues). Grander in scale is Friends of Old Time Music, which distills over a dozen early-’60s concerts into a picture of the folk revival that brought forgotten giants like Roscoe Holcomb and Mississippi Fred McDowell back into the spotlight.


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Anybody on your gift list whose introduction to Jerry Lee Lewis came via this year’s duets album should hear A Half Century of Hits, which (astoundingly) is the first retrospective to span the Killer’s whole career, from pre-Sun private recordings to his wonderful 1995 Young Blood. Similarly, the new Nashville Rebel can make the hard-to-believe boast that its four discs are the first to offer highlights from the whole dang career of Waylon Jennings, from a cover of “Jole Blon” up through his own ‘90s comebacks. Lewis’s and Jennings’s fellow Southerner Tony Joe White gets a more focussed anthology on Swamp Music, which offers all three Muscle Shoals-inflected records he made for the Monument label, paired with 10 tracks cut in Paris and a live set from the Isle of Wight.

There you are: More than a dozen impressive packages you can buy a music lover instead of plunking down money for that latest flavor of Apple’s ever-shrinking iPod ... 

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