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POP MUSIC : Miles Davis, the Columbia years : The label's complete album collection spans four decades of the jazz trumpeter's career, but don't look for it in stores.

November 15, 2009|Chris Barton

It's a curious irony that at a time when entire music collections can be shrunk down to the size of a couple of sticks of gum, certain music packages keep getting larger.

Hot on the heels of the much-celebrated remastered Beatles sets, Sony Legacy is releasing "Miles Davis: The Complete Columbia Album Collection," a beautiful but somewhat daunting stockpile of 52 albums on more than 70 CDs spanning four decades in the jazz trumpeter's storied and fiercely unpredictable career.

With each album bound in mini-LP sleeves and packed into a dense brick of music slightly smaller than a shoebox, this set is the mother lode for Miles Davis completists.

Although most of Davis' works already have been reissued -- the iconic "Kind of Blue," for instance, was released in a lush anniversary package last year -- this marks the first occasion that crisply remastered editions of titles such as the mind-bending double-album live recordings "Agharta" and "Pangaea" have been available in the U.S.

Assembled in conjunction with a three-month exhibition at the Musee de la Musique in Paris called "We Want Miles," the set's monolithic size not only serves as summation of Davis' recorded output, it's also a somewhat paradoxical reflection of a shrinking sales environment that Steve Berkowitz, vice president of A&R for Legacy Recordings, said is conducive to a "more is more" approach.

"It's very difficult for us to get a $30-to-$40 Miles Davis box set in any particular retail outlet," Berkowitz said. "Yet there seems to be a tremendous amount of interest, domestically and globally, for something that's really big."

This set is certainly that. It includes extras such as numerous new and previously issued bonus tracks, the first full release of a recording of Davis' fiery 1970 performance from the Isle of Wight (issued years ago on a compilation as the abbreviated medley "Call It Anythin' ") and the DVD debut of two freewheeling European concerts by Davis' stellar 1967 band featuring Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock that in recent years had been available only on YouTube.

The set affords listeners a welcome opportunity to explore intriguing but less-celebrated albums such as "Miles in Tokyo," featuring Davis' brief pairing with avant-garde saxophonist Sam Rivers in 1964, and the ahead-of-its-time ambient-funk explorations of 1972's "On the Corner."

But it also includes some of the trumpeter's uneven later works. For instance, it's tough to imagine the sort of devout fan who would invest the money this set demands treating Davis' pedestrian, note-for-note cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" from 1985's "You're Under Arrest" as much more than a puzzling novelty.

Much like the Beatles sets, there are a few catches. Apart from the Paris exhibition, the collection is available exclusively through Amazon starting Nov. 24 (listed for $364.98 but discounted to $328.48) and only in its physical form -- no downloads.

"What record stores are [up and running]?" Berkowitz replied in reference to the label's deal with Amazon, adding with a laugh, "Are you going to find this at Wal-Mart? Only in the doorstop department."

The decision about the set's digital availability amounted to giving listeners what they want, he said.

"It's a physical artifact," Berkowitz said. "The idea of the entire Miles Davis [catalog] on MP3 . . . it's hard for me to believe that someone would want to spend $400 or whatever on a scrunched sound."

Though Berkowitz allowed for the possibility of the set eventually coming to independent stores as well as its new material being one day broken out for individual sale, the project already has achieved its goal in a way that transcends sales figures.

"This has allowed us to finish the mastering job on the majority of the Miles catalog," he said. "In that way, this box is already successful before it even sold one copy in America."

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chris.barton@latimes.com

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