The Ecstasy And The Agony

Before you extend your trust to me as a consumer advocate, let me offer a personal anecdote. Back in the early days of Mosaic Records (and if you want to measure my Early-Adopter status, my first Mosaic box was the Tina Brooks LP set), the catalogue used to have blurbs from customers, and the most memorable one was one where someone wrote something to the effect of “last night my friends saw me filling out the order form and said ‘it’s nice to have money to blow on records,’ I said, ‘first of all, I don’t have it, and second of all, I’m not blowing it.'” So, now you know where I stand. Caveat lector.

Regular readers also know that when I see a box of CDs, I tend to say “Yes” first and then check to see what it is later. That caused my excitement this morning when I look at the email from CD Universe announcing upcoming titles:! Woody Shaw! Ornette!! Weather Report!

What’s going on is that Sony is printing some more money, i.e. gathering up some more of their important back catalogue and putting out a few small to medium sized collections. Anyone who has an account at or has browsed their odd on-line store, Pop Market, wil have seen some of these before — they were first offered there, at large pre-order discounts and later at greater, but still reasonable, prices. Now they are being released through major outlets like CD Universe, Amazon and Import CDs.

I am but a gnat to the mighty corporate mountain of Sony, meaning certainly no promos and not even press releases, so this post is very much that of a slavering consumer and fan desperately trying to justify spending money I do not have (and what better time to mention that the fundraising push for this site, pathetic as it has been, is still going on, and perhaps you’d like to make a one-time donation or become a voluntary subscriber via the button on the left and toss me a metaphorical narcotizing pellet). Maybe this is you, too?

The Ornette Coleman release collects two LPs of his chamber and orchestral music, The Music of Ornette Coleman and Skies of America, in one package (best price by about $10 is the pre-order from Import CDs, but their shipping can be slow). Skies is essentially a concerto he plays with the London Symphony Orchestra, the rest of the music is a set of pieces for string quartet and woodwind quintet. The former piece is fairly well-know, was difficult for jazz and classical people at the time to understand and is great, and the latter pieces are also fine, skillfully and carefully written, sounding nothing at all like Colemna’s own playing and are very much in the contemporary classical idiom. This is essential music not just for fans of Ornette but for anyone who cares about modern, creative music.
The 1970s were an important and highly creative decade for jazz, and Woody Shaw was one of the leading players of the ear (before a truly senseless premature death). His combination of Hard Bop style and harmonic complexity built off the ideas of Eric Dolphy is still contemporary — it’s hard to believe these recordings are two generations old — and Woody Shaw: The Complete Columbia Albums, a six CD collection is the heart of his work, available for under $40 at least until the June 12 release date (best price again at Import CDs). This fills in a gap in my own collection, and is recommended for all jazz fans.

Not all fans also dig the F-word, which is Fusion. I don’t dig all of it, but as with anything else, it can be done well or badly, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report did it very, very well. I have been torn on the Mahavishnu box, as I already own the first two CDs and it doesn’t include Apocalypse, but here it is, and here is a very cheap set of all the major recordings, sans booklet and even liner notes. Weather Report is, at least for me, an easy call. They were one of the greatest and most important groups across all styles of popular music from the early-70s to the mid 80s. Their influence on musicians and audiences was pervasive, their legacy was enormous, and the music, once they found what it is they truly did best, was imaginative, surprising and always cooking. It’s demandedr a comprehensive box set treatment, and currently it’s coming in a rather odd way, with most of their recordings parsed to two different boxes, one already out that covers 1976-1982, the Jaco Pastorius years, and another covering their earlier years of 1971-1975 (the band put out four further recordings, Procession, Domino Theory, Sportin’ Life and This is This, perhaps not essential for anyone but fans though full of good music, the first two with some of the strongest tracks they ever produced, the final disc with an invigorating appearance by Carlos Santana).
Both of these boxes are important. The band with Jaco was incredible and the set has the landmark recordings Black Market and Heavy Weather. The rest of that era has long been underrated: even the cold and odd Mr. Gone has great material in “Young and FIne” and “River People,” the mostly live 8:30 is great, Night Passage is excellent and the eponymous 1982 disc (their second titled “Weather Report”) is one of the high points of their discography. The earlier recordings are inconsistent, but the journey the box defines is fascinating and exciting. Weather Report was the debut disc, a collection of self-conscious improvisations and compositions that don’t quite succeed and have a dated style. The first half of their second record, I Sing the Body Electric, is more focussed but also more pretentious. The “B” side of that release, though, had a ferocious live set recorded in Tokyo, and that double-CD complete concert, previously only available as an import, is in the box: it’s a rarely equalled, astonishing balance between funky and free. From that concert, at least as far as we can hear, the band found it’s footing, it’s aesthetic, it’s purpose. After that they released three great albums: Mysterious Traveller, Tale Spinnin’ and the utterly fantastic Sweetnighter.

Perhaps you are like me, and have pretty much all of this already, including the Tokyo concert. Still, there is the emastering, which I do anticipate will improve on the previous lackadaisical CD transfers, and there are bonus tracks mentioned (I have no insight into what and how they are), booklets and, of course, the joy of being able to hold massive amounts of musical information in a sweet little box, hot in your sweaty hands. I know I shouldn’t, but … I think I can at least talk myself down from the Mahavishnu set.

Weather Report, The Columbia Albums 1971-1975 will be released at the end of July, current best price is at Pop Market. The 1976-1982 box is cheapest at Import CDs, although Amazon Prime members will get their’s a lot faster for about 10% more cost. Your choice.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.