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Opinion: Box sets feature Cohen, Marsalis, others

November 16, 2011
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

You know, with some performers I'm all about the complete collections - everything I can get my hands on.

It doesn't even really matter the format to me, but I prefer something I can hold in my hand rather than a digital download, just because I'm old school and enjoy the entire ritual of taking off the shrink wrap and holding a snappin' fresh vinyl copy in my hand or reading the booklet that comes with the CD.

Some of the artists I collect everything from include the obvious, if you read my column - jazz artists Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins; crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett; pop and rock magicians, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Wilco, Jimi Hendrix and far too many more to list here.

Unfortunately, some of the albums by lesser known artists I collect have been out of print for years, and it can cost a bundle to find them on used vinyl, let alone CDs, some of which have never been re-issued.

That is, until now. I was fortunate enough to score the entire Columbia Cohen catalog in one box set, sent recently by Sony Legacy for me to review.

And what can one say about one of the most important bodies of work in modern songwriting that hasn't already been written?

All 17 of Cohen's albums beginning from the 1960s are here, including all the live albums, which are as much a revelation as the studio albums.

Many of these I've never had an opportunity to listen to, as they were out of print or generally difficult to find.

I've been having a great time listening to Cohen's mature beginnings to his explorations that are so personally idiosyncratic and revolve around the grand themes of love, sex, religion and death. Cohen's masterful take explores the darker angles of life in a universal and obtuse way that is totally original. He's one of a kind, and when he's gone, he's gone.

I also scored the complete Columbia works of jazz and classical trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who I just so happen to be listening to quite a bit through his marvelous collaborations with Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Norah Jones.

Marsalis is a wonderful musician who is adventurous, while also being extremely respectful of the entire bulk of classic American music, including jazz, blues and even country and pop music.

Legacy has issued several of these complete box sets focusing on a variety of artists in the past few years, including the complete Columbia Works of Miles Davis; saxophonist Stan Getz; eccentric producer and pop wizard Phil Spector; funk legend Earth, Wind and Fire; the complete RCA albums of soft folkster John Denver; Electric Light Orchestra; singer Nina Simone; blues legend Robert Johnson; saxophonist Paul Desmond's excellent work on RCA records; progressive '70s rockers Kansas; soul sister Aretha Franklin; '60s folk and country rockers the Byrds; jazzbos Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, Grover Cleveland Jr. and Dexter Gordon; and a mamoth, 70-CD set of Tony Bennett's entire catalog on Columbia Records.

What makes these so cool is that each CD comes in a slipcase similar to a vinyl LP with the back and front covers exactly like the original vinyl releases for the nostalgia junkies. Many of the albums on these box sets are out of print and impossible to find on CD or vinyl.

They also are a great deal, and with smoking sales on and, a lot of these cost substantially less if you were to buy them as individual CDs.

Columbia also dropped four additional classic Paul Simon releases last week, including the superb "Hearts and Bones," the top drawer "Graceland," the fabulous "Rhythm of the Saints" and the not-so-good "One Trick Pony," complete with bonus cuts and remastered sound.

These three classic albums chronicle when Simon found his individual voice away from his famous duo of the 1960s, while also refining and sharpening his maturity as a first-rate songwriter?

Whether it be the world-beat rhythms found on "Graceland" and "Saints" to the stellar and wry songwriting of "The Late Great Johnny Ace" or the stream-of-consciousness songwriting on "Rene And George Magritte with Their Dog After

The War," Simon's growth as a songwriter is a marvel to hear. These three albums would have been enough to establish Simon as one of a handful of singer-songwriters to survive the '60s and do better work later in his career.

The unfortunate "One Trick Pony" - kind of a soundtrack to the movie of the same name Simon co-wrote and starred in - is probably Simon's worst solo album, as he sounds a little distracted. I think his craft suffered trying to do too many things at once, although the album did spawn the title track and "Late in the Evening" as minor hits.

Also released last week is a two-CD retrospective of Simon's songwriting career, aptly named "Songwriter."

The album features cuts all the way back to his years with Art Garfunkel to his most recent album "So Beautiful or So What," released earlier this year.

Next week: Wilco's new release, Ben Folds retrospective and Ryan Adams.

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