The Miles Davis Quintet|Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane

The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions|The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings

Just because an artist is legendary doesn't make him infallible. Take the two new box sets devoted to Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk's respective collaborations with John Coltrane. Though these essential historic snapshots of the jazz giants actually demystify the iconic status of these giants, they also point out why the best of this material is some of the greatest music ever recorded.

The 4-CD Davis compilation brings together previously issued titles from 1955-56, plus a disc of unreleased live tracks with a few cuts from 1958. Updates on bebop classics ("Salt Peanuts," "Woody 'n' You") stew with the requisite fiery bounce, while other familiar compositions — the post-bop cookers ("Airegin," "Tune Up"), ballads ("'Round Midnight," "Diane"), and blues ("Trane's Blues," "Ahmad's Blues") — come across as dynamically rich today as they must have a half-century ago. Unfortunately, quite a few of the earliest featured tunes are unremarkable, cocktail party background filler, and Coltrane's playing unexpectedly takes some time to get off the ground. Such a revelation (that the giants were actually human!) speaks volumes about the value of Davis' tastiest trumpet phrasing and Coltrane's full-throttle search for a new tenor-sax language that would soon change the shape of jazz forever.

The two-disc Monk set (also comprising previously issued tracks, with a couple of new-to-CD takes) is more consistent than the Davis, spotlighting the pianist-composer's bent-beautiful vision of equal parts freak-groove effervescence and drugged-out languor. Coltrane's in stronger form for the most part here as well, his solos often pushing the contours of Monk's melodies to the edge. The problem, though, is that there are far too many alternate recordings of the exact same songs. While this may make collectors drool, the average listener will likely fast-forward past the all-too-human outtakes to get to the more recognizable, god-like performances; in the end, jazz fans do want their legends larger than life.

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