The chunky little box radiates a powerful aura, mingling lofty aesthetic purpose and big production bucks. Long awaited, oft postponed, and just released, Columbia Records’ six-CD Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, its brass binding etched with patterns copied from the bell of Davis’ Martin trumpet, is the first installment in what will eventually be the most lavish documentation ever of a recording artist’s career: Columbia’s ambitious Miles Davis series. With a production and marketing budget well into six figures, the leadoff box, which chronicles the landmark collaboration between Davis and the innovative arranger Evans, is getting the sort of push normally reserved for pop albums. Five years after his death, and 11 years after Columbia severed its 30-year relationship with him by refusing to renew his contract, the label is bullish on Miles Davis.
”This had to be done,” says executive producer Michael Cuscuna about the series, whose eight boxes will come out between now and 2001. ”Miles isn’t only one of the most important jazz creators of the century; he’s one of those few transcendent figures whose impact went beyond jazz.”
The project’s roots lie in a staff meeting at Columbia three years ago, when someone raised the topic of a Davis box. ”One box?” Steve Berkowitz, now VP of A&R, remembers asking. ”What’ll be in it and who is it for?” After all, you couldn’t expect fans of Miles’ mid-’50s classic ‘Round About Midnight to embrace the ’70s funk of Agharta. So a multi-box plan was hammered out, with veteran record man Cuscuna invited aboard to supervise the project (Cuscuna’s own label, the jazz-reissue specialist Mosaic, will release a vinyl-only version of the series).
Making a dent in the tangle of Davis tapes fell to the tireless jazz historian Phil Schaap and producer Bob Belden. Hired to reassemble and annotate Davis and Evans’ 1957-1968 works — including Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, and Quiet Nights — they succeeded brilliantly, creating sonically pristine remixes of the original albums (and excavating enough outtakes and unreleased gems to satisfy die-hard completists).
Does Columbia expect its kitchen-sink approach to sell records? Absolutely. In 1995, 36 years after its release, Davis’ top seller, Kind of Blue, sold 105,000 copies in the U.S. alone. ”We’d like to sell a hundred thousand copies of the Miles-Gil box worldwide,” says VP of jazz promotion and marketing Kevin Gore, its $109.98 list price notwithstanding.
”It’s our job as curators,” says Berkowitz, ”to do the best we can to make some of the 20th century’s greatest music available.” Their stewardship of the Davis tapes makes Berkowitz, Gore, and Cuscuna rare birds in today’s pop-heavy culture: jazz aficionados able to use their passion to turn a tidy profit.