By Tony Scherman
Updated December 26, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

1998 has seen the re- lease of boxes documenting the two greatest jazz ensembles of the ’60s: the Miles Davis Quintet in its Hancock-Shorter>-Williams version and, with this eight-CD cornucopia, saxophonist Coltrane’s early-to-mid-decade band, featuring McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison. Should you find yourself with a free, oh, nine hours, you couldn’t find a better way to spend it than by retracing the development of Coltrane’s foursome and its heroic frontman.

At first, the innovations were relatively cautious; after 1964’s gorgeous ”Crescent” (perhaps the equal of the more celebrated ”A Love Supreme,” which directly followed it), one convention after another — chord progressions, unvarying tempos, traditional soloist/accompanist relationships — was tossed overboard. Paradoxically, as the quartet’s music grew more challenging, it grew more seductive, more darkly inviting.

So great was the distance this band covered, it’s easy to forget it was together less than four years. But that was the tenor of the ’60s (no pun intended), when wave on wave of cultural change hit the nation fast- er than we could absorb. We’re still absorbing them, as this magnificent music attests. A-