Thorough and thoroughly wonderful, right down to its gold-leaf binding, the sumptuous box devoted to the landmark late-'50s and '60s studio collaborations of trumpeter Miles Davis and composer and arranger Gil Evans is more than a reissue event. It is a vital reconstruction of one of the most important artistic relationships in American popular music, let alone jazz. Even at six CDs bursting with alternate takes, previously unissued material and studio chatter, this set sums up a relatively brief, aesthetically focused chapter of Davis' career. But Evans, who first worked with Davis on the 1949-50 milestone project Birth of the Cool, was that rare figure in Davis' musical life, a kindred spirit and creative equal. The elegant lyricism and gently emphatic force of Evans' orchestral voicings on Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and the flawless Sketches of Spain inspired some of the trumpeter's most acute and dynamic improvisations. You could just get the original albums, but that would be like settling for a single edition of Hamlet when you could read Shakespeare's original drafts.
The Singles rounds up 49 astoundingly rare 7-inch releases that initially appeared on Sun Ra's Saturn label, sometimes in pressings of as few as 50 copies. This two-CD set isn't merely arcana deluxe, though. For a cosmic traveler, the great Ra had surprisingly catholic, earthbound ambitions as a producer and bandleader, and these sides — dating as far back as 1954 and ranging from stone-soul doo-wop by the Cosmic Rays and straight-up blues by Lacy Gibson to Ra's own highflying future bop ("October," "Medicine for a Nightmare") — fill in a crucial link in his legacy. And when you hear the '68 proto-hip-hop chant "Rocket #9," you'll know where rap really came from — Ra brought it with him from out there.