Too often, box sets are nothing more than placeholders on my shelves. Take my Complete Bill Evans on Verve (please!): Despite featuring some of Evans’ best music, this 18-CD, 269-track, 21-hour bookend is ensconced in the user-unfriendliest packaging ever; the untreated steel box sits there rusting away, mucking up nearby discs with unsightly red dust. Inside this tetanus shot waiting to happen, the CDs are cased in a fan-pack that is bolted into the set’s steel shell; a 160-page booklet is wedged in there, too, printed in tiny, nearly unreadable type.

And if I want to dig in and listen to Evans’ music in the way that I came to love it—how I heard it on his original albums—I have to figure out where the tracks are scattered among the 18 discs, look up their original running order in the set’s unbending booklet, and then program my player accordingly, remembering to, for instance, skip over the five alternate takes—including fragments—of “My Heart Stood Still.”

Now, I know that box sets are only for the geekiest among us and that alternate takes are part of the deal, but why ruin an album’s flow for the sake of comprehensiveness? Why not dump the alternate takes on a separate CD, the way Columbia/Legacy did for Charles Mingus’ The Complete 1959 Columbia Recordings? That way, you get two seminal albums, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, as you know and love them. And if you’re feeling dorky, you can program your player to compare both versions of “Better Git It in Your Soul” and marvel at the undervalued talents of pianist Horace Parlan, whose crisp, choppy, blues-drenched solos inspired Mingus to rework the track by fiddling with its melody and adding a whole new section.

It’s fitting, then, that Parlan gets the proper box treatment himself with The Complete Blue Note Horace Parlan Sessions: all his complete Blue Note albums on five CDs, with only a few worthy alternate takes tucked out of the way. The box itself is LP-sized, featuring a 12-by-12-inch booklet—ah, sweet readability—and Francis Wolff’s evocative black-and-white photography. As it has done in the past—with fantastic packages honoring who-the-hells like Tina Brooks and Serge Chaloff—mail-order-only specialty label Mosaic has defied marketplace logic and shone the spotlight on a player whose first-rate musical accomplishments are known only to a relative few. But the result is revelatory—and makes you wish that more labels would take box-set-sized risks on folks who ain’t Miles Davis or John Coltrane.

Now living in Denmark, Parlan was born in Pittsburgh in 1931. A bout with polio at age 5 left part of his right hand lame; his parents thought that piano lessons would be good therapy. Parlan began playing the instrument at age 8 and stepped up his studies as a teen. After he attended the Pittsburgh Musical Institute and Carnegie Institute, Parlan moved on to the University of Pittsburgh to study law. But a year and a half into his studies, a car accident—the second of Parlan’s three major physical traumas (he now has diabetes)—cut short his proper schooling.

Parlan became a full-time musician in 1952, just after his accident. He gigged around the Steel City with visitors like Cannonball Adderley, Booker Ervin, and Mingus. (According to Ah Um’s liner notes, Mingus didn’t know about Parlan’s handicap when he challenged him to an instrumental duel—which the bassist lost—during one jam session.) In 1957, Parlan moved to New York and began playing with the Mingus Jazz Workshop; a couple of years later, he hooked up with band leader Lou Donaldson. By the early ’60s, Parlan was working as both a leader and a gun-for-hire session musician, in a career pattern he continued after his move to Denmark in 1972.

Because of his physical condition, Parlan has had to develop a playing style all his own: He doesn’t use the ring or pinky fingers on his right hand at all—which means that he almost always knocks out punchy single-note lines or modified triads in the treble; when he comps behind a soloist, his left hand does most of the heavy-duty work. Although his spacious, percussive playing was influenced by both Ahmad Jamal and Bud Powell, Parlan doesn’t have their facility to play long, technically demanding passages. But what Parlan’s playing lacks in fluidity is more than made up for by his soulful feel, which Mingus used to energize gospel-tinged numbers like Ah Um’s “Better Git It in Your Soul” and Blues & Roots’ “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.” There are also elements of Thelonious Monk in Parlan’s slightly fractured rhythmic drive, as well as a bit of the gutbucket force of Horace Silver, but such connect-the-dots comparisons only serve to obscure Parlan’s originality.

Of the seven LPs that constitute The Complete Blue Note Horace Parlan Sessions, only three have come out on CD, and two of those only as limited editions in Blue Note’s Connoisseur series. All are now out of print. 1960’s Movin’ & Groovin’ and Us Three, trio sessions with drummer Al Harewood and bassists Sam Jones and George Tucker, respectively, make up Disc 1 and some of Disc 2; Headin’ South, a quartet date from December of the same year that adds conguero Ray Barretto, fills up the rest of Disc 2. This is another place where Mosaic gets it right: Rather than drop Speakin’ My Piece, a quintet date from July 1960, in its rightful chronological place between Us Three and Headin’ South, box-set producer Michael Cuscuna placed it with other smaller-group sessions, on which Parlan is the primary—and often only—soloist, save for short bursts from Harewood.

Duke Ellington’s classic “C Jam Blues” begins Disc 1 and, with its distinctive one-note opening riff, is the perfect intro to Parlan’s playing, which here is full of bluesy grooves, rhythmic displacements, and economical but slightly skewed melodies. Movin’ & Groovin’ brims with standards like “C Jam Blues,” and even Parlan’s one original, “Up in Cynthia’s Room,” is based on the changes to “I Got Rhythm.” But Parlan’s playing is thoroughly original, and other Movin’ & Groovin’ standouts include a Jamal-inspired arrangement of “On Green Dolphin Street” and a Powell-like interval-voiced take on “Bags’ Groove.”

Us Three kicks off with its upbeat, modal Parlan-penned title track before moving into a gorgeous impressionistic arrangement of “I Want to Be Loved,” demonstrating that the pianist is as effective on high-energy numbers as he is on ballads. The album also marks the first appearance of Parlan’s most well-known composition, “Wadin’,” which is basically Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” turned into a blues.

The addition of Barretto on Headin’ South was inspired, even if his conga accents tend to disappear now and then; in general, the beats nicely frame the compositions and free up the other musicians to push their playing. The album’s standout tracks include “Summertime,” a moving version of an already emotional song that features Tucker’s deep, dark arco work, and “Low Down,” a showcase for one of Parlan’s tremolo solos. That technique (repeating the same notes or phrases over and over to create sustained tension) or variations on it (ending solos with repeated pat phrases) have led some critics to say that Parlan’s solos are too repetitive. Their point is well-taken, but Parlan is a blues player at heart; he takes short phrases and kneads them like dough, then releases them and moves on. It’s a great effect that both defines Parlan’s playing and allows the listener to get lost in his music’s deep grooves.

The 1961 quintet dates Speakin’ My Piece and On the Spur of the Moment, both of which feature trumpeter Tommy Turrentine and his saxophonist brother, Stanley, along with Harewood and Tucker, fill most of Discs 3 and 4. Although the Turrentines’ spirited solos sometimes overpower Parlan’s playing, both albums are way swingin’ sessions featuring superlative performances from all involved. Speakin’ My Piece begins with another version of “Wadin’” and follows with a new rendition of “Up in Cynthia’s Room” that finds Tommy playfully quoting “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.” And on both albums, Stanley, who played mostly pop-jazz from the early ’70s up until his recent death, shows that he was once a first-class post-bop saxophonist.

Next to the trio, quartet, and Turrentine-brothers dates, the last two sessions in this set, Up and Down and Happy Frame of Mind, are small letdowns, a little too straight-blues-with-a-soulful-jazz-sheen. Up and Down, split between Discs 4 and 5, begins with tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin’s funky “The Book’s Beat,” continues with Parlan’s more elaborate but still swinging title track, and moves on to Tucker’s 6/4 blues “Fugee” before really hitting its smooth stride with the laid-back “The Other Part of Town,” on which guitarist Grant Green cranks out an extended solo of sexy tension and release that cuts through the iffy sonics of the session’s deteriorated master tape.

Happy Frame of Mind, on Disc 5, kicks off with Sun Ra bassist Ronnie Boykins’ “Home Is Africa”—although the cut is hardly a free-jazz blast. While the group plays staccato grooves, Johnny Coles sets a dark and dreamy tone with an understated trumpet solo that Ervin follows with an improvisation in a similarly restrained mood. Green, however, can’t help but cut loose during his solo as drummer Billy Higgins clicks away on his snare rim. The rest of the album is more in the vein of Up and Down and some of the Turrentine sessions, with hard swingers like “A Tune for Richard” and “Dexi” mixed with relaxed groove-based numbers like “Back From the Gig” and “Kucheza Blues.”

On both post-Turrentine-brothers albums, Parlan shies away from the spotlight—after all, there was only so much solo space to go around with Ervin, Green, and Coles in the studio. Nonetheless, it’s Parlan’s playing that shines brightest throughout all the sessions. The terrifically talented Tommy Turrentine runs a close second. Overshadowed by Stanley, his chart-topping younger brother, Tommy cut only a handful of dates as a leader before he descended into drug addiction and a spotty career as a sideman. It’s a shame, because his big, burry tone often recalls that of another great star-crossed trumpeter, Fats Navarro. And his compositions are fantastic. “Rastus,” from Speakin’ My Piece, is typical: Tommy plays with a simple aaba form by switching back and forth between major and minor keys and varying the lengths of his sections. But despite its difficult changes, “Rastus” flows with ease and feels as natural as the blues.

Tommy is just the sort of under-recognized player who deserves a box set as well-thought-out and executed as The Complete Blue Note Horace Parlan Sessions—and I’d gladly give up my Complete Bill Evans on Verve to help make it happen. CP

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