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The Completist Syndrome, Part 1 : Official Recordings

Pick your drug. It's really as simple as that. Bird, Tatum, Mingus—they'll keep you full for a lifetime or more. Coltrane, Monk, Cecil will also do you well. Or maybe you're one of those masochistic souls, one of those Anthony Braxton-types, who enjoys the chase as much as the capture. May I suggest Sun Ra to you as well? Or John Zorn. Perhaps you're just plain nuts. Has that thought ever crossed your mind? If so, your kind tends to go for the big guns—Miles or God-forbid, Ellington. Have fun with those. Or maybe you're more into your own thing, and have picked the route to an early death, poor and alone: William Parker (as leader and sideman) will suite you fine. And have you ever met my friend, Billy Higgins?

Whatever you chose, or whatever chooses you, chances are you'll wake up some day and dream about the next purchase on your way to the complete tale—or at least your version of it. Its part of the nature of this music, part of the nature of improvisation that breeds the completist in us. Ironic as it may seem—and indeed, to paraphrase Eric Dolphy, "once the music's over, it's gone forever"—the very things that draw us toward improvisation—spontaneity, freshness, a certain amount of danger, the impossibility of reproduction—are exactly why we collect. Why that note and not another? Why that statement and not another? The completist, in a very real way, sets out to try to understand the context of every moment, of the specific ownership of time, to try to understand it better. Without the aid of a composed score to study, the completist fills the role of the musicologist by amassing all of the recorded material made available. The only raw data we have. It's a treasure hunt, in a way, the role of the detective in another.

It's fetishism, certainly, and this cannot be forgotten. Completism is a perversion. Perverse because it turns the common and everyday—a wax plate, a series of zeros and ones—into a holy grail, a fetishized object. Anyone who has ever collected can testify to the rush of stumbling upon that rare item, so long sought for, that intoxication of being. Anyone who has ever collected can testify to the guilt that sets in after paying way too much for something which is ultimately more symbolic than practical. But the completist is an art collector as well. Functionality is thrown out the door once one enters the realm of the completist. Music is not necessarily listened to as much as devoured, eaten whole, savored not only in its aurality but also in its physicality. This is what the record companies surly understand. The completist will never settle for a CD-R when the real thing, liner notes, pictures, and ALL, are readily available. Hell, the completist will buy four copies of something already owned simply because of new packaging or the promise of a newly remastered, better sounding version. We've moved beyond simply notes played by a group of musicians in a recording studio or on stage thirty years ago.

But not every genre lends itself to completism. There are not too many pop completists out there. The ephemerality of the music cannot sustain the interest of the completist syndrome. Even those AOR bands with astoundingly large bodies of work, say Chicago, do not engender the same sense of panicky need to collect the all and the everything that an improvised musician engenders. Certainly there are notable exceptions: Dylan, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix (whose post-mortem recording output testifies to the nature of the completist syndrome). But those artists' work has always had the feeling of (or has very literally been) improvisation anyway, as if even Dylan didn't know where he was going when he began recording "Desolation Row". Without that sense of discovery, the completist has nothing to contextualize. Without the ownership of moment that can only happen with the embrace of the possible, the completist has nothing to seek or understand. Improvisation unfolds in time, throughout time, and as Vijay Iyer writes, "the story dwells not just in one solo at a time, but also in a single note, and equally in an entire lifetime of improvisations". This is what the completist knows and understands.

That the completist naturally extends the search into the unofficial recording, then, should be of little surprise, but we will look into that more next month. At hand here is the official, warts and all, release of the perfect imperfection, the magical moment when a learned improviser brings all to a performance which is then captured for posterity, packaged with the words and pictures of other learned artisans, and commodified by an industry. We all know how contrived this setting is, that the setting itself very really exerts itself upon the notes performed and the performance in general. We all know that some musicians suffocate in this context, even if it is a live performance being recorded for latter release.

But none of that really matters. We want it, and in the case of some artists, we need it all. Bring on the The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, Cecil Taylor in Berlin '88, The Complete Riverside Recordings of Thelonious Monk, Beauty is a Rare Thing. Set it out in one glorious package for us to dip into, for us to savor, for us to simply look at as it sits on the bookshelf. For in reality, we know that we will never, truly be able to listen to it all. Even the most dedicated, with headphones on every waking moment, cannot really deal with a tome like Monk's Complete Riverside Recordings, especially because that person also owns The Heavywieght Champion. And really, on those sets like the latter, how many takes, how much in-studio banter, do we really listen to, again and again? We know that's not the point, but bring them on anyway. Do not deny us the rush of research, for ultimately that's what it is. Do not deny us the however impossible dream of hearing every note, from first to last, recorded for posterity. The completist will not stand for anything other than the complete, even if, towards the end of a career, there may be only one track worthy of owning. It's a gesture, though, to the artist who has given us so much that even the sub-par, or in some cases the awful from anyone else, is worthy of purchase. This is ultimately the completist syndrome—it is homage to the music like no other. It is a disease, a love affair, a fetish, and a sacred pact between artist and collector. And there are few relationships like it in this big, wide world.