This impressive-looking collection brings together on 12 CDs almost every track Bill Evans recorded as leader or featured artist for the Riverside label between 1956 and 1963. The only omission I know of is the incomplete take - interrupted by a power failure - of "Gloria's Step" from the 1961 Village Vanguard Sessions (It is included in the 3-CD "Complete Village Vanguard" set). This collection therefore documents much of the formative phase of Evans's career and his development from an admired but not widely known sideman to one of the major jazz performers and a significant influence on other musicians. Most of the music is in the familiar trio format (piano, bass and drums); but the collection includes two solo piano sessions which were unreleased during Evans's lifetime, as well as the `Know What I Mean?' quartet session with altoist Cannonball Adderley (originally released under Adderley's name) and two quintet sessions featuring guitarist Jim Hall: `Interplay' with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and `Loose Bloose' with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims.
For a useful, concisely informative summary of the contents, I refer you to the customer review by N Dorward on Amazon.com. However, the review could mislead you by inadvertently implying that this is a collection of Bill Evans's Riverside albums as such.
So I make the following points about the organisation and presentation of the material.
1. This set presents the results of a series of recording sessions rather than a collection of the original albums.
2. It is organised chronologically (a) in order of the sessions and (b) with the tracks in the order in which they were recorded at the session. For those who followed the progress of Evans's career by hearing most of the key albums as they appeared, this chronological presentation gives a different perspective on some of the material. This applies especially to the 1961 Village Vanguard material (originally the albums, `Sunday at the Village Vanguard' and `Waltz for Debby'), to the `Moonbeams'/'How My Heart Sings' material and to the Shelly's Manne-Hole material (`Live at Shelly's Manne-Hole' and `Time Remembered').
3. For the music to fit onto 12 discs, different sessions have had to be overlapped from one disc to the next. For example, disc 7 begins with the concluding tracks of the Village Vanguard sessions, which are followed by five solo tracks from a later session, and it then goes on to the first four tracks of the `Moonbeams'/`How My Heart Sings' session, which then continues onto disc 8, and so on. All of the discs contain overlaps of this kind.
You could say that this presentation of the music follows the principle of historical accuracy, if you agree with Henry Ford's dictum that "history is just one damn thing after another". You could also say that it's a rather academic mode of presentation which doesn't have much to do with the way people ordinarily listen to recorded music. It is also historically inaccurate in its implication that these Riverside sessions form a continuum. What is not represented in this 12-disc collection is a large body of work by Evans, contemporary with this Riverside material, which was recorded under the names of, or in collaboration with, other artists, including Miles Davis, George Russell, John Lewis, Tony Scott, Chet Baker, Michel Legrand, Lee Konitz, Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer. Therefore this Riverside collection, for all its virtues, gives only a partial account of Bill Evans's development and achievement during the Riverside years.
Another view of the collection is given by Cook and Morton in their Penguin Guide to jazz recordings: for them, it would be worth 5 stars rather than 4 if the separate albums were not so easily available. But they seem to contradict that judgement by awarding most of the separate albums less than 5 stars each, and they too inadvertently imply that this collection comprises the original albums. My own view is that the collection contains a lot of excellent music, not all of it of 5-star quality, which nevertheless merits 5 stars as an important part of the recorded legacy of a 5-star musician. But that judgement applies only if you prefer to have the music presented chronologically rather than in the conventional format of a series of albums.
So who would want to buy this music, presented in this way? I would guess that (1) buyers who are fairly new to Evans's music would prefer to buy the key albums separately and (2) those most likely to be interested in the chronological presentation of the music are those who already own most of it in the form of the original albums. I suspect that its appeal is most likely to be to university and music college libraries. Unfortunately, it is unlikely ever to find a place in an English public library, especially the six nearest to where I live, whose managers seem not to know that a major musician named Bill Evans ever existed.