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MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide

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Edited by Steve Holtje and Nancy Ann Lee
Visible Ink Press, 1998
ISBN 1-57859-031-0

Finally, after publishing big fat guides to rock, country, folk, blues and (Good Lord!) lounge, the MusicHound series now includes a survey of jazz recordings.

Like the other books in the series, the jazz book is extremely well edited, well written and entertaining to browse. And, like the other books, the editors give the genre at hand a broad definition. Sure, purists are going to bristle at the inclusion of Kenny G and Frank Zappa, but they'll probably gripe about the presence of Matthew Shipp and Sun Ra, too. At least it's not as weird as MusicHound's R&B guide, which lumps Duke Ellington in with Parliament-Funkadelic. Anyway, those sorts of oddball choices give the guide an attitude and make it interesting.

In terms of recordings covered, this book can't touch the "All Music Guide to Jazz," but it makes up for it by being comprehensibly organized. The AMG would be a editor's nightmare, were a editor ever given a chance to look at it.

Entries in the MusicHound book feature a brief bio of the artist, followed by an overview of what the contributing reviewers (there are more than 80 of them) feel are that person's best recordings. These are followed by a "best of the rest" list of albums, which unfortunately don't carry descriptions. And, in some cases, there are amusingly written "what to avoid" listings.

Each entry also contains a list of who the artist was influenced by and who they have influenced themselves. This is helpful for directing listeners to other artists they might enjoy hearing. Albums are rated with bones, the best releases receiving five bones. Duds get a "woof!"

As with any record guide, I found some goofiness. The entry for John Zorn, for example, gives a five-bone rating—but no description of—his "Kristallnacht" album, which could be desribed graciously as "challenging," or more bluntly as "unlistenable." Sure, people into the noisier aspects of Zorn's ouput might think the record is great. But newcomers who think they should start out with a five-bone release will be turned off and very likely freaked out. After that, there's probably no way they'll take a gamble on some of Zorn's beautiful, gentle Masada Chamber Ensemble releases, which—in the record guide of my mind—rate as some of the best music of the 90s. The guide should at least describe such an extreme example of an artist's work if it's going to slap such a high rating on it.

As with the other Musichound volumes, there are a great series of indexes at the back of the book. These include a state-by-state listing of jazz radio stations and music festivals, a listing of all the "five bone" albums, and a listing of relevant books, magazines and Web sites (including this one).

The book also features a silly forward by T.S. Monk ("Nobody pays any attention to jazz, so it's good that this book came out") and a CD of Blue Note tracks, which is nice but doesn't begin to reflect the diversity of music covered in the guide.

All in all, though, another worthwhile addition to the reference shelf.


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