The "New and Improved" Fifth Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD
Richard Cook and Brian Morton
Since the maiden voyage of the Penguin Guide in 1992, co-authors Richard Cook and Brian Morton have crusaded to update their tome every two years. (And yes, Herbie Hancock's 1964 classic Maiden Voyage graduates this time around to full five-star crown status.) Their never-ending mission has resulted in the welcome inclusion of new, up-to-date material in the most recent editionas well as regular gripes from jazz fans who feel left in the dust holding the previous versions.
Well, my solution to that problem is quite straightforward: seriously consider an update. Rabid collectors (and beginners too, of course) ought to be willing to sacrifice the cost of a couple of CD's in order to read intelligent reviews of the majority of jazz CDs on the market. (In this particular case, you'll need £20 if you're unwilling to wait for the March 2001 US release date.)
Cook and Morton limit their attention in this 1700+ page guide to material readily available in the CD format. That of course ignores out-of-print recordings, LP-only releases and certain limited editions not likely to offer long-term availability. It's hard to gripe about completeness, though, given the amazing depth of the Penguin Guide. Unlike other jazz reference works, this guide focuses on a discussion of the recordings themselves, mostly to the exclusion of the biographical data or stylistic overviews which are found in other guides. But the sheer number of records discussed, as well as the individual attention most receive, tends to make the Penguin Guide worthwhile. (A welcome new feature in the revised version is a briefusually 1-2 sentencebiography presented in advance of the reviews of a given artist.)
The "completely revised and updated" Fifth Edition contains a lot of deletions, a number of changes, and a swarm of additions. To dwell briefly on the rating system, Hancock's promotion to top-of-the-line crown status stands alongside Duke Ellington's mammoth oeuvre of uncrowned records. Alexander Von Schlippenbach's trio loses the crown it earned for Pakistani Pomade and fails to gain one in compensation for the 1990 masterpiece Elf Bagatellen. There aren't too many alterations in the exalted realm, which Cook and Morton describe as "more a personal indulgence" than some kind of objective recognition. That characterization should be obvious anyway, given the rarity of the crown's appearance in any of their Guides.
It's humorous to also spend a moment examining the records which plumbed the depths of their rating system. In the A-C pages, for example, guitarist George Benson earned a 1.5-star rating ("not worth bothering with") for his ironically-titled Shape of Things to Come; guitarist Charlie Byrd earned only one for The Charlie Byrd Christmas Album ("fine for those who like this sort of thing"); and saxophonist Richie Cole garnered one for Popbop ("as disastrous as the title suggests").
But the real rewards of the Penguin Guide lie not in its factual presentation or subjective ratings system, but in the intelligent running commentary offered by Cook and Morton. The duo is remarkably perceptive and facile distinguishing styles within the huge bulk of recordings discussed. Their descriptions appear with a welcome degree of panache. Personal reflections stand alongside apropos comparisons to other work, including material from outside the jazz canon. Cook and Morton demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of modern classical composers, for example, that often reflects itself poignantly in their analysis.
Unfortunately they do seem a bit out-of-tune with developments in the world of rock and so-called popular music. Their description of John Zorn's classic harmolodic thrashfest Spy vs. Spy, for example, omits even the slightest reference to punk, hardcore, or thrash metal (whatever you want to call the second primary ingredient mixed in equal proportions on this disc with the music of Ornette Coleman).
The only "fair" criticism one can lay on an otherwise magnificent record guide (the authors are human, too) is an apparent bias toward free jazz, the avant-garde, etc. Rather than pay close attention to the swinging jazz in the canon, one has the feeling Cook and Morton would prefer to discuss radical developments post-1960. Admittedly this apparent favoritism may simply be due to the paucity of older material on CD, but nonetheless the Penguin Guide does seem dwell a bit on "out" playing. It's not a problem at all for me, but it could interfere for a listener with more interest in traditional material.
Anyway, criticizing the critics can be a dangerously self-referential process. Perhaps it's better for me just to offer a simple "thumbs-up." You see if the Penguin Guide works for you.