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Book Reviews

The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD, Seventh Edition

By Published: November 22, 2004
The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Seventh Edition
Richard Cook and Brian Morton
ISBN: 0-141-01416-4
Penguin Books
2004

It's almost too easy to criticize The Penguin Guide to Jazz, Seventh Edition , Richard Cook and Brian Morton's latest edition in their ongoing series of books listing thousands upon thousands of currently available jazz releases. One can easily quibble about the consistency - why certain artists are included when others are not, or why certain albums are not listed when they are clearly available.

Here's an example. In their review of Norwegian Nujazzer Eivind Aarset's first Jazzland release, Electronique Noire , they state: "A subsequent record for Jazzland [now two, in fact] does, however, appear to have sent Aarset into an entirely ambient field, which is rather outside our remit." One could easily question whether the subsequent Light Extracts or Connected are any more or less jazz than Aarset's début.

Here's another. Fusion records by artists including John McLaughlin, Jean-Luc Ponty, John Scofield and others are reviewed. Where are listings for archival reissues of jazz-rock progenitor Ian Carr and his group Nucleus? Why is Elton Dean listed but not Soft Machine, who may have shifted gears numerous times in their existence, but clearly fit as much into the jazz universe with Fourth and Fifth as Dean's Just Us.

What constitutes jazz and what doesn't is a deeply personal definition; readers may or may not agree with Cook and Morton, and clearly there is a certain degree of arbitrariness to be found here. Why Sidsel Endersen's Undertow is considered jazz, for example, while Norah Jones' records are not is a curiosity that is never really satisfied.

But at the end of the day not only do these quibbles not really matter in terms of the overall scope that the book attempts and more or less successfully accomplishes - which is monumental in nature - they engender, in fact, exactly the kind of discussion that makes books like this so vital. A book of thousands of reviews conducted by only two writers is bound to have certain biases - although fewer than if the book had been the work of only one author - but its importance as a key reference book renders any specific criticisms moot. There is absolutely no way a book of this scope can satisfy every reader's view of what should and should not be included.

What has been remarkable about the series is that, since inception and despite certain omissions that this writer might deem unforgivable, it has attempted to be as broad a cross-section of the jazz universe as you are likely to find. Anywhere. And with the Seventh Edition the authors have added a new feature that makes the book even more invaluable - the "Core Collection" listings.

While the book continues with its usual modus operandi — alphabetically-listed artist biographies, chronological listings (as much as possible) of all albums currently in print and readily available to the broader international public, full personnel listings, concise, entertaining and sometimes pithy reviews and a four-star rating system that, while some may question, is remarkably consistent within the authors' personal methodology plus a "crown" designation to identify strong personal favourites - the "Core Collection" designation is intended to identify approximately two hundred albums that the writers feel are essential to building a beginning jazz library.

Sure, there are the usual suspects - Miles Davis' Kind of Blue , Milestones and In a Silent Way , Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Giant Step , Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um and Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil come immediately to the forefront — but equally there are more recent records, including Dave Douglas' Convergence , Bill Frisell's Have a Little Faith , Tomasz Stanko's Leosia , Bobo Stenson's Serenity , Eberhard Weber's Yellow Fields , John Scofield's Quiet , Bobby Watson's Love Remains , Weather Report's Mysterious Traveller and Jan Garbarek's Dis , that demonstrate how Cook and Morton are trying to help build a comprehensive yet manageable library that presents more than merely a single facet of jazz.

While the "Core Collection" may be of most use to the jazz neophyte looking for a way into the almost unfathomably broad scope of jazz, it is of equal value to the more seasoned listener, who may have leaned towards a specific sub-genre and is looking for a way to stretch. Again, readers may argue with some of the choices that the authors have made, but one has to remember that, despite its large and comprehensive nature, The Penguin Guide to Jazz, Seventh Edition is still, at the end of the day, the work of two writers and is inherently biased. But that being said, there simply isn't another reference book on the market today that's as fact-filled, broad in scope and entertaining to boot - it may be a somewhat unwieldy reference guide at over 1,700 pages, but it's a surprisingly difficult tome to put down. Pick it up to check one thing and the next thing you know you are spending time simply perusing, whether it's to look up a favourite artist to see how your opinion jives with theirs, or to just casually look over a particular section to read about artists, many of whom you'll likely never have encountered.

Cook and Morton have done a remarkable job, through the course of the series, at keeping track of what CDs are in and out of print, although with a book this ambitious in scope, it's virtually impossible to be 100% accurate. Still, considering the book was published in '04, there are a surprising number of extremely current recordings listed - John Abercrombie's Class Trip , for example, which was only released in April of this year, and Arild Andersen's The Triangle , released in May. And while the seven editions of the book now take up an entire shelf of a bookcase, given the transitory nature of many of the CDs released, owning the entire collection ultimately makes for as complete a view of what jazz CDs have been available as is possible to have.

An invaluable guide for the novice and experienced listener alike, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Seventh Edition continues the winning streak started by Cook and Morton in '92. And by adding the "Core Collection" listings they have given readers yet another reason to pick up this new edition.

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