Richard Cook, Author Of 'Blue Note Records: The Biography'
AAJ: David Liebman, the saxophonist, is in agreement with the legendary classical pianist, Glenn Gould, that the recording studio is really the quintessential place to make music, partly on account of the control it gives to the artist regarding the sound that comes out. On the other hand, a recording studio would seem to be such a cold, un-stimulating place to perform. What is your own opinion about the rewards and hazards of the recording venue for jazz artists?
RC: A good producer and engineer both help! Let's face it, most of the great jazz records, from King Oliver's Dipper Motuh Blues to Kind Of Blue and beyond, have been made in studios. A few musicians have fared badly in the studio, but not many: and is it really more `stimulating' to play in front of a noisy crowd, in a dingy venue, with an indifferent PA, an out-of-tune piano and an under-rehearsed band? These are the sort of conditions which many jazz musicians have been obliged to work in. My only caveat would be to beware the temptation to embrace studio `capabilities' too warmly, because in that direction lies smooth jazz.
AAJ: On a personal note, what do you do with your time besides writing about jazz?
RC: Probably not enough! I like horse racing and, like any proper Englishman, cricket. I still collect records of many kinds - our house is groaning under the weight of them now. I'd like to be a good cook but I have no technique. I'd also like to drink first-growth clarets every day, but hey, I'm a jazz writer, you have to make some sacrifices!
AAJ: Do you write about subjects other than jazz?
RC: Other music, I suppose - I still write about popular music here and there. I used to review films in the 1980s. And now I am waiting for some kind editor to commission me to write a book about the English music hall, another of my great loves. Don't hold your breath.
AAJ: Your book itself ends on somewhat of a 'blue note.' You are critical of contemporary record labels for their commercialism and lack of support for jazz as an art form. Do you have any suggestions for recording executives to support jazz creativity while being able to maintain the business side of the enterprise? Is this still possible? Are there current record companies, perhaps in Europe, which you feel provide good role models for jazz recording?
RC: The trouble jazz has got itself into at the major labels is that it's being treated like everything else - it has to compete as a kind of pop music. Classical music has the same problem. I'm not quite sure how it's happened, but too many of the majors have built up this culture where turning a modest profit - which jazz records can easily do - is not seen as `enough'. Maybe some accountant somewhere is saying, gee, look at Diana Krall's sales - why can't all our jazz artists do that? And so it goes on. There is also this idiotic obsession with `crossing over' jazz artists, as there is with classical virtuosi. Then there's the politicking which goes on at most of the majors, where you get Europe competing with America, and other bunfights which may be important to the executives involved but which do artists (and the music, and the audience) no good at all. I admire Lundvall's resistance to many of these forces, but it helps that he's had the occasional big hit to sustain an otherwise `difficult' catalogue.
All the real work is being done by independent labels now. I can think of many, but Criss Cross, Steeplechase, hatOLOGY, Palmetto, Enja, Nagel Heyer, Lake, Emanem and Thirsty Ear are some I especially like. I'd say they were all in Blue Note's tradition. Out of them all, though, Manfred Eicher's ECM remains the benchmark. Whatever you think about the music, Eicher has conducted his label and his business along absolutely principled lines. Nobody else has done that so well for so long.