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Book Reviews

Brian Morton & Richard Cook: The Penguin Jazz Guide - The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums

By Published: August 27, 2011
The Penguin Jazz Guide: The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums

Brian Morton and Richard Cook

Paperback; 768 pages

ISBN: 9780141048314

Penguin Books

2010

Attention: The Penguin Jazz Guide: The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums does not equal The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. The former, new publication has been roundly criticized for not being the latter in all of its exhaustive glory, when it was never intended to be. The authors plainly state that a complete accounting of all jazz recordings available at a given time, contemporarily, is impossible. Nine editions of the The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings did offer hours of reference fun for those obsessive-compulsives down with the jazz bug, but, with the advent of the web and the decline of print media, it is a bit naive to expect a full-blown 14,000-plus entry doorstop every two years.

Brian Morton picks up the slack following the 2007 death of co-author Richard Cook, retaining much of Cook's contribution, edited and unedited. Morton defends his decision to restrict the guide to 1001 recordings as one of necessity secondary to the proliferation of recorded media existing today. He defends further his decision to highlight more recent recordings (from the 1990s and 2000s) as worthy of being part of this list, by citing the poet Robert Frost's chide that it is "laziness to leave posterity to do the work of judgement."

Morton goes on to emphasize: "A masterpiece is a masterpiece from the moment it is coined. The passage of time will either confirm that or, eventually and inevitably, turn it into a stepping stone for lesser talents or an Aunt Sally for 'revisionist' critics."

If it were so simple, Salieri would be greater than Mozart and Czerny, Beethoven. Morton's defense is a proper one for the selection of recent recordings to consider, as selectors must start somewhere, but it is judgement and the passage of time that anoint classics, not the former without the latter. In future editions of this book, if this format survives, the greater change in "classic" status will occur among the more recent entries, not the earlier ones. That quibble aside, Morton's (and the late Cook's) should not be minimized in importance or utility either because of format or temperament.

The most novel thing The Penguin Jazz Guide: The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums does is cast the music with a layer of chronological organization that reveals several things to consider when regarding the history of jazz, the largest being the apparent atomization of sub-genre as the music evolved after 1945 and the birth of bebop, reaching full acceleration in the 1980s, and long overlaps of genre evidenced by some inspired, if spurious, placement of disparate recordings entries close to one another in the same chronological neighborhood. Qualitatively, jazz evolved rather linearly from the first decades of the 20th century through the big band swing era. Once bop developed as a creative response to the swing era, change in the art form reached the criticality of rapid and sustained evolution that continues today.

Any discussion of recordings should address the contemporary technology. This is often ignored in preference to greater discussion of the music. Morton and Cook are careful to highlight the changes in recording technology as part of jazz's evolution. First, in so many words, the authors point out that recorded music obeys the "observer effect" in physics, one characteristic of which is that the simple observation of a system, changes that system. A musical performance that is recorded is fixed among all performances, two of which never can be identical. Next, is a discussion of the technologies, beginning with the piano rolls that first captured ragtime, in situ. Early recording (that occurring before 1925) was acoustic recording, where sound vibrations were physically transferred from a large detecting device to a disc or cylinder via a cutting stylus, creating a peak and trough capable of transfer to a hard master copy from which only a finite number of commercial copies could be reproduced. After 1925 experiences the age of "electronic" recording, that has evolved into the present system.

Divided by decade, the reference begins, surprisingly, not with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's 1917 Victor recordings "Livery Stable Blues" and "Dixie Jazz Band One Step," (those are considered second), but with some of Eubie Blake
Eubie Blake
Eubie Blake
1883 - 1993
piano
's early 20th century piano rolls, thought to predate ODJB recordings. The authors allow that the Blake might be considered ur-jazz, music present before denotation of the genre. Blake purveyed a late ragtime, whose relationship with jazz, like the blues, is often asserted rather than plainly defined. The authors defend Blake's inclusion by considering, "what an elusive and transient concept 'swing' is." Allowing for that indulgence, it is well worth considering the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk through that of Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin
1868 - 1917
piano
en route to Blake as the scaffolding upon which jazz began to develop.

Dutifully, the authors proceed decade by decade, highlighting many expected recordings and some surprises. The lengthier treatments are reserved for the most critically recognised recordings. The some of the best writing may be found here also.

Regarding trumpeter Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), Morton and Cook observe that, "the clinching quality of Kind of Blue is that its energies are centripetal; map the harmonies and this becomes clearer. It seems—with that tiny exception— entire of itself and without the troubling restlessness of almost all of Miles Davis's other records. That is not to belittle it, but to offer one clue to its almost universal appeal."

That is smacking good prose, no matter what the subject. When the authors address Davis' second great quintent—with saxophonist Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
, pianist Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
, bassist Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
, and drummer Tony Williams
Tony Williams
Tony Williams
1945 - 1997
drums
—rather than choose one of the well-established Columbia studio recordings such as E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1967), Sorcerer (1967) or Nefertiti (1968) with their great loam of newly composed material, they choose the splendid box set, The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickle 1965 (Columbia, 1995). This was the incubation period before those great studio albums where Davis and this great quintet invented post-bop jazz.

The authors begin as such: "The Rosetta Stone of modern jazz: a monumental document written in five subtly and sometimes starkly different dialects but within which much of the music of the post-bop period has been defined and demarcated...it is possible to observe Miles and his musicians working through their ideas set by set in ways that make the named material, the songs, more or less irrelevant. Ironically, the fact that these are mostly standards and repertory pieces heightens the originality of approach."

The Penguin Jazz Guide: The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums is not perfect, as no book like this can be. It does serve as a great starting off point, not unlike, but more detailed and scholarly than, The Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide (Random House, 1999). It will educate novice and expert alike on jazz from the cradle to the present.


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