Brian Morton & Richard Cook: The Penguin Jazz Guide - The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums
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'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 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' 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 seemswith 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 quintentwith saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williamsrather 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.