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

C. Michael Bailey By

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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


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.

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