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In Praise of Playlists

In Praise of Playlists

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These playlists act as radio shows. I have always loved radio and still have my favorite stations I check in on periodically via the internet. And now I have hundreds of my own private radio shows.
Some analytics up front.

I sat down and tried to come up with a guess as to how many complete albums I listen to a year. A rough approximation. My guess is about 1,000, a little less than three a day. You can come up with your own number.

Next I went to some discographies and tried to count the number of works, including their work as sidemen, of three trumpeters and three saxophonists I love: Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter. I counted up the albums, doing my best to eliminate one-offs and duplications: Shorter on Aja. Wayne with Miles Davis with Morgan, etc. Came to over 500 albums. Basically a half a year's worth of listening.

Now if you are like me and love all music, it gets even more complicated. I would say jazz is about 50% of what I listen to. So now those 500+ albums represent a year of listening.

And then take those 500+ albums and factor that into how many worthy jazz albums there are in existence. Does that represent 1%? Who knows. The numbers get intimidating for a guy that failed math like me.

Now for the moment I will pretend I only listen to complete albums and give all worthy albums from my whole collection a fair place in the rotation. This morning I put on Joe Henderson's In 'n Out (Blue Note, 1964). The title cut is an absolute gem. The whole album is good but that particular cut has always blown me away. And using the math I just laid out, I quickly realize it might be a decade before I hear it again. So depressing!

So how do I work around that? Playlists!

I have been making playlists for 50 years. The summer before I went off to college I took my paper route earnings and bought a used reel-to-reel tape recorder for about $75 and a bunch of blank tapes and set about recording all my favorite stuff from our family collection. Great stuff. My father was a lexicographer who read music publications (Rolling Stone, Downbeat, etc) as part of his process of gathering word citations and bought stuff that was getting rave reviews...usually with the corners cut off because they were promotional copies he bought from the used record store near his office. The owner rarely washed his t-shirts and my dad would periodically come home with an armful of albums announcing he had another batch from "Blackshirt." Those were great days.

After college I moved to cassettes. At the end of that run I was up to 800 90-minute cassettes. When I got married I even had a custom-made chest of drawers created specifically to hold them.Then came blank CDs. Harder to count because I numbered them by genre. But around 700 in 120-minute increments. So to quickly return to the math, those 700 discs now make my music collection manageable. The cut "In 'n Out" now is in regular rotation. And to be clear, this does not preclude me from returning to the whole recording from time to time. Which I will.

Lately I have gone pure digital for most of the new stuff I bring into my collection. I still buy some physical copies of CDs. For instance I always support live musicians by buying CDs they have for sale at the shows I go to. But digital works wonderfully.

I will give you an example of how my process works. I love the bassist Scott Colley. He is the leader or sideman on some 150 recordings. A while back I devoted a couple of weeks to him. Listened to everything my music service had available. I usually listen to everything I find worthwhile at least twice. That was a lot of listening... Colley always surrounds himself with quality musicians and produces stellar recordings. But there are categories. There has to be! I cannot treat every cut equally. That is over a thousand individual cuts.

So I make decisions. Cuts that fall into the once-a-decade category get left behind. Cuts that I immediately know are keepers go into the keeper file to be distributed among the hourlong playlists I create. And finally there are the cuts I am unsure about. Those have their own big file and I systematically return to that file to make final decisions.

Back to the math. If I only listened to whole albums in an equally weighted rotation, the title cut of Colley's Architect of the Silent Moment (CAM Jazz, 2007), which I played today, would have to wait in limbo for many years before I heard it again. As it is, since it has found its way into a playlist, I will hear it all the time.

Here is the other advantage. These playlists act as radio shows. I have always loved radio and still have my favorite stations I check in on periodically via the internet. And now I have hundreds of my own private radio shows. I put on my playlist titled, say, Jazz 96, and I have no idea what is coming. It is all stuff I love but each cut comes as a wonderful surprise.

I will finish with some caveats in regard to playlists. There are recordings I refuse to break into cuts. "Peaceful" just has to come after "Shhh." To stick with Davis....his recordings with Gil Evans just have to be played as a whole. I cannot break up A Love Supreme. Everyone will have their own list of sacrosanct recordings.

Look, I have two twentysomethings that love music, and like most of their generation they listen sporadically and in small portions. So I will always applaud those listening to whole albums at a time. A dying breed. Stand proud.

I only offer what has worked for me as an alternative. Here is the song list from one of my earliest self-made CD's, brilliantly titled Jazz III: David Murray, "Home" from David Murray Octet (Black Saint, 2981); Jack DeJohnette "Central Park West" from Special Edition (ECM Records, 1979); Joe Henderson "Black Narcissus" from Power to the People (Milestone Records, 1969); John Scofield, "After the Fact" from Quiet (Verve Records, 1996); George Adams, "A Spire" from Sound Suggestions (ECM Records, 1979); Max Roach, "Equipoise" from Members, Don't Git Weary (Atlantic Records, 1968); Woody Shaw, "Why?" from For Sure! (Columbia Records, 1980); Cannonball Adderley, "Yvette"(From Why Am I Treated So Bad! (Capitol Records, 1967) Miles Davis, "Footprints," from Miles Smiles (Columbia Records, 1967); Dave Douglas, "The Infinite" from The Infinite (Bluebird/RCA, 2002)); Joe Farrell, "Follow Your Heart" from The Joe Farrell Quartet (CTI Records, 1970); Buck Hill, "I'm Aquarius" from This is Buck Hill (Steeplechase Records, 1978).

The next time you are at the beach or airport or on public transportation and the folks near you start analyzing The Bachelor, put your earbuds in, click on this playlist and drift away.

Now I get it...there are some that will push back on this. That this is feeding huge conglomerates, gigantic music services that are not perfect solutions by any means. I know that streaming does not make musicians rich. I wish there was a fairer way to compensate musicians. All I can do is give my perspective. Let me bring this back to All About Jazz. Each week I attempt to sample, via my music service, every disc that is new to me that has been mentioned or reviewed in an AAJ article. And almost inevitably they are at my fingertips. I was even searching for some relatively obscure Johnny Dyani recordings (I have them in LP form) to add to my playlists and there they were on my service.

A good example is Francois Houle. Never heard of him before a recent AAJ article on him. After reading it I pulled up his recordings on my service and spent an afternoon sampling them. "Exphrasis" from ,In Memoriam (Clean Feed Records, 2023) is now in a playlist. Other cuts sit in my holding file, waiting, I am sure, to be added. What was my alternative... to buy all 20+ of his recordings as a leader in order to sample them? This is not realistic. What I will do is go see him the next time he comes to New York, which I might not have done if I had not just sampled his work via my music service, And if he is selling CDs at the show I will buy one or two of them.

But please....when you find recordings that you love as a whole, buy them! Support living musicians in particular. And where possible, go to their websites and buy from there.


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