The latest encyclopaedia from the writers of nine editions of The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings doubles – even in its explanatory introduction – as both the all-new Penguin Jazz Guide and the tenth edition of that seminal reference work.
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With its subtitle The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums, it immediately put this jazz fan on the defensive, a common position for us oft-sidelined lovers of classic, mainstream and chamber jazz. Would justice be done to our guys? Would the emphasis be on the contemporary rather than the classic? Would the musicians of today whom I revere be omitted if they weren’t deemed to be moving jazz forward?
All of these questions are answered – in time. And time is what you need to form an opinion on this substantial tome, which lists key recordings in the jazz genre from the earliest days of the 78, to the age of the iPod. Not only is there a great deal of information to digest, but finding it – if you’re looking for fast access to a particular fact or album – can be time-consuming, as entries are presented in chronological order, by the date of recording, rather than alphabetical, under the name of the headlining musician.
This means that although the earliest recommended recording of, say, Duke Ellington features in the 1920s section, his work in the subsequent decades is necessarily scattered through the rest of the book. Once you’ve found one entry on the person you’re looking for, you will find cross-references, but a big drawback to this book is the lack of an index which would enable quick hits to be feasible. You have to know which decade to look in for that initial entry.
That said, the chronological presentation is one of the strengths of the book. Presenting the music in the order in which it appeared, especially during key periods of frenzied creativity and new directions, gives the reader a sense of what it must have been like to be around at the time when these recordings were first released. In the early chapters of the book, Beginnings and The ’20s, there’s a strong sense of the gathering of momentum for this music which exploded into life not just thanks to one or two artists or bands, but – as the book shows – as a result of many different musicians and groups. And each chapter’s opening page of social history, which provides a context for the music, makes the overall picture even more vivid.
Of course, nobody is ever going to agree wholly with the selection of albums – and I didn’t fully understand the criteria for inclusion which Morton lays out in the introduction – but, for an established jazz fan, the interest and appeal are likely to be more in the biographical details, the descriptions and evocations of the music, the quotes from other musicians and the setting of the recordings in context than in the selection itself.
Morton evokes the sound of some of the greats beautifully. On Jack Teagarden: “In Tea’s hands, this awkward barnyard instrument became majestic, sonorous and handsome.” On Coleman Hawkins: “Magnificent, monolithic, saturnine, essentially unrepeatable, Hawkins was the Olivier of the tenor saxophone, its most distinguished tragedian who nevertheless didn’t baulk at ‘stooping’ to commercialism or even comedy when the occasion demanded.”
Morton’s comments veer from rather dismissive and arrogant – the American cornettist Warren Vache’s write-up reads like the school report of someone who has only made it onto the shortlist by the skin of his teeth – to witty and evocative, and occasionally whimsical. John Poole, Anita O’Day’s drummer on her “sunniest” album, Anita Sings the Most, is described as setting “a time you could run a railway network to”, while tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton’s “outstanding performances” [on his seminal Plays Ballads LP] are “we hear, much enjoyed by Don and Bean up in heaven”.
With certain musicians, such as the legendary, doomed cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, who left a small body of work but is an enduring influence with a cultish following, Morton’s less colourful description – plus the comment that few of his records were “in an uncompromised jazz vein” – barely conceals his ambivalence. As everyone in the multi-factioned world of jazz knows, we can’t all like the same things, and seldom do any two tastes overlap completely.
For aficionados, The Penguin Jazz Guide is a good read, an excellent choice of book for dipping into. Newcomers seeking an introduction to the music may be put off by the assumption of knowledge (some musicians’ names are used in their entirety, while others are referred to by their forenames or surnames), but they at least won’t be wondering why favourite artists or records aren’t included.
Oh, and the answers to the questions are: yes, no, yes. Best not buy this book for Carol Kidd, Joe Temperley, Astrud Gilberto, Brian Kellock or Mrs John Bunch this Christmas.