Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Groove Book Report: The Penguin Jazz Guide - Brian Morton and Richard Cook - Penguin rrp$50.00

Subtitled the "History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums".

This is a transcript of a review to go to air on 7 July 2011

Now in it's 10th edition Brian Morton and the late Richard Cook have spent the best part of their post 1990's contributing to a volume that continuously changes and evolves every two to three years. Earlier versions focussed on the stars and ratings approach - Something you'll be more familiar with if you were a fan of Leonard Maltin or the Time Out Series. At one point the earlier editions sported comprehensive indexes to help the reader quickly find a reference - useful if you are standing over a table of sale items and you need to do a quick sanity check on a potential bargain.

Now, however, the stars and the special 'core collection' ratings are gone. As is the index. In place is a number of 'key' recordings laid out by decade and in the chronological order of their recording. An interesting concept but utterly frustrating, especially for a novice. When exactly did Sonny Rollins or Chick Corea record? Can you remember? Hang on I'll rifle through the massive contents at the beginning divided up into 5 year chapters . What? And by the way who decides what albums are worthy anyway? Who determines that the music is one of the "Best 1001 Albums"? At least on that I'd suggest these guys have some clout. Both based in the UK, Morton and Cook had the advantage or collecting both from the early days of America through to the European and more modern works from the Antipodes - I noted our own Alan Broadbent has earned him self an entry here. Sadly other Kiwis, like Kevin Smith or Caroline Moon are too small to demand attention from these writers. I was also saddened to discover such elitism in their choices. Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Laura Fygi, Cassandra Wilson, or outfits like Germany's Re:Jazz, famous for reworking pop and techno into Jazz are absent. They are not good enough to make the shelves of Mortons Toolshed, the home of his holy grail collection.

So what does make the grade? Was Miles or Herbie too mainstream or 'un-jazz' sometimes to make it in here. Were Ella or Louis mainstream sellouts? What about the standards like Frankie or Mel - were they pioneers or well crafted charlatans. It's all a little random. And anyway why is George Benson's Elevator music Breezin' worthy of a mention when In the Wee Small Hours is not?
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I have a copy of The Best 1001 Albums You Should Hear Before You Die. Every entry argues for it's place in the book, stating clearly why the work is ground breaking, memorable or special in some other way. It too is chronological, and it has room for artwork and objectivity. It also has an index. Admittedly this is a mainstream work but then that is what I expected from The Penguin Jazz Guide. Don't get me wrong, this is an outstanding litterary work. The reviews, when on course, are spot on. They all start with a contextual quote, to provide atmosphere and a setting in the mind of the reader. Then with a splash of history, the review sets out to disect each song on the work, highlighting the whys and wherefores, bookmarking for your ears to check out later. Each decade begins with a comprehensive essay about the period - more context.

This is a great book to delve into, randomly during bus rides, idle moments and a worthy companion for your amplifier. Note that all works reviewed here are available on CD - good if you are a modern consumer, but a disapointment if you are an audiofile and rummage sale junkie, like myself. So overall, we have a mixed bag. Great information, insightful reviews, if elitist in choice at times but let down by a loss of direction in editorial direction. It had me wondering what am I supposed to do with this book? In the modern age it wouldn't surprise me to find an acompanying website, youtube clipes, email and website links and please, for the love of jazz, include some artwork next time to liven it up - assuming the 11th edition in in the pipeline.

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