Gramophone Jazz Good CD Guide

Gramophone Jazz Good CD Guide

Keith Shadwick, editor
(Gramophone Publications Limited, Middlesex, England.
Available from Music Sale Corporation, New York, 672 pages, $21.95)

by David Franklin

Originally printed in Jazz Notes
copyright © 1999 David Franklin

This purported guide to "the best jazz performances currently on CD" is the second edition of a book that first appeared in 1995. The 1997 version includes over 750 new reviews, with many of the originals updated (there is no indication of whether any of the earlier ones were deleted). The first edition referenced CDs recorded as late as 1994; the new one also includes sessions from 1995 and 1996. The number of reviews averages around three to four a page for 635 pages. Twenty-one critics from the United Kingdom and the United States, including JJA members Bob Blumenthal, Francis Davis, Art Lange, Kevin Whitehead, and Keith Shadwick, who served as editor, contributed to the work (the others, most of them familiar to the JJA membership, are Chuck Berg, Steve Voce, Brian Priestly Ronald Atkins, Alun Morgan, Barry McRae, Alyn Shipton, Graham Lock, Ben Ratliff Dave Gelly, Simon Hopkins, Miles Kington, Chris Parker, Tony Russell, Linton Chiswick, and Mark Gilbert). They were "allowed to choose the artists they [were] interested in writing about from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to recent CD debutees such as Jeremy Davenport and Jacqui Dankworth." In addition to reviewing the records, which involved rating them on a scale of one ("Beware! You could be in for a serious waste of money.") to ten ("A well-nigh perfect representation of what the artist concerned is on [sic] about."), the writers were asked to recommend items for a basic jazz library of some 200 titles. The list was updated for this edition. The book also includes names of manufacturers and distributors as well as addresses of specialist dealers and mail order services on both sides of the Atlantic. There is an index.

The book has many strengths. Because of the wealth of information available in a reference work of this scope, it can be of value to both the aficionado and the novice. Even the most learned among us can garner something new from a work this comprehensive and it goes without saying that the beginning listener greatly needs the kind of guidance it offers. The writers are knowledgeable about the music and skillful at writing about it. On both counts, I especially liked Barry McRae's comment on Gato Barbieri's In Search of the Mystery that "rather than being the album that might have opened the door for a musical giant, it now appears as something of a pinnacle from which a very good player retreated." And I was impressed with how Chuck Berg zeroed in on the essence of the late altoist in his review of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section with his statement that "throughout, it is Pepper, one of jazzdom's pre-eminent lyricists, who sails with melodic, indeed poetic abandon." These examples are but two of many. Another plus is the practice of allowing a critic to review only one recording by an artist who has several entries, thereby affording a broader spectrum of opinion on that person's work.

On the other hand, some aspects of the book are questionable. Perhaps the basic jazz library list was compromised by the requirement that all the recordings be available on CD. Otherwise it is incomprehensible to me that it would not include anything by Dexter Gordon or Zoot Sims, for example, while listing two Art Pepper records. That's not to take anything away from Pepper, who unquestionably deserves to be represented. One wonders why at least one recording under the name of each of those two tenorists would not be as "basic" as ones by Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Egberto Gismonti, Wayne Horvitz, Emily Remler, David Sanborn, and John Zorn, to mention just a few who did make the list. Especially since Chuck Berg wrote in his review of Gordon's The Complete Blue Note Sessions that "Dexter Gordon was a true giant. Although he never attained the status of either Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, who both credited Gordon as a major influence, Gordon's place in jazz as the 'first bebop tenor saxophonist' is secure." To be fair, the tenorists do appear as sidemen on records that did make the list. Still, their absence as leaders could mislead newcomers to the music. Another problem I have with a work that is advertised as "reviews of the best jazz CDs you can buy" is that it includes discs such as the two the reviewer (who happens to be the editor) calls, in one case, an "audio definition of the word 'mediocre' " and in the other, "a less than scintillating album." Both records received ratings of 5, which means "a fair album with good points to it, but with weaknesses or periods of mediocrity within its playing time." If they are only "fair," why are they included at all? The editor notes that recordings rated under 6 ("a good album with nothing much wrong with it, but probably lacking that extra spark which pushes you to the edge of your seat in excited anticipation as the bars tick by") are rare. One would hope so in -- in his words -- "a guide to the best CDs currently available."

In my opinion, for this book to qualify as "a guide to the best. . . " it would need to omit admittedly inferior recordings. Imprecise claims aside, however, it is still a valuable book, whose worth as a general survey of the jazz CD market is actually enhanced by the inclusion of informed discussions of less than successful recordings which the reader can use for comparative purposes.

C o m m e n t s

gramophone jazz guide 1 of 2
c h smith
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March 17, 04

Are ther any plans for a new edition of the guide? Please, Keith and the boys, seven years and no insights to what we should buy from the avalanche of recent releases and reissues-what do you expect us to do? Use our ears? Come on chaps, get your fingers out.

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