By Thane Peterson U.S. recorded music sales slumped by nearly 10% last year, the second annual decline in a row. With the economy souring and online piracy rampant, just about every musical genre saw significant drops except country music, where sales continue to soar. Almost lost in all the gloomy news was the fact that another, smaller and less mainstream type of music also bucked the downward spiral: Sales of jazz CDs increased slightly, probably because of the ongoing buzz created by the Ken Burns wildly popular public-TV documentary on the history of jazz that first aired two years ago.
I'm a big jazz fan, and I'd like to share a secret. The jazz CDs Burns put out with his documentary are fine as far as they go, which is why they continue to sell so well. But a far better way to get into the music is to pick up a copy of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD (Penguin, $24), a marvelous 3-inch-thick doorstop of a reference book in which two British journalists rate more than 10,000 jazz CDs.
THICKER WITH AGE. As a sort of lifelong exercise in passionate devotion to a single subject, this guide by Richard Cook and Brian Morton ranks right up there with wine critic Robert Parker's Wine Advocate newsletter and Web site, and with author David Thomson's ever-expanding New Biographic Dictionary of Film (see BW Online, 10/22/02/, "The Reel Deal for Film Buffs").
Like Thomson's film dictionary, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD gets thicker with each successive edition. First published in 1992, the guide is now in its fifth edition in the U.S. The sixth came out last year in Britain and is due to hit the U.S. market in May. So, you may want to wait until then to buy a copy.
However, if, like me, you believe jazz is probably America's greatest contribution to world culture in the last century and you want to deepen your knowledge of the classics, having a copy of this guide in your library is essential. It's indispensable in winnowing out the chaff so you can focus on buying the best recordings by any given jazz artist. And you don't have to be an expert to benefit from the advice.
PASSIONATE ESSAYS. Cook and Morton make it easy by giving each CD a rating of one to four stars (actually asterisks). But being enthusiasts, they can't resist adding gradations such as ***(*), meaning three-and-a-half stars. CDs or box sets the authors consider truly exceptional, such as The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, earn four stars plus a little crown. The ratings are accompanied by background information on each recording and an explanation of why a given CD or collection earned its rating.
At best, the text forms a passionate essay on why the authors love a particular recording. Here's the conclusion of the four-paragraph note on why A Love Supreme rates four stars and a crown:
"The original release credited Coltrane alone and mentioned [pianist McCoy] Tyner, [bassist Jimmy] Garrison and [drummer Elvin] Jones only by their first names, reinforcing the idea that A Love Supreme was a personal testament rather than a group effort. That's no longer seen to be the case. If all great art is the product of grace under pressure, then here the music seems to emerge out of several different atmospheres, heavy, almost choking, but immensely concentrated and rich."
The guide's great value is that it helps you avoid lousy recordings that seem good when you're reading the label but turn out to have some fatal flaw. Like the first Charlie Parker CD I bought years ago, which sounded as if it had been recorded from the parking lot. I've found that CDs rated at least three stars in the Penguin Guide rarely disappoint.
NO BOOZE, JUST SAP. The ratings are especially helpful if you like to shop the sales (I sure do). For instance, when I wanted to add to my selection of CDs by Clifford Brown, the legendary trumpet player who died in 1956 at the age of 26, all of the 15 choices in the guide were rated at least three stars. I picked the four-star-rated Complete Blue Note and Pacific Jazz Recordings because it was on sale, and I liked the sidemen and selection of tunes. I've bought my first CDs by pianist Bud Powell (The Best of Bud Powell on Verve, rated ***(*)) and Dinah Washington (Dinah Jams, rated ***(*)) using the same approach. Both are marvelous.
On the other hand, I bought Nat King Cole at the Sands even though it isn't mentioned in the Penguin Guide because I figured it would have the boozy allure of Sinatra at the Sands, one of my all-time favorite live recordings. I was wrong. The Cole CD, billed on the label as "his only on-stage recordings" (whatever that means), was recorded late in his career in front of a celebrity Hollywood audience, and it's pretty sappy. I suspect I would have been a lot happier with one of the earlier, jazzier Cole recordings that earn a high rating from Cook and Morton.
The guide isn't perfect, of course. For one thing, the index could be more complete. For instance, you won't find a listing for Dollar Brand, a South African-born musician who's one of my favorites. If you don't know that Brand changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim in 1968 when he converted to Islam, you won't be able to find anything about his early recordings.
APPRECIATING LINCOLN. Also, the authors have chosen to leave out singers such as Sinatra and Bing Crosby entirely on the theory that they're more popular entertainers than jazz artists. That's sad because I would like to read the authors' take on CDs such as Sinatra at the Sands. (In Nat King Cole's case, only the early recordings that feature his piano-playing are included -- which I should have taken as a sign.)
Still, jazz lovers are a highly opinionated bunch, and it's fun to read entries that support your own opinions. For instance, a couple of so-called jazz experts I know fail to adequately appreciate the singer Abbey Lincoln, but Cook and Morton come down on my side by rating a number of her CDs three-and-a-half or four stars. They also anoint Nicholas Payton, who I consider one of the best young players around, as the main challenger to Wynton Marsalis on jazz trumpet.
Whenever I dip into the Penguin Guide, I find myself flipping through the pages to peruse entries I hadn't intended to read. Some wonderful writing appears in this book. Here's a three-sentence summary of the career of Thomas "Fats" Waller, a great jazz pianist and singer I grew up listening to on 78-rpm records:
"A nonpareil humorist and lampooner of pop toons, Waller's own best songs were strong enough to have remained in the standard repertory. His piano style, which emerged from stride, was percussive and swinging, yet often delicate or even whimsical. He died of pneumonia on an overnight train."
It's a pleasure to discover prose that fine and economical throughout such a bulky book. For Waller, it could almost be an epitaph. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online