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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Don Mather, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf, Glyn Pursglove

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The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings
Ninth Edition
by Richard Cook & Brian Morton
Penguin Books
Paperback, 1646 pages
ISBN 978-0-141-03401-0
£35 US$35





Since 1992, Richard Cook & Brian Morton have been assembling this remarkable book and updating it every two years. There is a particular sadness about this, the ninth edition, as Richard Cook was overtaken by illness and could not take part in revising this version. He died on 25 August 2007, aged only 50.

Cook devoted much of this life to writing about music, working for the NME (New Musical Express) as well as the Sunday Times and New Statesman. He was editor of two influential magazines: The Wire and Jazz Review. For some years in the 1990s, he was jazz catalogue manager for the Polygram record company. The ninth edition of the book he worked on so assiduously with Brian Morton contains a generous obituary by his co-writer.

Of course, things have changed since the book first appeared as The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette and it had fewer than 1300 pages. But the format has remained basically the same: trying to list all the jazz recordings available, under artists and occasionally groups, with full personnel listings for most discs and a useful index of musicians. Each album is awarded between one and four stars: four stars meaning "very fine" and one star suggesting "confiscate their instruments". Besides this star system, a crown is occasionally awarded to something which is a personal favourite of the editors. This is rather otiose, as the authors already make their personal opinions abundantly clear.

There have been some new features. The last few editions have labelled some albums as "Core Collection", indicating about 200 CDs that the authors regard as the foundation for a basic jazz record library. Some albums are relegated to a category called "Also, in brief", which uses only a few words. These can be worse than useless, as in the case of Red Garland's Red's Blues, which is described starkly as "Red, playing the blues". No, really? And what are we to make of the final word in the brief review of a Pete Fountain CD: "Another valuable compilation, with better sound, probably".

Of course, the Guide could never cover every musician who has ever been associated with jazz, and the book is already so large as to be cumbersome, but the omissions suggest something about the prejudices of the authors.

For example, singers have often provided problems for writers trying to decide if they were really jazz vocalists. The book's Introduction says: "The old argument as to what is a jazz singer has never been resolved, and it could be contended that, if we have included Mel Tormé (as we have), then why not Peggy Lee?" But surely Peggy Lee deserved inclusion for such evident jazz recordings as Black Coffee. And where is Lee Wiley or, for that matter, Oscar Brown Jr., Ray Charles and Slim Gaillard? Some big-band leaders like Glenn Miller and Ted Heath are also omitted. So, too, are such groups as the Brecker Brothers and the Yellowjackets - presumably because they are considered too close to that naughtily commercial jazz-fusion. Yet the former band included two famous brothers whose separate recordings are thought worthy of description, while the latter group includes the marvellous saxophonist Bob Mintzer. Earl Bostic is also omitted - again, one suspects, because of his popularity. Up-and-coming pianists Eldar Djangirov and Taylor Eigsti are both absent, as is the virtuosic guitarist Antonio Forcione.

Under the letter "V", there is no listing for Chucho Valdes, Dave Valentin or George Van Eps, but a predominantly "free" player like Ken Vandermark gets two whole pages. Morton's article about Richard Cook admits that Richard fell out of love with avant-garde jazz towards the end of his life, but the book still shows a bias in favour of free jazz. The Times's obituary of Cook described The Wire under his editorship thus: "Sometimes the results were undeniably pretentious and overbearing, the more arcane free-jazz performers were arguably given more space than they warranted". The same tendencies are observable in this book.

For example, Buddy Rich's big band of the 1960s is belittled with the words "There's nothing subtle about the arranging", despite the arrangers including such brilliant musicians as Bill Holman and Oliver Nelson. Duke Ellington's Ellington 55 and his orchestra's collaboration with the Count Basie band are also described dismissively.

Many of Pat Metheny's albums are damned with faint praise - probably because the authors seem to be agin' anything that is commercially successful - and the only Metheny album awarded four whole stars is the collaboration with Ornette Coleman. Another fault is that the authors continually choose reissues from the Classics label, which are sometimes badly remastered and cheaper alternatives are often available. The coverage of Fats Waller lists 20 Classics albums and only six on other labels.

Some entries are simply pretentious or misleading. What is the point of saying that violinist Regina Carter "seems to lack a conceptual focus". Does this mean that she shouldn't play different tunes in different styles? Organist Mike LeDonne's On Fire is criticised for "Short change all round", even though the CD lasts for 73 swinging minutes. And how on earth are Oscar Peterson's six albums recorded in the sixties at Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer's home all placed in the "Core Collection" even though five of them are only awarded three stars? The editors say they preferred the albums in box-set form, as if that made any difference to the music!

Nevertheless this tome remains a huge achievement and almost a necessity for the shelves of anyone devoted to jazz. The opinions may often be contentious but the information is continually valuable (apart from occasional carelessness, like the spelling "The Pinacle Building"). All the way from Frey Aagre to Mark Zubek, this latest edition is a fitting memorial to Richard Cook. If there are to be further editions, let's hope that a co-editor (or other contributors) can be found to moderate Brian Morton's improv preferences. Maybe the next edition could reduce the avant-garde content, and review instead some of the many DVDs which jazz collectors now find invaluable.

Tony Augarde




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