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
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.