All that jazz


As a child I would sometimes gaze at a particularly weighty dictionary or encyclopaedia and wonder at how anyone could have put together such a monument. Those were the days when a 500-word school essay seemed a task worthy of Tolstoy. Now, with the fourth edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD resting on the shelf, the question I am most frequently asked is: "How on earth do you do it?" There are numerous occasions during the process of putting each edition together with Brian Morton when I ask myself the same question.

Jazz has had a library's worth of books devoted to it already, but it seemed odd, when we started on the first edition in 1990, that there was no single consumer guide to the records which at least attempted to be comprehensive. There was already 70 years of recording to sift through. Jazz is often held to be a live music, with recordings a poor second-best, but they are now the only way we can hear Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Since jazz has at least pretensions towards egalitarianism, it seemed important to consider all the foot soldiers of the music with the same scrutiny as the geniuses. So it was all or nothing.

At that time, LPs and cassettes still had a significant role to play, so we tried to consider those formats, too. From Greg Abate (now in second place, since the Swedish group Abash started recording) to Axel Zwingenberger (now departed, since we're not sure if his label still exists), we squeezed all of jazz past and present into 1,287 pages. Now we are up to edition four and 1,745 pages. It is still not enough, any more than was the first edition, which now seems a thin and make-do book.

There are close to 10,000 CDs in the latest edition, and still I fret over a missed record or an overlooked artist. I am not alone. It won't be long before the letters of correction and complaint begin arriving, although many also will say kinder things. The problem is that works of reference should be correct and complete. We can try to be the former, but we can never be the latter. I don't know how many jazz CDs are theoretically available at present, but given that we have had to, for instance, eliminate most Japanese releases on grounds of erratic availability, the number must far exceed what we have covered. And every month brings hundreds more, reissues and new music alike.

Of course the "job" is vast. You don't start on such a book with the idea that it'll be a cakewalk. Because both Brian and I have listened to the music all our grown-up lives (or longer, since I was smitten by Jelly Roll Morton's "Red Hot Peppers" at the age of 12), the easier sections were on artists we have lived with and thought about for years. The difficult thing comes when some new comet blazes a trail across the jazz firmament. Consider the saxophonist Ivo Perelman, new to this edition but with 11 CDs - as many as U2 have managed in 18 years - already under his belt. How good is he? Listeners want to know, since CDs are expensive and only the wealthiest or most obsessive would want to have all 11 of those discs.

One of the revealing things about doing this book is in finding out the cock-eyed way the music has been documented. A great master like the trumpeter Don Cherry has a mere five items to his name, while the grumpy old sod of British trad, Ken Colyer, has an astonishing 32 discs available. But I bless the lumpy, idiosyncratic way that jazz has been set down on record. Nobody wants such a vivid medium to be the stuff of rational, cut-and-dried scholarship, even if we try and offer a decisive guideline.

The salutary thing lies in how we are all, if we are bothered about putting together our own judgement in the first place, compiling our own guides to jazz, or whatever consumable art it may be. Never have so many examples of our favourite poison been made so temptingly available. Reducing them to a star-rating or a pecking order of relative excellence may be absurd, but it is the only way for us to deal with the art of squeezing our plethora of choice into our modest ration of leisure time. The saddest part of the undertaking is to sit surrounded by thousands of discs, with more on the way, knowing that many of them I will never be able to listen to again. Which reminds me of the other question we are always asked: "Have you really listened to all of those records?"

Richard Cook and Brian Morton's "The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD" (fourth edition) is published at £20

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!