Tuesday, August 9. 2005
Static Multimedia has published the August 2005 edition of my Recycled Goods column. This month I decided to clean house, clearing out 56 jazz compilations and reissues. Most of these titles appeared in series where it would make the most sense to group them together, and it would have taken months to get them all out under my "In Series" rubric. Grouping them together like this, I could also add some generalizations. For those, see the introduction.
The biggest problem any reviewer has when dealing with "best of" comps is how to weigh redundancy and completeness. The redundancy problem occurs when the music on this comp is also on others (often many others), or when the music comes from albums worth owning whole. There are many examples here. Louis Armstrong's Jazz Moods: Hot is an example of a good record no Armstrong fan needs because if you know what you're doing you'll already have the masters it is picked from. So why did I give it an A? Usually I try to approach records like this from the standpoint of someone who isn't a fan and doesn't know squat, so I ask myself how would a novice react to this music? In Armstrong's case that's pretty obvious. Elsewhere, it can get pretty difficult. Contemporary's Art Pepper and Blue Note's Horace Silver both reminded me strongly of the whole albums they came from. The difference in the grades was that the Silver collection brought out something that was less clear on the albums: his songwriting. Pepper just reminded me of the albums, which tells me that good as the comp is it will become useless once you move beyond it. Ergo, I graded it down a bit. The Armstrong, on the other hand, won't be useless. It'll just be redundant.
The most contentious review here is probably the Ellington. This was a case where my annoyance got the better of me. It actually is not so redundant because many of the '30s Okehs on the first disc aren't in print, except on European labels like Classics, and in random, comparably annoying Columbia compilations like 16 Most Requested Songs and Reminiscing in Tempo. On the other hand, it's not nearly as good as it could have been -- not even as good as RCA's old Beyond Category. Granted, reducing Ellington to two hours is a fool's errand. When I lived in Boston one of the radio stations there put on an "Ellington orgy" where they tried to play everything in order -- took something like three days around the clock, and while one couldn't possibly listen to it all, there were remarkable things playing every time I tuned in. In terms of scale, no one else rivals Ellington -- he's not just "beyond category" (his term for music that defies pigeonholing), he's also beyond compilation.
Miles Davis may also be beyond compilation. Legacy has released Davis boxes on close to an annual schedule, with the 1970 Cellar Door live recordings on schedule for September. When they do so, they reissue the relevant albums and usually offer a "best of" for anyone curious but sticker-shocked by the whole box. Most of the Davis records this time are breakouts from last year's Seven Steps box, but again I tried to clear my shelves. The boxes are mostly of interest to people who want to hear it all, and the value of that completism varies quite a bit from box to box. Sometimes it makes most sense to stay small, as with Bitches Brew, where the original album towers over the outtakes, but other times there's much to recommend in going large, as with the Plugged Nickel box. Seven Steps breaks down cleanly into discrete albums, and it's marginal enough (as Davis goes) to make it something of a toss-up.
Next month I'll try to get back to my original idea of four even quarters divided between jazz, rock, roots, and world. I have plenty of backlog but don't have much written up yet, so late August is going to be crunch time. (Or maybe I can start to scale a very time-consuming column down a bit.) Meanwhile, working on Jazz Consumer Guide, due late this week.