Q and A

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Tom Hull.

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June 29, 2021

[Q] If it isn't too much work, it'd be great if you could create an index of graded releases for each year from like 1970 onward like on Christgau's site. I'd love if we could get pre-1990 recommendations from your site, or see non-A records you graded pre-1990, since your available lists start from 1990. Thanks. -- Ricky Erickson, New Zealand [2021-06-22]

[A] Best answer here would be to put all of the data in my "database" files into a real database, like I use for the Christgau website. Then I could write scripts to do queries. Several things make that a lot of work, but maybe some day. What's kept me from doing this is that I've never been happy with the Christgau database schema, and as much as I've thought about it, I've never come up with something I really do like. I could get into the technical weeds on that, but suffice it to say: normalizing artist and label names turned out not to work very well (which is largely, but not exclusively, Peter Stampfel's fault, or Christgau's, inasmuch as he insisted on preserving all of Stampfel's aliases); and I wanted to track recording dates as well as the arbitrary release dates Christgau uses, and that complicates things. Still, at this point I could probably come up with a single table that would work ok. The bigger problem would be correcting various discrepancies in 61,078 data records.

Another approach would be what I recently did for 1971, which was to construct a new file by hand. That took a couple days, mostly in research to verify actual release dates. For instance, I originally had Jack Johnson filed with its recording date (1970) instead of release date (1971). A lot of jazz albums in the "database" only have recording dates, as that's what Penguin Guide uses. Also, I wanted to check the original labels -- the "database" often substitues reissue labels, as that's often what I actually listened to. While interesting as a single-year project, I could see that getting real tedious trying to cover every year.

Finally, there is a third approach: I routinely generate a flat table of everything in the "database," so it's possible to write scripts to pull data from it. This is how I generate my Artist Grade Lists, so I wondered if I could spend an hour or so and write a script to pull out lists by release date. Here's what I came up with. The big problem is that the underlying data doesn't have reliable release date data (indeed, it needs to be modeled differently, which means checked and possibly changed for those 61,078 records -- the number comes from counting the number of lines in the file). A more obvious enhancement would be to sort the records by grade. (Sorting by letter grade is a bit of a nuisance, and the artist name sort is messy, too.) That's a bigger job than my time budget allowed for, but not especially difficult. Another enhancement could be to split the data into new and old music lists, based on a recording date heuristic. One could then apply the style of the 1971/2021 lists, minus rank order. It's hard and nearly pointless to try to rank within grade levels anyway.

[Q] It is well known that one of your all time favourite albums is Winter Moon by Art Pepper. There are of course of more string albums by jazz artists, Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown to name two of them. You made it clear in the past that you are not a big fan of Parker (the horn, not the strings I think) but can you elaborate on why you like the Pepper one more then the Brown. Is it the sappy arrangements, the lack of improvisation, it certainly can't be the tone. And why is there no Brown in your list of 1.000 albums for a better and happy life (not even the collaborations with Max Roach or Sarah Vaughan). -- Ziggy Schouws, Amsterdam [2021-06-21]

[A] The vogue for saxophone-with-strings albums may be something else we can blame Charlie Parker for, but it reflects an idea common in the 1950s that strings are classy, as in classical (respectable) music. The result was a spate of albums with formidable saxophone leads over string-laden murk. Parker's 1949-50 strings "Master Takes" fit that description, as do similar efforts by Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and many others. Still, not all of Parker's strings projects were waste. The smaller string section he used in The Complete Legendary Rockland Palace Concert worked out nicely. Several cuts from that wind up Rhino's Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection, which is easily the best Parker intro ever released, and recommended to anyone who wants to know what the hype is about.

Later saxophone/strings albums are more varied. Stan Getz's Focus is exceptional in that the strings are so distinctive they're worth the attention on their own. The strings on Winter Moon aren't that interesting, but with Pepper's alto (and Stanley Cowell's piano) the album is simply gorgeous -- not a concept I'm especially big on, but there's no simpler way to put it. Nearly everything Pepper did from his Village Vanguard sessions in 1977 to his death in 1982 was extraordinary. I wouldn't say this is better than the rest, but it does stand out.

There weren't many trumpet-with-strings albums, with Brown's by far the most famous. He died in a car crash when he was 25, leaving little more than 3 years of records, but during that brief period he towered above his contemporaries (including Miles Davis). I'm not a big fan of either With Strings or Sarah Vaughan (a Penguin Guide crown album), though I blame neither on Brown, who was rarely anything short of superb. It was sheer sloppiness that I left Brown off my 1,000 Records list. I had 5 of his records in my commented-out candidate list. The obvious pick should have been Study in Brown, although More Study in Brown is on the same level.

I should probably say something more about Sarah Vaughan. I've graded 20 of her albums, none above B+(***), and most well below. Technically, she was one of the greatest vocalists of all time. Her voice was deep and distinct, and her control, especially her timing, was beyond compare. Her early work with Columbia was slaughtered by her string arrangers, but even when given a decent jazz combo she seemed remote up on her pedestal. I have the same reservations about Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter, who were about as similar as any singers could be to someone as unique as Vaughan.

[Q] What website(s) do you use as resources for new jazz releases, if any? -- Fred, Vancouver, Canada [2021-06-19]

[A] There's no simple answer to that, probably because I haven't found any sites that are broad and complete enough. I pick up information from all over the place, but I only once tried to compile a complete list of jazz releases: back around 2005. Since 2014 I've kept a tracking file, which probably peaked in 2020 with 1891 jazz records (851 rated). I started assembling my EOY list aggregate early, with points awarded for favorable reviews in 50+ publications, mostly as tracked by AOTY and Metacritic, but also including several jazz reviews they didn't track: All About Jazz, Downbeat, Free Jazz Collective, and the jazz columns in Bandcamp Daily (Dave Sumner) and Stereogum (Phil Freeman). I also counted everything Tim Niland wrote about in Music and More. I also consulted the lists maintained by Chris Monsen and Phil Overeem. I also get regular email bulletins from Downtown Music Gallery and SquidCo, although I don't compile them regularly (DMG includes a lot of reviews of old product). I also get a lot of email from labels, publicists, and a few artists, though most of it goes straight into the bit bucket.

This year I've slacked off from my music tracking considerably (thus far, the 2021 file only has 377 jazz records, 252 rated; if you pro rate for 5/12 months, my ratings this year are down 29%, but overall listings are down 52%). One thing I tried was Discogs, but even using their filters { Jazz, Album, 2020s, 2021 } the search offers 3,227 albums, so it's a long slog to find a few items of interest. I've also looked at Jazz Music Archives, but I haven't found a way to scroll back, which really limits its usefulness.

There really should be a free database and software of album release data. I thought about that as a project back in the early 2000s, and was involved in MusicBrainz for a while, but never quite saw eye-to-eye with the project (focus there was on tagging digital files where I wanted to track physical product). I don't know how hard it would be to write an application using their data, or indeed how much useful data they actually have (although a useful ap would motivate people to add data).

[Q] You seem to like her Compass Point output (two A minuses and a B plus), and you've reviewed two of her [Grace Jones] single disc compilations. I wonder what you think of the double disc collection Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions. I would assume it's a no-brainer pick for you, since it contains most of the three albums (looks like about 90%), but it uses longer versions and dub versions etc, so maybe it's de trop? Or maybe the original albums hang together better? Any thoughts? Thanks. -- David, Washington, DC [2021-04-29]

[A] Grading reissues is most often a hopeless and thankless task. By definition, the material is redundant, so its value depends first on whether you already have it -- something the critic doesn't know. If you don't, what effect has age had on interest? There was a moment when it surprised to see the model Jones struck her pose over Sly & Robbie's new wave/dance synthesis, but that moment's passed. I'm not sure anyone needs this music, although I still enjoy (if hardly ever play) the 1980-82 albums, but if you do want to sample it I'd suggest the 11-track Millennium Edition over the individual albums or the 2-CD compilation -- unless you're a DJ, the long versions don't help, and the odds and sods are marginal ("She's Lost Control" is good, but doesn't need 17:00). I'll write a separate review, but it's not good that they left out "Bullshit."

[Q] Was there a better artist during the '00s than Buck 65? I've had both Square and Talkin' Honky Blues in rotation during the past year and my fascination with both albums hasn't waned a bit -- it's just so clear how inspired and durable both albums are. Also, is Laurie Anderson's Strange Angels an A+? I think she flirts with banality far too much for it to qualify even if the good stuff outweighs the bad stuff and the concept of the record is so affecting. -- David [2021-03-31]

[A] Strange Angels is a truly great album. United States Live may also deserve an A+, but at 5-LP/4-CD it's a little mind-boggling. Christgau thinks Heart of a Dog is even better, but I didn't buy a copy, so haven't spent enough time with it (although I can still remember enough that perhaps I should).

I wrote about Buck 65 for Rolling Stone, and his grade list is here. I've never indulged in decadal rankings of any sort, and see no reason to start now.