Friday, January 9, 2009

On the "Historical Record" of Modern Jazz

Anyone who has seen the German documentary, Blue Note - A Story of Modern Jazz, as I did back when the Ovation Channel was still in business, can be forgiven for taking it to be the story of modern jazz. However, while there is no denying the major role that Blue Note played in cultivating the necessary listening skills for the new sounds of jazz that began to emerge after the Second World War, it would be a mistake to overlook some of the other labels that issued recordings without which any historical study of jazz would be woefully inadequate. Consider, for example, those two works that had been so influential to Anthony Braxton, Albert Ayler's "Bells" and John Coltrane's "Ascension," both of which were produced by Bob Thiele for Impulse! Records. Admittedly, Creed Taylor would not have been able to launch Impulse! in 1960 had Blue Note not prepared listeners for their "new wave of jazz;" but, if we are to accept Ashley Kahn's epithet for Impulse! as "The House that Trane Built," we should remember that Coltrane's work with Blue Note was relatively modest (which is not to dismiss the significance of Blue Train) and that much of his truly formative work (including his recordings with Miles Davis' "first quintet") was produced by Prestige. I find myself writing this because I have come to realize that much of my appreciation of "emerging voices" comes from the Prestige anthologies I have acquired over the years, which include (in alphabetical order) John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins. These CD collections are products of meticulous compilation by Eric Miller (Dolphy and Monk) and the venerable Orrin Keepnews (Coltrane, Davis, and Rollins); and they are invaluable resources for anyone (like myself) who believes that both composition and performance are best understood through opportunities for diachronic listening. When I then consider the richness of the notes that accompany each of these collections, I realize how clueless "Audiophiliac" Steve Guttenberg is in his despair over a report that "projects that it won't be until 2012 that download sales surpass CD sales." However, this is not the first time I have had to recognize that Guttenberg seems more interested in listening to high-quality digital sounds, rather than high-quality performances of music!

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