The Essential Album Guide
Edited by Steve Holtje and Nancy Ann Lee
Visible Ink Press, 1390 pages (paper), $26.95
Reviewed by Don Rose
The latest contender in what is getting to be a glut (can it be?) of guides to recorded jazz weighs in like a telephone directory with its own Blue Note sampler CD attached. The editors of "MusicHound Jazz" plus 85 other writers have combined to produce some 1,300 signed biographical-discographical sketches of jazz artists, ranging from Greg Abate to John Zorn. Then there's an extensive appendix of jazz labels, book lists, periodicals, websites, music venues, radio stations and festivals.
Each entry begins with a brief biography, then subsections called "what [discs] to buy," "what to buy next," "best of the rest" and "worth searching for"—then "what to avoid." The discs are ranked on a scale of one to five "bones" (this is MusicHound, get it?) and for many artists there is a graphic segment designated "monster solo," presumably the player's best. Finally, there's an innovative short list at the end of each entry designating players who were influences on the given artist followed by those who were influenced by him/her. The listings also frequently give credit to producers—another fine innovation—with an index of producers at the end, plus an index of band personnel.
The five-bone rating is supposed to indicate "nirvana," a state reached by some 600 artists and nearly 800 discs or sets—with Art Pepper the apparent champion, garnering 20 five-bone items (runners up are Miles Davis with 17 and Sarah Vaughan with 16). Contrast this with a stingy 50 five-star ratings given by my personal favorite among these encyclopedic guide books, "The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette," which was compiled and written by two British authors, Richard Cook and Brian Morton. (Neither author signs the individual entries, so you don't know whose taste you're dealing with here; they seem to have come to an agreement in any case. At least with MusicHound you know with whom you agree or disagree.)
The exuberance of all those five-bone ratings is reflected in much of the writing in MusicHound, which is often promotional rather than analytical, as is the Penguin guide—or smartass, as is "Jazz: The Rough Guide." In an effort to be comprehensive, the MusicHound guide questionably reaches out to include some hip-hoppers, popular bands and vocalists who can only marginally be considered jazz artists. It includes an incredible range of jazz players, including a lot of current players who don't always get much ink. Everyone, however, will find some favorite omitted, such as one of mine: tenorman Don Lanphere. But on the whole, the editors have done an outstanding job in what can only be considered an exceptionally daunting task. A hundred years of music, thousands of players and a couple of hundred thousand records is difficult to comprehend, let alone analyze rationally.
I can't pretend to have read every entry here, but I've thoroughly spot- checked scores of entries for the facts as I know them, and give it an A for accuracy in the biographical realm. Naturally enough, however, I can find a lot of arguments with the choices of many of the writers.
How, for example, does J. J. Johnson's "The Great Kai and Jay" rate five bones while his masterwork, "The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson" gets only four? How does Ramsay Lewis's "The In Crowd" rank five bones at all? Is Charlie Parker's "Perdido" from the Massey Hall concert really his "monster solo"? Or is Art Tatum's "I Wish I Were Twins" his monster, or "Bright Dream" Thelonius Monk's?
There's often an odd balance in the text as well. For example, vibist-bandleader Terry Gibbs gets two and a half pages of text, while Parker gets barely more than half that—though he is accorded a full-page photo.
Okay. "Go write your own book!" is a good response to my own carping. And if I do, I'm sure no one will ever dare take issue with my personal rankings. But until I get that volume into print sometime late in the next millennium, I'm happy to add this volume to my shelf, despite all of the above criticisms.
If, however, you're going to buy just one of these big, $25 books as a general guide, I would lean toward the Penguin for more consistent, tough-minded evaluations—though the Hound's vast biographical data and many indexes are wonderful for cross referencing.