The New York Times Essential Library:
Jazz—a critic’s guide to the 100 most important recordings
By Ben Ratliff
Times Books/Holt, November 2002, 249 pages (paper), $16
Reviewed by Don Rose
The New York Times’ outstanding young jazz and pop critic, Ben Ratliff, enters the “best discs” game with his own idiosyncratic constellation that mixes a dozen or so of the usual suspects with some surprisingly suspicious oddballs, all backed by a delightful set of explications, discussions and rationales. Here’s all the fun of matching notes with a smart guy who knows his music, knows his history and knows his own mind—and digging in to check out exactly how that mind works.
Right off he announces, “It’s dismaying to me that the story of jazz is retold so often through the medium of recordings. For me, the transcendent experiences of jazz—the ones that make you feel weepy, or uprooted and a little sick, or so beguiled that you feel light for the next few days—are performances. . . Albums don’t often do this to me anymore.”
Well, right there is the eternal conundrum of jazz music. The great jazz, ever improvised, ever changing, is perforce ephemeral; but halfway by accident, relative tidbits of it are captured on wax or wire or tape, live or in the studio. It is those tidbits, however, that have become our reference points, our history—a history of course that was not always as accessible as it is today, when virtually all of it is out there, ours for the listening.
Thus Ratliff, like many before him, by indirection, by giving us 100 exemplary or “important” recordings, gives us a jazz history—fragmented and without a continuing narrative, to be sure, but a history he works hard to put into a social and political context. It’s the effort to contextualize historically that leads to some of the more unusual selections and omissions. It has to be “context” that leads to the inclusion of, say, a Louis Jordan compilation and the absence of a Bud Powell album (except on a subsidiary, unannotated list of 100 more recordings tacked on at the end).
Of course “Kind of Blue” is here, with the Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens, the Parker Dials and Savoys, Trane’s “A Love Supreme,” Duke’s Blanton-Webster band, the Basie Deccas, Dizzy’s RCA Victor set, Andrew Hill’s “Point of Departure,” “The Audience with Betty Carter,” and Sarah Vaughan’s Mercury set with Clifford Brown, among several others you’ll find in almost anybody’s edition of the canon.
(A “recording” as defined here may be a standard single CD or a box set of as many as eight discs such as the recent Parker collection.) What’s interesting is that Ratliff is often able to offer a new or useful take on pieces that have been written about endlessly for decades.
But seemingly from off the wall come such forgotten relics as organist Baby Face Willette’s “Face to Face,” an old Ran Blake-Jeanne Lee collaboration, and even a cowboy-swing album by Bob Wills. Or his including the widely disdained Miles Davis compilation, “Get Up with It,” among the several Davis discs that make the list. He restores Stan Kenton to the canon—calling “Improvisation,” William Russo’s work for the band, a “bona fide orchestral classic.” This, Dear Reader, is what used to be known as catholic taste with a lower-case “c.”
Catholicity of taste and a youthful outlook—he is in his early thirties—also serve to make this one of the most progressive and up-to-date historical roundups. Though he acknowledges the omission of a lot of fine records made prior to 1945, he happily includes plenty of the sorts of avant-garde and new-thing choices left out of you-know-who’s vaunted TV history of jazz.
Here Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, Cecil Taylor, Henry Threadgill, Don Pullen and Steve Coleman are given their due alongside Earl Hines and Earl Garner; Cassandra Wilson and Abbey Lincoln alongside Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.
In between the expected items and the far-out choices are a host of selections in which the artists are expected but the pick of the discs are surprising: Sonny Rollins’s “Saxophone Colossus” is missing in action, but “Way Out West” is present; a late-forties Mingus album is there but of the later masterworks, only “Ah-Um” appears in that listing of 100 additional choices. The long-out-of-print Julius Hemphill masterpiece “Dogon A.D.” is tantalizingly included and analyzed, essentially in the hope that someone will finally reissue the damn thing. Great idea!
Just reading down the table of contents may have you scratching your head, but the real fun is getting into his texts—two or three pages per selection—to check out the whys and wherefores of his nominations. He finds a “chilliness,” for example, in Eric Dolphy’s widely acclaimed masterwork “Out to Lunch,” and instead nominates the great reedman’s “Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot” to the top 100. The latter disc, says Ratliff, “presents him at his most relaxed. Here he sounds like part of a larger aesthetic history, not a marginal figure.” Not sure I would agree with the “chilliness” point—or the marginality of “Lunch”--but interesting thinking nonetheless.
Ratliff has all the essential qualities of the great critic: he’s well grounded technically, he can hear details and analyze them well and he’s a sufficiently gifted writer to bring it all together for the interested reader—even the reader who may not be familiar with all the musical terminology. Here he is on one of Coltrane’s most difficult recordings, “Interstellar Space”:
His playing is intense, lusty and sometimes smeared with harsh, abrasive noise, but it is not scattershot. He finds areas of exploration and methodically roots around in them. Four minutes into "Venus," he finds a pivot point in the middle register, oscillating back and forth from it toward low, dark notes that work their way up into the horn. Two minutes and twelve seconds into ‘Jupiter,’ Coltrane starts gushing descending scales, altering these with shrieks a minute later. Then, around the five-minute mark he finally returns to the three-note theme, repeated and bounced around between octaves...
He’s also capable of fine cross-cultural images: Parker, he says, “was one of the preeminent geniuses of the twentieth century, a figure sharing the same rarified terrace as Eliot, Faulkner, Picasso, Welles and Balanchine.” Of Betty Carter he observes, “As a singer she didn’t present a popular song in a neat package. As Michael Ondaatje is a line-by-line novelist—which is to say his larger structures aren’t as impressive as the sureness with which he writes a single sentence—Carter was a line-by-line singer.”
About a third of Ratliff’s entries are either pianists’ groups or pianist-led big bands; this, coupled with his detailed musical analysis of several recordings of piano music, suggested to me the critic has a background in playing the instrument. I am advised, however, he studied it only briefly. His main ax is guitar, but only three guitarists make the list: Django Reinhardt with his final Stephane Grappelli collaboration, “Djangology;” John McLaughlin, with “The Inner Mounting Flame” and Pat Metheny with his remarkable first album, “Bright Size Life.” (Charlie Christian and Grant Green make the addendum.)
The hundred recordings are not ranked, but presented sequentially by the date they were made. He begins with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and winds up with the very deserving Jason Moran. Thus you’ll find one Ellington entry listed at Number 8, another at 17 and yet another, “The Far East Suite—Special Mix” at 75, being dated 1966. The Earl Hines entry is actually Number 83, recorded 1971-75. Now, if Ratliff ever tries to actually rank these recordings qualitatively, we’ll have a real nitpickers fest.
Copyright ©2002 Don Rose