All the Jazz That's Fit to Print

A guide to guides to jazz recordings.

By Greg Mittag

With the recent printing of Jazz -- The Rough Guide in paperback, there are now three reference guides to recorded jazz vying for your cash. Which guide is right for you depends on what you're looking for.

The Rough Guide trade paperback is the most reader-friendly of the three. The right size for the number of pages (nearly eight hundred), it rests in the hand comfortably and lies open at any page. But, if inclusiveness is important, The Penguin Guide to Jazz, published in 1992, rivals War and Peace in length and breadth. It also has the most information on individual discs, so it's the best book to take along to the record store. The third option, 1994's The All Music Guide to Jazz, is concise and well-focused, unlike its bulky predecessor, The All Music Guide. However, the writing lacks narrative flow, which is one of the great strengths of the Rough Guide.

For a direct comparison, let's see what each guide has to say about Charlie Parker, the greatest improviser in jazz history. The Penguin Guide devotes 13 plus pages to Park, reviewing 42 albums available on CD, LP and cassette. There are only incidental snatches of biography -- the music is the thing here. The Penguin Guide caters to the collector with a smattering of music theory, while it's equally useful for the casual fan who just wants to know what Charlie Parker CD to buy. Using a five-star rating system, Penguin gives five Parker albums its highest recommendation. One of these, The Charlie Parker Story, is a very short CD for the money, with an awful spoken intro. A better choice would be Bird -- Savoy Original Master Takes, a double-CD set. It's well worth tracking down secondhand if necessary.

The Rough Guide entry on Parker is five paragraphs long. There is a realistic biographical portrait, and ten albums are chosen for further comment. The Charlie Parker Story shows up here again, lauded for its alternate and incomplete takes. Two other albums listed here are very weak and should be avoided. The first of these, Charlie Parker with Strings (which does have two indispensable recordings in "Just Friends" and "April in Paris") was a 'prestige' session that compromised Bird's talent. Even worse is The Cole Porter Songbook, featuring the alto-saxophonist's last sessions, his genius diminished at last by heroin addiction and ill-health. Parker in fact died within a year of these 1954 sides.

The All Music Guide to Jazz gives Parker three pages. Thirty-six albums are reviewed and the recommended albums make both jazz and consumer sense. The Complete Studio Sessions, a three-CD set of the Savoys (which I have not yet seen), which, if you can find it, eclipses my earlier recommendation.

This raises an obvious fact about reference books: like computers, they are obsolete as soon as you buy them. Music is constantly being issued and re-issued in various configurations, and that makes "best buys" hard to pin down.

The All Music Guide to Jazz' rating system, which attempts to distinguish between landmark recordings, essential albums for a collection and first purchases is somewhat confusing. Personally, I prefer the five-star rating system, although in the long run what the editors have to say is more important than any rating scale.

It does really come down to the editors. Europeans pioneered jazz scholarship, so it should not come as a surprise that two of these reference guides have been compiled by Brits. The editors of Jazz -- The Rough Guide, Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather and Brian Priestly are all respected jazz musicians and critics, who merit write-ups in their own book. Richard Cook and Brian Morton, fellow British scribes, edited the Penguin Guide to Jazz.

If, however, you would like to read a black American critic on a black American art form, then the All Music Guide to Jazz is the only choice. Editor Ron Wynn's imprint is everywhere in this book. Most of the entries are credited to him, although he does consult jazz periodicals such as Cadence, Down Beat and Coda. This over-reliance, however, on the frequently strong opinions of only one person tends to weaken The All Music Guide.

So, which jazz guide is right for you? If you're looking for a book with basic information and a few recommendations for each artist, you'll probably like Jazz -- The Rough Guide. If, on the other hand, you're already acquainted with the main artists and their classic albums, you'll probably find The Penguin Guide to Jazz a better source and hours of fascinating reading.

First published in Drop-D Magazine on May 24, 1996

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