Apr 16, 2013

In the Digital Age, Missing the Pleasures of Jazz on Records and Even, Yes, Cassettes

By Brian Morton

Something interesting happened this week. A single mail delivery brought the usual bunch of CDs, but also a tiny packet containing a matchbox containing in turn a private download code, a handsome ten-LP box set and a flat plastic case that snapped open to reveal three cassettes.  None of the latter three had much, or anything, to do with jazz. One was cutting edge post-rock, post-jazz, post-most things, one was a set of rich Philadelphia soul remixes, and the last a compilation of rehearsal tapes and demos by a once-celebrated New York band. Small matter; it was still a faintly unsettling moment, like one of those steampunk novels where spacetroopers pile out of hissing locomotives carrying clockwork weaponry, or a retro-futuristic Doctor Who episode in which Elizabethan magicians are revealed to be time-travelling scientists. I almost ran after the postman to see if he’d overlooked any eight-track stereo or some 78s.

It was an oddly nostalgic moment because twenty years ago, the late Richard Cook and I were contemplating the preparation of a second edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz, or to give it its full title The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP & Cassette. And in doing so, contemplating whether that cumbersomely inclusive label was still strictly necessary. I was then, as later, in favour of shortening it all to . . . Jazz on Record or . . . Recorded Jazz but was warned that for a substantial number of readers ‘record’ meant LP and that the compromise option had an awkward technical overtone that would put off others still. All the same, we were in 1993 fairly confident that CD had established empire over most of the known musical world. A boxed paragraph in our introduction to that second edition stated that ‘vinyl lives, but only just’, pointed to the mass extinction of the Muse and Xanadu catalogues (still the biggest net absence in modern jazz recording) and offered only a very tentative bulletin on the wavering vital signs of such competing carriers as Mini-Disc and Digital Compact Cassette. There were a few labels, Concord and Original Jazz Classics, who maintained a reasonable catalogue of jazz on cassette. There were even a handful of items at that time which were available cassette-only, and there was a small avant-garde market of cassette-based material, but apart from its use as in-car entertainment, nobody liked the cassette much. It had a nasty habit of spewing onto your floor like shiny ectoplasm. A friend crashed his week-old Ford when a Miles Davis cassette regurgitated and got tangled up in his pedals. He was a lousy driver, too.

In those days LP loyalism was the province of old men, Luddites and occasional rear-guardists, like the chap I knew at university who never failed to sport a ‘BACK TO MONO’ badge, a curiously heroic gesture of flat-earthism that nonetheless marked him down as hopelessly out of touch. He wouldn’t have seemed more outmoded in 1972 if he’d turned out wearing spats and twirling a cane.

My own first experiment with CD was actually a classical recording, a set of Messiaen piano pieces that I’d owned on vinyl for some years. I marvelled at the prolonged decays, at the lapidary clarity of the attacks, at the absence of all earthly noise and dirt; at all the things in short that mean so much less in jazz, where such precisions are by no means always looked for and often not welcomed. Jazz on CD seemed to me a little too clean-cut, too self-consciously presented, a little like the hardened criminal who turns up in court in a neat suit and with his hair combed. I realised that the roughness of vinyl sound was part of a very specific cultural experience, one which combined warmth with vulnerability. I still own records whose scars and cicatrisations memorialise precise moments in my life, as when I had to cuff Sam Gemmell for dropping the stylus on the opening of ‘Resolution’ on A Love Supreme, whose black-and-white cover was the carry-round prop for any deeply serious young man of my generation. The click Sam left is still there, as much part of the piece for me now as any of Elvin Jones’s scattered accents. I miss it when I listen to A Love Supreme on the super, de luxe, augmented CD edition.

Interestingly, and quite inconsistently on my part, that second edition of the Penguin Guide takes labels to task for not using the full capacity of CD to offer buyers additional material, or indeed second albums in twofer form. Both authors moved their feet considerably on this issue, arguing later that padding a brilliant 34-minute album up to 60 or 70, or in one recent case 80 minutes with spurious outtakes (which the artist and producer never wanted us to hear) or ‘bonus’ tracks, or live oddments, tended to blunt the original album rather than enhancing it. Now that huge amounts of modern, LP-era jazz is out of copyright, the market is stuffed to bursting with low-cost reissues of great records, packed in together like battery hens. It’s hard to complain about cheap; cheap is good, as the supermarkets know. It’s hard to complain about value for money, either; why does anyone complain about ‘buy one, get one free’, whether it’s salad leaves or jazz? The truth is that just as you’d only want to eat so much rocket and watercress in a week, so most of us don’t have the time, or perhaps the concentration for 80 minutes of music at a stretch. You don’t have to be old and prostatic to hanker after the days when an album ‘side’ – lovely concept: we always talked about having enough time to ‘play a side’ before going to the pub – occupied a perfect span of attention. Sometimes the experience was good enough to merit flipping over there and then, and still getting to the bar before it was rammed. But often it was just that.

There was an art to creating an LP, which was somewhat more than putting ten or eleven tracks end to end. I remember talking to the pop artist Lloyd Cole, who told me it had taken him a couple of weeks to make an album and then a couple of months to sort out the ideal running order. He had postcards with track titles in two rows on his study floor: side A and side B, constantly manipulated for maximum impact and punch. I don’t get much sense that anyone in the CD era goes to such lengths, and in some respects it would be futile if they did, for there is a natural ‘break’ in attention after 35 or 40 minutes. In my university teaching days, I learned quickly that 45 is the absolute maximum any group of students can take, however bright, unhungover or committed they are. Even if you’re as charismatic as George Steiner or Richard Feynman, for the final fifteen minutes they’ll only be watching your hands, not listening to your words.

I’m always immensely impressed by young artists who opt to put out a 45-minute CD, rather than stuffing it with so-so takes, an add-on standard and a protracted blues. Of course, the CD did make possible the presentation of large scale works entire. My old friend Gavin Bryars was one of the first to recognise that duration was also a structural and performative principle. His indeterminate work The Sinking of the Titanic changed when CD allowed a much longer representation of the score than the original Obscure recording did. I imagine that online allows performance of indeterminate length, the piece fading away slowly in cyberspace.

The Penguin Guide is in abeyance at the moment. Most readers will know that the ninth full edition was completed without Richard’s involvement, while he battled cancer, and that the ‘tenth’, a kind of complect of the whole project, was published after his untimely death. In the five years since, the CD market has exploded and while download hasn’t established much of a toehold in the jazz market (yet), it is among us and listeners will soon get to grips with the advantages of online buying. Who has a decent record shop nearby anyway? There are problems. Just as the market is dominated by reissues from which original artists receive not a penny, it’s clear that the online trade isn’t entirely fair to musicians either. A lot of due money has disappeared or been misdirected. ‘Twas ever thus, but what’s interesting is that, without pinning on ‘BACK TO VINYL’ badges, many of us have reawakened to the delights of the old-fashioned physical LP, that shiny disc that magically delivers sound, that calls for careful nurture, that comes in a package that is also beautiful and that demands only a reasonable tithe of one’s remaining hours. Various ideas are bandying around at the moment that will determine the future, nature and personnel of the Guide but what delights me most, after that intriguing batch of mail, is that we might be able to reinstate that on CD, LP and Cassette, which after all this time would be rather delightful.

Brian Morton is the co-author of the Penguin Guide to Jazz. This is his first article for Jazz CD Reviews.

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