Saturday, January 27, 2007
The Penguin Guide to Jazz
When I started to really get into jazz some 10-12 years ago, I wanted to find a resource to help me in my search for great records. Now, this was before I had easy and daily access to the web, so I was by and large looking for books. I shifted through a good few, but eventually ended up using The Penguin Guide to Jazz (abbr. PGJ) as my main point of reference. The reason? Well, a few: the sheer amount of records covered, and I also thought the writing by Richard Cook and Brian Morton was crisp and funny. But more than anything it was because some of the records I already liked (e.g. The Shape of Jazz to Come and Out to Lunch) were given thumbs-up, so there was a common base to work from, and also because of their use of the "Crown" in their rating system, which was reserved for a very few records. This appealed to me because it was a sober overview of their favorite records, and because their choices did not lean too heavily on the superstars of jazz. There were, and still are, enough resources out there telling you how great and essential every Miles Davis record is. Not that I don't like Miles, but I had no need for that. Thanks to Cook and Morton, I discovered such favorites as Charles Gayle's Touchin' on Trane, Papa Celestin & Sam Morgan, Mingus' The Black Saint & the Sinner Lady, Sun Ra's Jazz in Silhouette, and many more.
As my knowledge about jazz and the confidence in my own ears grew over the years, my liking and use for the PGJ lessened. I took issue with their occasional nit-picking over packaging - while I understand it from a purely consumer point of view, my main interest is the music itself even if the record comes in a brown paper sleeve with just the name printed on the front (though I agree it is important and helpful with extensive and well written booklets and sessionography when it comes to career overviews such as collections and box sets). The fact that they only cover records that are in print was also starting to bug me, and I began to notice that my taste often differed quite a lot from theirs (as is to be expected, and that in itself is not a reason why it should not remain a good resource).
In the last few editions of the PGJ, Cook and Morton have added to their "Crowns" a Core Collection, which I guess is supposed to be a more objective collection of records to balance with their subjective "Crowns". If you're looking for a quick view into these, Tom Hull (who I nowadays trust much more in terms of taste) has a list of them here. I own and love many of the records in the Core Collection, but some of their choices seem to me to have been picked - because of their "in print only"-policy - to cover for records that are no longer in print. I mean, you want an Air record in your collection (you actually want more than one Air record in your collection), but would you really pick Air Time over Air Lore?