Essays

The Core Collection: Introduction

At the end of 2015, my best friend finally set his mind to do something he had been thinking about for a long time: systematically listening to a thousand albums over the course of a single year. He took an expansive approach, planning to listen to albums across nearly every conceivable genre, relistening to the favorites in his collection, hip hop, jazz and rock albums he’d had for years, and broadening his horizons with classics he didn’t know so well. He expanded his collection of classical music and charted a course through 80’s punk and heavy metal.

I took up the task alongside him, although with a more limited scope of genres, and we periodically compared notes. How many albums we’d gotten through that week and how we rated them. I performed admirably at first and was even ahead through the first half of the year, though my pace slowed and my friend overtook me soon after. He cruised comfortably towards 1,000, while I started to give up in the 800’s. Eventually I abandoned his goal and decided I would take up a slightly different task: Listening through the entire Penguin Guide to Jazz core collection.

As humans we have something of a need to categorize and rank. It’s a tendency that leads critics to produce an endless supply of lists: albums of the year, of the decade, of another decade (with the benefit of hindsight), of all time, albums everyone should hear, worst albums of all time (that everyone should avoid), and on and on. Many of these lists are not particularly useful exercises, yet I think that something like a core collection for jazz might actually be very useful.

New music builds off of and references what came before. This is true for all genres generally, but is especially true of jazz. Jazz perhaps more so than any other type of music demands that its audience has a foundation. It’s not just that jazz musicians will regularly reference past players, but they go so far as to expect a certain familiarity with specific songs. The culture of ‘standards’ that exists in jazz is not generally found in other popular musics. No one would expect that a current rock band would regularly play Bill Haley or Elvis Presley hits from the 50’s, although some certainly do, but there is an expectation that jazz musicians, even if they are current and writing their own material, will play standards that are often even older.

If you’re not playing the standards directly, you may well be partaking in another pastime of jazz, that of writing new melodies to standard songs. This was done in the past partly as a way for jazz musicians to play over the changes of popular songs while avoiding royalty issues (royalties for, say, ‘Rhythm a’ning’ went to Monk, rather than Gershwin for writing ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ from whence Monk’s composition took its chords), but this practice has evolved into something slightly different. If I write a new head for ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’ or ‘Giant Steps’, I do so with intention that the audience will understand what I am playing.

Even if they are mostly interested in listening to new music, a jazz fan would therefore benefit substantially from listening to classic records. Of course that opens the contentious question of which records are classic. Enter the self assured commentator with their collection list.

I decided to go through the Penguin Guide to Jazz because it is relatively well respected as an even handed and comprehensive guide. This strategy seemed simple enough but, as it turned out, presented its own set of difficulties. For starters, which edition to use. Previous editions of the guide sought to be comprehensive and had brief reviews of something on the order of ten thousand albums, in addition to placing particularly good or important albums in the core collection list or awarding them crowns. The current edition, number ten, eschews this style entirely. Rather than try and review everything, the tenth edition presents only the top thousand or so albums and no longer has ratings or a core collection. So, unless I plan on going through a thousand albums (a task I’ve already proven I can’t accomplish in a year), I can’t use the tenth edition. The contents of the collections are also slightly different between the 7th, 8th and 9th edition, though, so which list to use is a legitimate question. I’ve taken the expansive approach of using anything that made it onto any of the lists, creating a master list of two hundred and thirty something items.

I say ‘items’ rather than ‘albums’ because many of the things listed are significantly more than albums. This is the second problem: the presence of so many sets. Take, for instance, Thelonious Monk. It’s hard to imagine a core collection that was lacking completely in Monk, and the Penguin guides do indeed list plenty of Monk, but very few specific albums are listed. Brilliant Corners, my favorite, is on the list and the album with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall makes it onto the list as a crowned album, rather than a ‘core collection’ album. These are the only two specific albums listed. There are in addition to those, however, two other sets. The complete Blue Note recordings over four discs and the complete Riverside recordings over 15. This is a common feature of the list: seminal artists have nearly their whole discographies represented in the form of box sets.

Listening through the entire list, therefore, becomes an exercise in interpretation. Unless I intend to give all of Monk (and all of Charlie Parker, and the 12 discs worth of Louis Armstrong, etc.) a listen or relisten, I will have to be somewhat selective with what I actually listen to. It also proved hard to find some of the albums listed, particularly those covering some of the early entries. Therefore, I made two choices. First, that I would boil the box sets down to a handful of representative albums a piece rather than approach them exhaustively, and second I decided to start listening through the albums in chronological order, but starting with those from 1950, a year chosen semi-randomly that will help me avoid albums that I can’t find. Maybe later I will loop around to do an early-jazz listening session, but for now, this seemed like a good place to start. I ended up with a list of 202 items, so at a rate of one a week, it will still be nearly four years to get through them all.

The first album I listened to was Stan Getz Live at Storyville. You can find my review here.

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