My colleague Sasha Frere-Jones’s inspiring list of perfect recordings threw down an implicit gauntlet: he expressly excluded jazz. (Though, as I know, he loves jazz, he focussed on the “extravagant, savagely filtered, chopped, and layered sound objects” of pop, emphasizing the technological interventions central to the genre but unacceptable to many jazz musicians and fans, for whom the performance is sacred.) Since I’m a jazz obsessive largely because of one recording—Eric Dolphy’s “Out There,” which I first heard on the radio in 1973, at the age of fifteen—I’m also an obsessive about recordings of jazz, and I’ll be damned if I don’t think that some of them are perfect.
The kind of perfection I’ve got in mind is specific to the art: as I noted on Twitter last week, these tracks convey a sense of retrospective inevitability, or, as Jean-Luc Godard said of his 1962 film “Vivre Sa Vie,” of being “the definitive by chance.” In other words, my perfect recordings seem to possess an inner necessity, an idea that translates into an altogether different necessity: they’re necessary to me, personally. In his list, Frere-Jones explains that his perfect recordings “had to have had an acute and lasting effect on the community of musicians.” Mine had a lasting effect on me alone. But criticism, like art, depends on the notion that even the most subjective and individual experience can connect with that of others in different places, times, and circumstances, and there are several general principles at work in the impulses that motivate my choices.
In the early to mid-seventies, it was possible for an impecunious teen-ager to hear lots of live jazz in New York, thanks to the teeming loft scene—a few dollars for a cushion on the floor of Sam Rivers’s great Studio Rivbea, at 24 Bond Street; a couple of dollars for a folding chair and a day of music at one or another dusty loft around Broadway and Spring; a stool at an ancient bar in a neighborhood only newly christened Tribeca, where, with no cover charge, the bartender let me nurse a single beer through two sets.
At that time, I saw, in concert, many of my venerable heroes (Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Jackie McLean, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie,) along with new ones (David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake, Anthony Braxton) and those in between (Archie Shepp, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Rivers himself). But I also knew that I was living through an age of discontinuity—that the world of rock that I had grown up loving was sorely squeezing the world of jazz that I newly loved, that jazz was changing under the influence of a new popular idiom, that I was catching the vestiges of a classic era that was becoming something else—not necessarily worse, but radically different. Jazz radio (commercial jazz radio) was adding more fusion to the playlists by the day, and I wasn’t pleased: I had been excited by la différence, and now found that it was increasingly being effaced.
A few years later, in college, I spoke with a musician friend whom I met in a twentieth-century-music class. Walking through the courtyard with him after an hour or so devoted to Schoenberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra” or Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” I asked what he wanted to do after college. His answer: to teach jazz in conservatory. “Jazz in conservatory?” I asked. “Is that done?” His answer was, “It will be”—and so it is (and he rapidly rose to the forefront of jazz education). Jazz—or, at least, the kind of jazz that I had gotten enthusiastic about—was becoming another variety of classical music.
In listing my own perfect recordings, I acknowledge a classicism that is intended as a spark to action—not a blind reverence for the past but a critical enthusiasm that should inspire the discovery of recent musicians and their work, that should build upon (or reject) the accidents of tradition and seek newer inspirations. I’d like to read the perfect-recordings lists of writers and musicians who are inside the scene, who know what isn’t yet known and who see the future of jazz. Frere-Jones limited his list to those made in his lifetime. I’m going to stand that notion nearly on its head and include only recordings made in or before 1973 (a few slide in just under the wire).
I put out a few handfuls of titles on Twitter; the only one from that batch that I have to sacrifice to this premise is Charles Mingus’s 1974 recording of “C Jam Blues,” live from Carnegie Hall. I should also mention Jackie McLean and Michael Carvin’s duet “De I Comahlee Ah,” also from 1974. (And this is a good place to note the singular importance of the Jazz Discography Project; it’s an online wonder.)
The simplest definition of the list I have pulled together is that it has nothing to do with historical significance, solely to do with my own memory. They’re not only recordings that I revisit often (though I do) but recordings that come unbidden, that remember themselves, so to speak—earworms that multiply into ideas of music as such. They’re not necessarily “the best” or even the most exemplary of their performers; they’re recordings that have taken me over. (A certain catchiness comes into play in a way that it wouldn’t in a pure evaluation of artistic merit.)
It’s in no way a representative list, not at all a roundup of the greats, some of whom are represented several times and some of whom don’t figure at all. (Some musicians, in their peak years, made only truly perfect recordings, one after the other; the recorded heritage of jazz, it should be reëmphasized, is an inestimably great and vast treasure.)
A few notes:
With all recordings, the very sound of the recording plays a large role in the psychic image that the music creates—whether it’s the narrow but intimate stage of a cramped studio, a bootleg off-the-air with static that conjures the serendipity of the moment’s preservation, or even a studio with some reverb that artificially suggests a casual public space. Sound recording is itself as much an art as a technique, but sometimes its absolute artlessness is an aesthetic as well.
I detect a discographical pattern—a peculiar number of first tracks of LPs, maybe a result of the happenstance of first impressions and frequent exposure, but also because producers and musicians would likely be aware of a special moment in the making.
I detect a musicological pattern—drummers. Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Sid Catlett, Max Roach, Arthur Taylor, Tony Williams, Sunny Murray, Sonny Greer, Jo Jones, Ed Blackwell, Roy Haynes, Dannie Richmond, Billy Higgins, Dennis Charles—when the music comes to mind, there’s a special place for the drums, which play in my mind like the architecture of jazz, the solid framework that gives the music its decisive form. Which is why …
Idiom: bebop and after. I’ve noticed a preponderance of performances from the mid-forties onward. I think it’s because of the liberated role of the drum in the bebop and post-bop eras.
I set myself a rule: no research (except to verify titles and takes), no attempt at comprehensiveness. (But I did tweak the Twitter list a little.)
Frere-Jones put up five times forty; I’m putting up those that first came to mind unbidden, as a start, yielding to the improvisational principle. (The number is sixty-six.) You can listen to many of the tracks on Spotify. For most of the remainder, I’ve included YouTube links below.
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James Gavin, journalist and author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker