Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Writers don’t usually get much say on what goes on the covers of their books, but my old mentor – and briefly my boss – Malcolm Bradbury ruthlessly pulled rank over the cover of The History Man, his iconic campus novel of sexual and political betrayal, in which the Categorical Imperative is stomped to powder. Instead of something more hip and obvious, Malcolm insisted on Francisco Goya's strange painting "A Dog Engulfed in Sand," which depicts precisely that and nothing more, almost abstract, outwardly pointless, curiously disturbing. To Malcolm, it meant something quite specific about the way we are continually besieged by the factitious and by shifting particles of information. To a dog lover, it might well mean something different. Me, I’m coming to understand what the poor mutt must be feeling.
The tipping point came recently when the mail brought more music than there are hours in the day. Not just the hours that I might commit to listening, as opposed to sleeping, eating, walking with my wife or playing with my boy, but the actual 24. It would be reassuring to think that this was an isolated blip, but it has rapidly become the norm. It would be tempting to retort that if you set yourself up in the business of reviewing and talking about jazz records for a living, what else can you expect? You don’t hear dentists complaining about the number of teeth out there – well, do you? Not even pausing to discuss the differential rates of renumeration for jazz reviewing and root canal work, we’ll move on past that one.
The issue is, in any case, somewhat more philosophical. For the first time, a situation presents itself whereby I could quite reasonably spend every hour of every day listening to music, not only without repetition but also without much prospect of returning to a record for a second audition. At one level, this holds out the promise of choice. This has been one of the main honorifics in British politics and social thought in recent years: if legislation widens choice – in schooling, medical care – that is somehow taken to be self-evidently good, ignoring the possibility that a family might be left with a choice between two indifferent schools or hospitals.

Something of the same applies in jazz at the moment. Sure, I have plenty of choice. The latest box offers a wilderness of repackaged West Coast obscurities, all of them threateningly pumped up with ‘bonus’ material, precisely the kind of stuff one formerly hoarded on vinyl on the sure understanding that it would never be reissued. We’re approaching the promised – or threatened – Alexandrian culture where everything ever committed to print or to one of the recording media is at least notionally available to us, and often at a deceptively low price. The advent of labels like Definitive, Fresh Sound, Gambit, Lone Hill and others that flirt with current copyright legislation have undoubtedly performed a valuable service in bringing forward work that would otherwise languish in jazz’s Dead Letter Office, and to that extent they have to be welcomed. However, the flirting is sometimes more like a hasty embrace and some of these records have to be withdrawn almost before they’re in general circulation. And there’s a more fundamental question, which goes to the question of how much time any jazz fan, even the most committed, might have actually to listen to much of this stuff, as opposed merely to owning it, when there’s such a constant flow of new material with more urgent imperatives attached.         

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote about everyone among the living having half a dozen ghosts standing behind him. In jazz recording terms, that number probably has to be doubled or tripled. The dead hand of the ‘back catalogue’ continues to strangle new initiatives in the music. At least 80 per cent of what I receive weekly here is archive, reissue or merely repackaged material. The unwillingness of the major to invest in new jazz recording is now so familiar and notorious that no one any longer questions what the exact nexus might be. If the suggestion is that the money spent on endless ‘best ofs’ and ‘collecteds’ might be redistributed to new recordings, I suspect it’s a fond and possibly naïve hope. The opposite case might apply: that the existence of corporate reissue programs, even the most mechanical and commercially pragmatic, might be the only thing that continues to sustain the admittedly small and unambitious recording schedule the bigger labels still manage to sustain.

Look at the situation another way. Fresh Sound, easily the most promiscuous of the magpie imprint, also run the New Talent marquee, which sounds promising and which has provided an astonishing number of up-and-coming artists with an early recording break. Hand on heart, though, I’d have to say that a depressingly high proportion of that now substantial catalogue barely passes muster in artistic terms, much of it sounding tentative, unachieved or plain generic, precisely the kind of stuff the bigger labels’ quality control kept out of view.

The advent of the CD, miniaturized recording technologies and the Internet have together encouraged the spread of artist-led labels. Some of these stand in the same relation to real commercial recording as one of those railway station print-your-own-business-card machines does to real book publishing. Many artists consider CDs as something to hand out, or sell cheaply at gigs, which is fair enough, but a remarkable number still continue to promote casually made recordings as if they were significant aesthetic statements., and this is where the real – that is, qualitative as opposed to quantitative – problem kicks in.

This afternoon’s post – living so far from civilization has the benefit the bills and the padded envelopes don’t arrive early enough to spoil breakfast or to clash with the hangover – brought seven CDs, one of which I’d requested, one of which wasn’t strictly jazz, three of which were by artists and on labels that I’d never heard of. One was from an old friend whose work I’d make time for in any circumstance, and one from someone with whom I’ve clashed so often in print and in person that I’ve declared a moratorium on reviewing or any public comment whatsoever. My friend’s record would never be a workaday chore, the ordered one was for a specific purpose which is still some way down the road, so I put on the first of the newbies. What a delight in times past to put on an LP by a completely new name; always that little flutter of anticipation, in case some revelation or epiphany was at hand.

That’s faded a little over the years, inevitably, but the epiphany today was a drenchingly disappointing one. The first record, the second and about three quarters of the third contained nothing that I could with any honest describe as original, technically accomplished or pleasing. The first record, by a saxophonist who fronts what’s apparently a working quintet, has three glaring clinkers in the first few choruses, and is peppered with poor articulation, reed squeaks and other flaws. Add to that a sound recording that would have embarrassed Rudy Van Gelder’s deaf uncle Charlie, and I was left wondering why anyone on God’s green earth would be persuaded to part with real money for such a record, or not to rush straight back to the store for a refund if they fallen for it.

More frequent, but no less dispiriting, is the kind of record that bespeaks a college-acquired musical facility, every technical nicety comfortably in place, but with absolutely no expressive presence or indication that the musicians are playing out of a life experience rather than a series of academic modules. Of the two, frankly, I’d rather have the guys dropping clinkers.

The horrible irony of the current situation is that I feel perversely grateful to receive a batch of reissues, not at all because my tastes ossified in 1988 or 1998, but because so much of the current crop really is, by some still-subjective but well-attested standard, palpably inferior. There are still, of course, wonderful things coming through. I put on a CD yesterday – Solar Forge by Totem, the trio of guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, bassist Tom Blancate and drummer Andrew Drury, issued on the legendary and again revived ESP-Disk label – that restored my faith in contemporary jazz almost at a stroke, and there is some logic in saying that the flip-flop from quantity to quality is perhaps precisely what the current glut is about, rather than having to wait all month for a comparatively small release program only to find that most of the records are, well, mildly disappointing.

There is one further dimension to the question, one that continually perturbs me and one that nears obsessionism as I move through the final production stages of the current Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings: whether or not listening to music in such bulk – up in the morning, slide a disc into the player, then get the coffee on . . . fall asleep (if I haven’t overdone the coffee) to something else at the end of the day – is doing some harm to my powers of discrimination. All I know is that the sand is still piling up, and the dog’s whimpering.

Brian Morton©2008

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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