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Tips for Buying and Sampling Jazz

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L to R:  Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Gerry Mulligan


Sampling Music
Buying CDs
Alternate takes

Sampling Music

        The BEST way is borrow CDs from somebody who has them.  This is how I got into many musicians:  I borrowed CDs from my sister and if I could figure out if I liked them.  However, where I live now, there are no jazz fans around me.

        Another way is through Public Radio.  If you have a university in your area, you probably have Public Radio.  If you have heard "Car Talk" with Click and Clack or "All Things Considered", then you are listening to Public Radio.  Most, if not all, public radio stations have jazz programs, such as Brandford Marsalis' Jazz Set, Jazz Profiles with Nancy Wilson, and Billy Taylor's Jazz at Lincoln Center.  They usually have a local jazz program, also.  If your DJ is not a fartknocker, like the one here in Wichita, they will take requests.  Bob at KANU in Lawrence is a really cool guy and very knowledgeable.  He can answer questions, and he takes requests.  I sampled a lot of musicians this way:  I would call him up and say, "Would play me something good by _________" and he would and if I liked it, I ran out and bought the record.

        Another way is by going to Blockbuster Music.  They will let you listen to CDs without having to buy them.  Still, though, if you like it and plan on buying it, you oughta get it there.  I don't say this because I work there, but because they are decent enough to offer this service, and because if nobody buys from them, they will go out of business and you'll never get to sample any more CDs this way.

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Buying CDs

        These are some things I've learned about buying CDs.  Once again, it's my opinion, so take it with a grain of salt:

        Greatest Hits -- A misconception is that you can quickly build a jazz collection by buying the greatest hits of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, etc.  Nope.  It doesn't work that way.  You see, in popular music of today, groups nearly always stay with the same record label for their entire careers, so you can do this.  However, this is not so in jazz.  For instance, John Coltrane released a couple of classics for Prestige Records:  Lush Life and Soul Trane.  He released only one recording for Blue Note Records, but it is one of his best:  Blue Train.  He made 2 masterpieces on Atlantic:  Giant Steps and My Favorite Things.  He made a series of recordings with Impulse Records, and one of them was the masterpiece A Love Supreme.  Impulse, Prestige, and Atlantic have released "Best of" John Coltrane's but none of these are truly the entire collection of greatest John Coltrane songs.  The best way, in my opinion, to get familiar with an artist is to buy a highly recommended CD of his.  If you like it, check out more by him.  If you like one of his sidemen's solos, check them out.  For instance, on Coltrane's Blue Train CD, I was very impressed with his trumpet player, Lee Morgan, so I bought a CD of Morgan's.   (Many jazz greats recorded with each other.  Often they formed their own bands after they became well established:  Coltrane spent his early years in Miles Davis' quintet).

        The Best of the Blue Note Years, series --  When I first started listening to jazz, my sister gave me this rule of thumb:  If the record is from Blue Note Records, it is usually good.  She was right.  They make a "best of" series, that always say "The Blue Note Years" on it.  For instance, "The Best of Thelonious Monk, the Blue Note Years."  This series, by and large, is good.  However, remember what I said, it is only the best of that artist with Blue Note, and not necessarily the Best that the artist put out, overall.  However, Blue Note was ahead of their time in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, and signed many excellent musicians, and released many fine Bop records.  The result is some really good music by good artists:  I have best ofs by Miles Davis , Grant Green, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown (under Pacific Jazz, part of Blue Note), Horace Silver, and Bud Powell.  Out of all of those, the only one I found not up to the exceptional level was Powell's.  If you look at my top 30, you will see many Blue Note Records in it.  Now they aren't perfect:  I got Wayne Shorter's "All Seeing Eye" from their Connoisseur Series, and really didn't like it.  However, by and large, they have an excellent road record.  You can check out their web site by clicking here.

        Columbia's This is Jazz Series -- This series preys upon the above listed misconception and has beginners believing that this is an excellent way to start your collection.  WRONG!  It is not a terrible series, but keep in mind that this is only the "best of" these artists on Columbia Records.  Many artists did not record much on Columbia and didn't record their best work on Columbia.  I have a few CDs from this series.  They are ok, but not great.  While Columbia has many fine individual recordings, I personally think this series is vastly overrated.

        Don't believe everything you read -- you pick up a CD and it has some critic saying "A masterpiece" and then fills it up with a bunch of big words and fancy phrases--of course, duh!  Do you expect a record company to put "this sucks" on their CD?  It's like movies:  every single movie out there quotes some critic who likes it, yet many suck.  If you check out enough sources, you will see people starting to agree, and those are usually safe bets.  For instance, Charlie Parker's recordings with Dial music receive praise from a lot of sources, so I picked it up and was also pleased.  Another way is to ask around, and find somebody who has similar taste to yourself.  Prestige Records was particularly guilty of putting critic's quotes on their records.  If they had a review from Down Beat magazine, with a 4 or 5 stars, that was usually a good sign.  If it didn't have any stars, and instead, had a quote, I was wary.

        You get what you paid for -- Remember this, when you are holding that $4 recording that says "Charlie Parker hits" or something like that.  You don't have to spend $15 on a jazz CD.  As a matter of fact, many places like Best Buy, Circuit City, Hastings, and Streetside Records sell classic jazz CDs for $10-12.  But if you are holding a brand new CD by a big name jazz man and it's $4 (and you are not in the middle of a "going out of business" sale) you are probably getting a CD with low quality engineering.  Laserlight CDs and Digital DejaVu CDs are often like this.  This is not always the case, though (Laserlight's 5 CD Nat "King" Cole boxed set is excellent!)

        I have had a lot of good luck with the following record labels: Blue Note, Columbia, Prestige, Riverside, Verve, Decca, Compass, GRP, Novus, Capitol, Pacific Jazz, Warner Bros, Epic, and Commodore.  

        A good way to get a lot of Jazz CDs for cheap is through the music clubs.  You can learn more about them by clicking on the link.  I am not a salesmen for either one.  I have been a member of both.  You do have those pesky "selections of the month" card, but you can refuse it online, by going to their respective sites.  Furthermore, their sites also have complete catalogs.   Unless they have changed, they work like this:

Another good way is to get CDs for cheap is through 2nd hand stores.  I get CDs this way for about $6-10 a piece.  I have never bought a scratched one yet, and I have bought about 300 CDs this way (different genres).  If in doubt, look at the bottom side and see if there are any.  Make sure the store has a return policy, as well.       

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Alternate Takes

        An alternate take is something that I think is unique to jazz.  It's kind of the same as a "Dance Mix" for pop...somewhat different, yet the same. When the musician recorded the song, many times they did another recording.  The artist took the take he liked the best and put it on the record.  The other went into the vault.  However, record companies just LOOOOOVE to put these alternate takes (in addition to the original take) on re-released CDs and make it sound like a big deal.  More often than not, to me, they are annoying.   If you have an alternate take of a song, it's the same song, yet since jazz is improvisational music, the solo is different.  Still, though, it's not night-and-day different, since musicians tend to have "styles" of their own, so parts of the song sound similar.  If you have John Coltrane doing an alternate take of the same song, for instance, it will be closer to being the same than if you had he and Charlie Parker doing the same song.  The effect is that you get the feeling that you're listening to the same song over again, at least on an intuitive level, unless you really have an ear and a head full of musical knowledge.  The way I see it is like this:  If this "Alternate" take was so great, why didn't the artist choose to put it on the record in the first place?  It's kind of like getting reject tunes.

        I usually steer free of CDs loaded with alternate takes, simply because they drive me crazy.  I was looking at a Charlie Parker Boxed set, and I was thinking, "Wow!  This is soooo cool!"  then I looked at the songs:  alternate take city.  One CD had the original take of a song and 11 consecutive takes of the same me, that's worse than scratching chalkboards!

        Now, don't avoid ALL CDs just because they have alternate takes.  Sometimes, companies do it right.  For instance, Atlantic re-released John Coltrane's classic Giant Steps.  There are 7 songs on it.  They put down 5 additional "songs", except they were alternate takes of 5 of the 7 originals.  To me, the WRONG and RIGHT way of putting these songs in order are:  

Right Way: Wrong Way:
Giant Steps Giant Steps
Cousin Mary Giant Steps (Alternate Take)
Countdown Cousin Mary
Spiral Cousin Mary (Alternate Take)
Syeeda's Song Flute Countdown
Naima Countdown (Alternate Take)
Mr. P.C. Spiral
Giant Steps (Alternate Take) Syeeda's Song Flute
Naima (Alternate Take) Syeeda's Song Flute (Alternate Take)
Cousin Mary (Alternate Take) Naima
Countdown (Alternate Take) Naima (Alternate Take)
Syeeda's Song Flute (Alternate Take) Mr. P.C.

          The first setup is like hearing the CD through 2 putting you CD in "repeat" mode.

         Fortunately, Atlantic Records chose the right way.  And I cannot recommend this CD strongly enough.  If a CD is set up "wrongly" (as listed above), I usually pass up the CD.  If it's set up "right" (as shown above), I'll get it if it's good.  If I buy, for instance, a double CD, with about 34 songs and 2-3 are alternate takes, I can usually deal with that.  In those cases, the alternate takes are usually placed at the end of the CD.
         Finally, if you play CDs on a computer, alternate takes really are a no-factor, since you can program your computer CD player not to play them.

        Anyway, the moral of the story is this:  Never buy a CD without looking at the song list and checking for those alternate takes -- if they annoy you the way that they annoy me.

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