The New Yorker‘s redoubtable editor has clearly been unsure how to respond to the death of Whitney Balliett, who was the magazine’s jazz writer for half a century. David Remnick has had Stanley Crouch write at least one piece, a magisterial profile of Sonny Rollins, and Gary Giddins has written a few more, including a less persuasive profile of Ornette Coleman a few weeks ago. But Remnick hasn’t chosen a full-time jazz writer and lately he’s written a few pieces on the topic himself, including a brief profile of The Bad Plus whose central victory was that, like the band itself, he didn’t take them too seriously.
Now here’s Remnick’s list of the top 100 jazz albums. He takes pains to note he isn’t offering the list to spur quarrels from serious collectors, so I won’t quarrel too much. It is a perfectly serviceable list. Almost everything on it is excellent. Here, for starters, is a list of Remnick choices I endorse entirely: 3. Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens; 11. Sidney Bechet Story; 14. Ellington, Blanton-Webster Band; 16. Ellington, Money Jungle; 43. Miles Davis Kind of Blue; 53. Mingus Ah Um.
The rest of the list makes me a bit cranky because it’s nearly ridiculous how frequently Remnick resorts to boxed sets to cover huge swaths of artists’ careers. Selections 32, 33 and 34 amount to a recommendation that you get your hands on most of everything Charlie Parker recorded. Well, sure, but it doesn’t really narrow things down.
A couple of the selections are really hip, which is to say, they’re quirky enough that it’s a pleasant surprise to find them on such a resolutely canonical list. I don’t know what yardstick would make Jackie McLean’s A Fickle Sonance one of the 100 top jazz albums, but I do know it’s an extraordinarily clever record with commanding performances from trumpeter Blue Mitchell and I’m in a better mood just because Remnick reminded me of it.
Very few of the selections are annoying, but if anything Josh Redman has yet recorded stands with a century’s best, it ain’t Spirit of the Moment. I’d put Elegiac Cycle, by Redman’s former pianist Brad Mehldau, head and shoulders above anything from that group of youngish musicians.
Finally, the list suffers from the problem such lists often do when the compiler is a little too concerned about being definitive: much of the central jazz canon lacks the fun of some more off-the-track selections. It’s great that somebody (Gunther Schuller?) wrote an essay about Sonny Rollins’ solos on Saxophone Colossus, but the fact remains that that is one of Rollins’ less funny albums. So it’s not properly representative of Rollins. The same with that 1964 Mingus sextet, which is Mingus for the sombre and sober and therefore not really Mingus. I’d recommend Newk’s Time, East Broadway Rundown or Alfie for Rollins and The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady for Mingus. Or for that matter, Mingus at Carnegie Hall, which couldn’t be further from the centre of the canon, but which serves as a handy reminder that you cannot predict what might happen at a good jam session, especially if Roland Kirk shows up.
Finally finally, much of the list’s back stretch — from 1970, basically — is fighting words. Sorry, but it just is. It’s sweet that all you old guys like Jarrett’s Koln Concert, but everything he recorded with either of his 1970s quartets matches it for heart and tops it for fire and smarts. The big problem with the most recent stuff, though, besides the fact that the dust hasn’t settled and we have no perspective yet on what mattered after 1980, is that so much of jazz in the last quarter-century hasn’t even stayed in print. That’s nobody’s fault, but there’s no point me recommending Geri Allen’s Maroons or Mulgrew Miller’s Hand in Hand because you can’t find them.
Finally finally finally, I’d put late Tony Bennett against any Sinatra, and I know that’s just going to get me into trouble, but there it is. Start with 1989’s Astoria: Portrait of the Artist.
Anyway, quibbles aside, Remnick’s list is excellent information for budding jazz fans and, indeed, for anyone who hasn’t checked out all the names on it.