Friday, May 18, 2012

The Jazz Thing

I’ve been exploring jazz for the past three or four years, ever since y’all found the good stuff for me after I put out the call. I’ve been, as they say, diggin’ it. I’ve decided it would be grand to get myself a little better versed in the essential literature of the genre. And naturally, having made such a decision, I figured the most way to approach it was with absurdly intricate methodological rigor.

I kicked off the project by finding five independent “Best 100 Jazz Albums of All Time” lists, and doing some simple collation. Well, to be honest, some complicated collation. I noticed two things: first, that there was a broad consensus on what constitutes the core jazz corpus. Here’s the top 15 according to the (absurd but methodologically rigorous) scoring system I used in blending the lists:
1. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (1964)
2. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (1959)
3. Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch! (1964)
4. Keith Jarrett, The Köln Concert (1975)
5. Stan Getz & João Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto (1963)
6. Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)
7. The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out (1959)
8. Clifford Brown & Max Roach, Study in Brown (1955)
9. Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, Moanin' (1958)
10. Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus (1956)
11. Louis Armstrong, 25 Greatest Hot Fives & Sevens (1928)
12. Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (1969)
13. Dizzy Gillespie, Collection
14. Charles Mingus, Black Saint & the Sinner Lady (1963)
15. Cannonball Adderley, Somethin' Else (1958)
16. Chick Corea, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)
The second thing is that, as you may have noticed, jazz seems to be largely something that happened between 1955 and 1969. There is of course a certain degree of truth to that, but it's not totally true, so I ventured back into the internet and came back with four different reputable-seeming “Best Jazz Albums since 2000.” These had very little overlap at all.

I managed to cull the records that looked interesting, with a little effort, to one hundred ten albums from the all-time charts plus another eighteen from the last decade or so, to yield 128 records, an excellent tournament number.  Next, I went to a website for guys who run billiards tournaments, and modified one of their 128-player double-elimination tournament brackets for my purpose. This enterprise, after all, is no Infinite Art Tournament. At only an eighth the size of our twice-weekly exploration of the fine arts, “The Jazz Thing” – which is what I’m calling it – is plainly intelligible to the human eye.

So then of course I came up with a rigorous and defensible strategy to convert my rankings into tournament seeding (I really ought to be in a profession where I can make more socially productive use of my math and logic skills, such as professional gambling). Let’s zoom up to the top brackets, which I’ve already filled in, and you can see some of the first few matchups.

Now, you are perhaps wondering what all this has to do with you. The answer is, unlike the art tournament (which all right-thinking people should be voting in), not much, really. All I’m going to do is use this elaborate set-up as a sort of listening guide, giving me a map with which to explore the world of jazz, two records at a time. A couple of times a month or thereabouts, I’ll report back. At that point, any readers who are hep jazzcats can chime in, deride my taste, try to talk me out of my decision, and so on – but you don’t have to vote! In fact, you can just skip those posts, if you want.

One more rule! I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I do sometimes have a certain tendency to… shall we say… prolixity. Verbosity. Being a great bloated windbag. So for The Jazz Thing, I’m setting some limits. For first round posts, I can only use forty words per record in my report, plus one sentence explaining which record “won.” Every time a record wins a round, it earns another 40 words. In second-round write-ups, I can use 80 words per record; in the unlikely event that I, this blog, and this project survive into the third round, I can use 120 words per record, and so on.

Rules-based creative writing is my hobby. Don’t judge. Oh, and by the way, best not to tell Mrs.5000 about this. She doesn’t know about it yet, and it might freak her out a little.

The above was written while listening to coronetist Warren Vaché and pianist Bill Charlap’s 2000 attempt to take on Number One seed “A Love Supreme” with an elegant but laid-back set of finely crafted little gems. It sounds pretty good!


mrs.5000 said...

Nothing says "jazzcat" like absurdly intricate methodological rigor...

Hey! That's true!

(Must not...freak out...about husband's continually multiplying endeavors...)

margaret said...

Do you think your list might be missing something? Women, for instance?

Morgan said...

Do you have some sort of software that makes these brackets for you, or do you make them painstakingly by hand?

Michael5000 said...

I am shocked -- shocked! -- to find that there may be some form of gender disparity within the world of jazz!

Billie Holiday is 24th on the list, followed by Sarah Vaughn at 46th, Ella Fitzgerald at 52nd, Billie Holliday again at 67th, Abbie Lincoln at 74th, Cassandra Wilson at 77th, and Bessie Smith at 85th. The Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra was the top seed amongst the 21st Century batch. I gerimandered a few other women into deep seeds, including Betty Carter, Shirley Horn, and even Diana Krall.

This may seem like slim pickins, but it's a real cornucopia compared to what the classical list is going to look like.

Michael5000 said...

Morgan: Well, I wasn't kidding about borrowing this bracket blank from the billiards tournaments guys. Beyond that, I tend brackets "painstakingly" by hand, of course, because what fun would it be otherwise?

margaret said...

Phew. I was only looking at the list of 16 up top. Glad to see (ha) your eyes and ears are open. If you are open to further nominations, I recommend Ella Fitzgerald/Joe Pass "Take Love Easy" as well as Patricia Barber's "Cafe Blue" (contemporary!). I'm sure I can pitch ya some others, but it'd take a walk upstairs to the CD collection ...

lamanyana said...

Your scoring system must indeed be complex if you end up with 16 artists in your top 15!

As far as women in jazz, I would recommend Alice Coltrane as well.