The Penguin Guide to Jazz by Richard Cook & Brian Morton

It’s probably hard to get excited by a worn-out 1,400-page book containing dates and arcane trivia about an unexciting genre of music.

But this is not the book you pick up when you’re looking for more stimulation than can be had while lazily lounging on a living room chair on a Sunday afternoon.

Randomly opening the book to page 1220, for example, we read a list of recordings, personnel and dates made by Sun Ra, followed by the authors’ notes:

A much-maligned and hugely influential figure, Sun Ra was either born in Chicago under the earth-name Herman Poole ‘Sonny’ Blount, as the birth-roll insists, or on Saturn, as the man himself often claimed. Uncertainty about his seriousness (and sanity) tended to divert attention from a considerable three-decade output, which included well over 100 LPs. Because much of it remained inaccessible during his lifetime, critical responses were apt to concentrate on the paraphernalia associated with his Arkestra big band, rather than on the music.

Nevertheless, he was one of the most significant band leaders of the post-war period. He drew on Ellington and Fletcher Henderson (for whom he did arrangements after the war), but also on the bop-derived avant garde, and was a pioneer of collective improvisation. Though rarely acknowledged as an instrumentalist, he developed a convincing role for the synthesizer and was a strong rather than subtle piano player. The solo recordings, some of which have been reissued (see below) are only now being appreciated.

Totally unexciting stuff.

I don’t even know this self-declared celestial jazz-deity but if I ever want to sample his recordings, I would start with Jazz in Silhouette, which the authors awarded a crown and described as “marvelous… will surely someday be recognized as one of the most important recordings after the war. The closing ‘Blues at Midnight’ is sheer excitement.” (Granted, jazz music can be exciting at times.)

“New Edition,” my book describes itself on the cover, which probably means it is the second edition. Anyhow, this edition was published in 1994 (when was the last time you saw a cassette tape?) and doesn’t include any jazz recordings made during the last 30 years.

Which is alright.

Jazz is a kind of music that could be appreciated without following the latest acts or trends. Any would-be jazz aficionado would be perfectly well-served by starting with any 4-star (outstanding) record in the book within the 50-year span from 1940 to 1990.

Why not start with the 1961 Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans?