Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


The Last Stand of the Compact Disc

I’ve very gradually begun to use the  technology of the internet to enhance my collection of musical recordings, so that I now have some of the latter on Cloud and on USB stix, as well as on the more traditional vinyl, compact disc and even my ancient pile of magnetic cassette tapes. However, my heart will probably always remain wed to the world of corporeal matter in the form of ‘things’ and objects - I’ve hung on to my old VHS and DVD films as well. It’s ironic that compact discs are now about as fashionable as 8-track tapes, as I’ve recently got hold of incredibly wonderful collections of classic jazz recordings in the CD format that would probably have cost an arm and a leg in the 1980s and 1990s (and would have been presented in lavish box-sets with accompanying erudite notes by venerable critics and varied scene-sters). As far as I’m concerned, CDs are now being sold at a price that they should have always been sold at, if it had not been for corporate greed.

Of course, this has a lot to do with the process of the historicisation of jazz recording, which celebrated its hundredth birthday last year. More of the music is now readily available than ever before. I would have killed for the chance to get hold of some of the sets that I’ve recently bought for a song when I was first becoming familiar with the music in the 1970s. At that time, many great historical recordings were either very expensive or very rare, or both of these limiting factors. Building up a collection was slow and laborious for most people. Now the complete works of most significant jazz musicians are available on line or through archival projects. The same process is happening in rock music - I have obtained the first five (and most important) records of Little Feat and Spirit, for example, housed in cheap and cheerful’ cardboard ‘ boxlets’ for a few quid each set. The packaging has absolutely no frills, merely consisting of the original album artwork in basic slipcases, with no extensive re-designs, extra tracks, remixes, alternative versions, ‘recently unearthed studio outakes’ or learned essays /retrospectives. All you get is the music with the original designs.

Many expensive and elaborate re-presentations of landmark recordings have opted to present the material purely chronologically, tracking the studio sessions by date and time - Ormette’s ‘Beauty Is A Rare Thing’, Coltrane’s ‘Heavyweight Champion’ (both box-sets feature the complete Atlantic Records sessionology of these two masters). Similarly, Monk’s ‘Complete Riverside Recordings’  Herbie Nichol’s ‘Complete Blue Note Recording’s and Miles’s ‘Complete Columbia 1965-68′ (i.e.the second great quartet) all lose the original album running orders, a major drawback for any listener who has grown up listening to the carefully thought-out track sequences of the original release. What one gets with the newer artist retrospectives that I recently purchased is the ur-album, with the tracks in their original chosen running order, with facsimiles of the first covers and, if you’re lucky, a few basic notes describing the musician. Thus, over the past year or so, I have picked up the ‘Complete Recordings of Paul Bley on Black Saint and Soul Note’ (these two labels have extensively re-released many of their artists back catalogues, including those of Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Julius Hemphill and Richard Muhal Abrams), TEN albums in all; the first NINE albums of Cecil Taylor,from 1956-62, presented over five compact discs; TWELVE albums by Eric Dolphy, over 1959-62, over six compact discs (for some unaccountable reason, the album ‘Far Cry’ loses two tracks, including the magisterial solo feature ‘Tenderly’). These are incredible bargains, hours of music of immense historical heft and influence, but housed in a format that has become terminally unfashionable.

I know that we appear to have reached ‘peak stuff’, and that the younger generation is learning (apparently) to live with less of it, but I still like most of my stuff parsed and the various careers and genres therein given some kind of physical architectonics. I could have the entire work of Miles Davis put on to a stick for me, and can carry it with me at all times, but some corporeality will probably always be important for me.  I fully intend to take advantage of this current no-doubt- reluctantly-offered record company ‘largesse’ to continue the slow process of reifying my defiantly non-virtual music library.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby