Published in Jazz Improv, V 4, No. 4 (6/2004)

MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, edited by Steve Holtje and Nancy Ann Lee. 1,390 Pages. Published 1998 by Schirmer Trade Books.

Review by Virginia A. Schaefer

MusicHound Jazz joins the rank of comprehensive guides to jazz recordings. Its purpose is to assist the jazz enthusiast and especially the beginning collector in selecting, understanding, and enjoying jazz recordings. Aiming for accessibility, it concentrates on recordings available in U.S. stores when the guide was written.

The MusicHound Jazz editors, Steve Holtje and Nancy Ann Lee, are established jazz journalists. The guide’s entries, most for individual musicians and some for groups, are written by the editors and numerous other knowledgeable authors, who are given bylines and, at the front, brief blurbs. Scattered throughout are photos of musicians, by Nancy Ann Lee and others. At the back are lists of other jazz resources, including compilation recordings, books, magazines, and Web sites. There are also several indexes of material in the guide, such as discs rated “five bones” and musicians’ main influences.

Each entry for a musician or group starts with a brief biographical section, followed by sections on the recommended discs. A disc rating system of up to five “bones” (instead of stars) adds a humorous touch. The “What to Buy” section describes the best, most representative discs for the musician or group. If the musician’s best discs are all out-of-print, a “What’s Available” section appears instead. For a musician with many recommended discs available, there’s a descriptive “What to Buy Next” section. For major figures with lots of available recordings, “The Best of the Rest” section lists the additional discs. For a few musicians, a “Worth Looking For” section describes recommended recordings that are currently out of print.

Some musicians’ entries also have a “What to Avoid” section, which might warn of a recording with a low-bone or even a “Woof!” (hound-talk for “turkey”) rating. On the other hand, a disc relegated to that category might be an otherwise fine recording that’s not recommended for novice listeners because the subject doesn’t play much or the work is unrepresentative. (Maybe the latter sub-category might better be called “What to Buy Later”.) The “Influences” section, if present, lists the musicians who influenced the entry artist and/or those influenced by the entry artist. A few entries have a “Monster Solo” sidebar, which lists a recorded solo of special note.

MusicHound Jazz is primarily a guide to jazz recordings, rather than a historical or analytical survey of jazz, and it therefore favors artists with current or reissued discs under their own names. As well as the major jazz figures, MusicHound Jazz includes entries on and a good representation of the main styles and eras, such as swing, bop, modal, free jazz, and Latin jazz. The guide lists quite a few musicians and groups working from the 1970s to the guide’s publication date. Compared with the other comprehensive guides, it seems stronger on the more styles that lean toward the popular, like fusion and hip-hop. The guide lists jazz musicians from Europe and elsewhere outside the U.S. Women musicians seem to be fairly well represented.

A reader looking for recommended discs with a rhythm section player who hasn’t recorded much as a leader, or for a low-output musician without much currently in print, may be disappointed not to find the entry. For example, MusicHound Jazz doesn’t have an entry for guitarist Attila Zoller, with few available recordings to his name as a leader, although his name appears in entries for other musicians. Of course, there are also omissions based simply on the editors’ judgment in the face of the impossibility of listing the recordings of every jazz musician.

Overall, the writing in MusicHound Jazz is clear and informative, while its entries vary in the amount, style, and content of writing. This isn’t surprising, as the listed musicians vary in terms of stature, instrument(s), era, career lifespan, and recorded output (particularly, the discs currently available). In addition, the style and interests of individual authors are at play. For example, looking at the entry for Miles Davis (by Steve Holtje), the reader finds an entry of several pages on career development and major milestones, appraisal of Davis’s work, and a bit of personal biography. The main sections on recommended Davis recordings include many individual discs and collections, described with details on the players, style, and career importance. Turning to the entry for Dizzy Gillespie (by Ted Panken), one finds a very compact career description of less than a page; for the recommended-discs sections, the author lists and describes a few comprehensive collections. Andrew Gilbert’s entry on trumpeter Claudio Roditi opens with “One of the most exciting trumpeters in jazz...”, and the descriptions of Roditi’s work contain similarly enthusiastic language. Nancy Ann Lee’s entry for another trumpeter of Latin-American origin, Arturo Sandoval, is very informative about the trumpeter’s career, musical approach, and major recordings, while appreciative in a restrained style. In sum, the guide’s use of multiple authors makes for variety in writing and viewpoints, but may also be a slight drawback for the reader looking for a particular approach or simply expecting more stylistic consistency.

The guide’s ease of use is hindered by a few format glitches and copy-editing lapses. Most entries for individuals list the artist’s date of birth and birthplace, but a surprising number for contemporary musicians are missing that information, which may be of interest. The guide doesn’t indicate a musician’s instrument and/or role (like arranger) at the top of the entry, so that the reader who doesn’t already know that crucial information has to search for it within the entry, and some entries don’t even contain it. The “What to Buy” and “What to Buy Next” disc categories consist solely of paragraph-formatted prose, slowing down the reader who wants to quickly zero in on the list of recordings. Those sections would be more readable with the discs and essential data summarized as lists at the sections’ ends.

Considered overall, however, MusicHound Jazz is certain to be valuable as a first guide to jazz recordings or as an additional guide on the collector’s bookshelf.