Saturday, March 24, 2007

Revisionist history:

Concord Records, which has recently acquired the music of the former Fantasy and Milestone labels has launched a new series of reissues, The Keepnews Collection, named after producer and former label executive Orrin Keepnews who oversaw the recording of the original records. The discs are remastered and some include alternate takes and new liner notes. The titles include Cannonball Adderley in San Francisco, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, Wes Montgomery's Full House, Kenny Dorham's Jazz Contrasts and Joe Henderson's Power to the People. Now, these are all very good records and certainly deserve to be available in print on compact disc for any fan that wants them. But I have been wondering about the ascension of the producer, in this case Keepnews, to the status of artist. Keepnews' name now is prominently featured along the spine and the cover of the disc, receiving equal billing with the artist. His liner essays are a little self-reverential, and a large photograph of him adorns the back jewel case of each CD. Now I don't mean to downplay his place in jazz history. Keepnews did yeoman's work in recording music and it is important to acknowledge his accomplishment along with that of engineer Rudy Van Gelder and other non-musicians who have had an impact on the music. But do they deserve co-billing with the musicians on these CDs? They did not in most cases compose songs or perform on instruments, but as a result of their longevity they are honored as if they were performers. Part of this has to do with the never ending reissuing of back catalog, and the labels looking for a gimmick and a marketing tactic with which to promote their products, as if the excellent music in the Blue Note or Concord vaults could not speak volumes for itself. Several years ago the controversial jazz critic Stanley Crouch wrote a lightning-rod of an essay called “Putting the White Man In Charge” in which he compared black and white instrumentalists. I did not agree with his assessment and was put off by the tone of his essay. But, if he shifted that argument to the marketing of re-issues, a point could certainly be made. Are record labels shifting the attention from the black musicians who made the music (now mostly dead and unable to defend themselves) to the white producers and engineers whose role in the music has heretofore been somewhat invisible? Keepnews and Van Gelder certainly deserve their place in jazz history, but giving them equal billing with the musicians on classic albums seems a little bit much. I just wish labels like Concord and Blue Note would spend as much energy recording and promoting talented young musicians as they do recycling catalog titles. Jazz should be a living breathing artform that honors its past in a respectful manner while reaching for the future full of innovation and discovery.

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