I recently faced a monumental decision. The Mrs. and I gave a turntable to our son John for Christmas. The turntable was the easy part. John is a music lover of the first order, and also has an appreciation for most things retro. I nice turntable is the place where those two things intersect. But the difficult questions was what to choose for the first album to go along with that turntable.
The choice was not made any easier by the fact that I was doing the shopping online. You know it – that place where the selection is virtually without limit. This is not like the old days where you could thumb through the bins at your favorite record store and stumble across something that was a million miles from your mind when you went through the store’s front door. I realize that those places still exist and I like the idea of patronizing them. But there were some deadlines involved and not a lot of time to meet them, so . . . yeah.
Looking back, we had also given a turntable to our daughter the year before but had been spared the deeply serious task of choosing her first record because she had already collected a few for playing on the equipment of her friends.
John has picked up at least some of his father’s fondness for jazz. He has listened to many of the things I have chosen for myself over the years, but has moved beyond those boundaries. You know that the seed has taken root when father hears unfamiliar jazz coming from son’s iPhone and son explains what it is and what he likes about it. Role reversal is not always bad.
Jazz being my own playground, I began there. John’s tastes tend a little more towards the progressive than do the old man’s, so the trick was to land on something I felt I could vouch for yet would be something he would appreciate. I eventually decided on Miles Davis’ seminal 1959 album Kind of Blue. Yes, sort of a safe choice, given that it regularly tops peoples’ lists of “Best Jazz Albums of All Time.” But I knew that he didn’t already own it. And if he didn’t like it, at least everyone who gazes over the collection he will build will see it and conclude that he has taste.
A few days later, I fired up my own copy (the lazy way, via my computer from the CD I had ripped into it.) Regular readers know that my method for listening to a new album is to do a deep dive, listening perhaps ten or fifteen times before moving on. The benefit of this method is that when I que up an album for a single quick listen, almost every note comes across as intimately familar to me, almost to the point where I can easily get lost in it.
Although I did not buy this album in my “vinyl era”, my mind soon went to the lost art of listening to music on an LP in this time of shuffles and custom playlists. Many millennials grab a track here and a song there and live with a “greatest hits” collection, which certainly has its benefits. An album, though, is something else altogether.
Although many of the earliest LP albums were simply collections of pieces recorded over a related series of sessions (such as Birth of the Cool, which Miles Davis and his nonette recorded in 1949 and 1950 and released on a collection of 78 rpm discs before an early 1950s reissue in LP form). A well produced album soon developed into a cohesive whole, with songs chosen and ordered in a way so as to take the listener on a journey with a defined beginning, middle and end. All punctuated by a little intermission midway through when it was time to flip the disc to side 2. Kind of Blue, a mere ten years after the beginnings of the LP, fit this formula perfectly. Three long tracks on side 1 and two even longer tracks on side 2 take the listener through a process where each side begins fresh and bright and ends mellow.
Older listeners will understand the significance of listening to a song in the context of its original album release. When you listen to a song in isolation, you can often remember what was the track that led into it, as well as the track that followed. This is why so many modern re-releases of classic jazz albums with multiple bonus tracks is so jarring to me. These tracks, often interesting and some even quite enjoyable, are simply not part of the original concept and turn a cohesive whole into a mishmash at the end. While it might be interesting to listen to Ella Fitzgerald begin a song not on the album and abrubtly call a halt when she hits a bad note, this is not the sort of thing that one can listen to over and over.
The album was also good for exposing a guy to music that did not grab right at first. Playing the side with a favorite song would generally force one to listen to a few other tracks that were not quite so catchy, but which , after a few listens, could become favorites themselves. We old-timers remember that our turntables lacked the “skip” button found on later CD players and iPods and how it was often so much trouble to get up, cross the room and manually carry the tone arm over a less favored song. Laziness could indeed be tied to stretching our musical boundaries.
Initial reports were generally positive, and our gift recipient was particularly happy with the deep, warm quality of classic analog sound. Which I found interesting because I remember when everyone was in awe of the newfound crispness and more pronounced highs and lows that came from that cutting edge digital technology. It is funny how vinyl LPs are becoming a kind of “luxury listening” instead of the inferior inconvenience that they had become by the early 1980s.
The whole enterprise is off to a good start as I understand that some additional vinyl purchases have been transacted by now. I hope that his choices allow him to bond with music in a new and richer way. However, I wonder if he will still be listening to an occasional record in another thirty years or so? Because that is what I want to do right now.