A Blog Supreme
8:11 am
Fri September 14, 2012

A Piece Of Technology That Makes Listening To Jazz Better

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 5:11 pm

Maybe you remember when you first realized that the rabbit hole of jazz was far, far deeper than you'd possibly imagined. That the same tenor saxophone player on Kind of Blue also made Blue Train and Giant Steps and A Love Supreme and Interstellar Space and dozens of other albums and who knows how many guest appearances, and that that was just what people recorded of John Coltrane. And that all those records involved scores of other contributors, who in turn played with scores of other people over scores of years. And that this hopelessly convoluted network reflected just a small slice of jazz history to begin with.

What allowed you to dive in was a guide to the data — maybe a book, or a radio broadcaster, or someone you knew who knew something. A voice who could translate the wilderness to human terms, and made it appealing to jump into.

The new Spotify app from Blue Note Records, released yesterday, isn't the perfect guide. But as a music discovery tool, it's a huge leap in the right direction, and it's certainly the first digital music technology I've seen which begins to make sense of the dense jumble in which jazz fans happily abandon themselves.

Think of the app as a juiced-up, visually appealing, annotated index to nearly all of the Blue Note Records catalog, which is playable on-demand via Spotify's free (or subscription-based) streaming service. That history extends from 1939 to the present day, from boogie-woogie to the Robert Glasper Experiment, and at least touches on many of the great innovators of their eras. So by downloading the app, which is free, users can wade through the connective tissue of the label's history — and, by extension, much of jazz history.

Enter the app, and you're presented with a timeline of Blue Note albums, eminently clickable due to a "cover-flow" interface and Blue Note's iconic cover art designs. You can organize these by chronology, and further using the specific-instrument filter.

Scroll down, and you also see artists organized by the categories Tradition, Groove and Voices. In practice, the designations correspond largely to straight-ahead and free jazz, soul-jazz and fusion, and singers including the label's recent pop-music output. You'll notice the default settings land on 2012 releases, one of the signs that the label is emphasizing that its legacy lives on today. Another is the Blue Break Beats section, developed with the sample-cataloging website WhoSampled.com. It pairs original sources with the track(s) on which they're sampled, both forwarded to the exact spot in the songs where the samples occur.

The real meat and potatoes of the app is its metadata: how, when you click on an album, it shows you when it was recorded, who else appears on it and an AllMusic capsule review of the record. Click on one of the artists who appears on the album, and it takes you to a landing page for that other artist, with a list of other records on which he or she appears. A user could go for a while, clicking from album to artist to a new album to another artist and so forth. There's also an Artists index, accessible from the navigation at the top of the app.

It's an impressive design, and it captures the heart of the "Who is that magnificent drummer?" or "Oh, he's on this record too?" sense of discovery. It combines that with the instant gratification of playing the exact song you wanted to hear right then and there. Crucially, it's also all free, if you're running the ad-supported version of Spotify. That's a potent combination.

Unfortunately, flaws in the design and execution make the app occasionally annoying and imprecise. For how much work the developers put into this, the metadata is oddly incomplete. It isn't immediately evident who plays which instrument, and for albums with multiple bands — say, a compilation like the two-disc The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings of Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron — it's impossible to tell who plays on which track. (Recording dates are also not fully listed for multiple-session albums.) And there's neither a listing of compositional credits nor a search by song, so it misses out on another opportunity for internal linking and discovery. Detail on the level of the original liner notes would be a welcome upgrade.

In playing with the app, I found myself looking through the Artists index a lot. While the visual-based navigation looked pretty, I was often frustrated by the lack of a search option and the lack of text — you had to hover over a photo of a musician to know who he or she was. That made it inconvenient to find artists, especially those whose first names were toward the end of the alphabet — Wayne Shorter or Thelonious Monk, for instance. When I went to Spotify's global search, I had to leave the app, with no option to link back to a corresponding page within the app.

There are also a few notable omissions from the Blue Note catalog. The great majority of Blue Note albums are on Spotify, from classics like Cool Struttin' and Moanin' to obscure efforts from German pianist Jutta Hipp and French-horn specialist Julius Watkins. But for whatever reason (permissions? oversight?) some are missing: Sam Rivers' Fuchsia Swing Song (1964), Pete La Roca's Basra (1965), the Andrew Hill 1969 session Passing Ships (which was only issued in 2003), and recent efforts from saxophonist Mark Shim (1998 and 2000), to name a few. Most efforts made under other labels but reissued by Blue Note are either not on Spotify or not included in the app, meaning we don't have the Duke Ellington-Charles Mingus-Max Roach classic Money Jungle, or the United Artists sessions from multi-instrumentalist Makanda Ken McIntyre, or the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra classics on Solid State, or anything from Pacific Jazz or Capitol Records.

The casual user of this app may not mind the lack of precise detail, or the deep catalog omissions, or the functionality hangups. But this is the sort of thing that's bigger than exploring a catalog; it's about exploring jazz itself. The deeper folks dig into the music, the more they'll want to know who exactly is on which cut with confidence and convenience.

The folks from Blue Note and their development team may look into these outstanding issues for an updated version. But for many intents and purposes, this technology is already highly recommended for anyone comfortable with Spotify. Getting into jazz can feel like breaking into a massive edifice, with few openings. Even this first draft is the first attempt I can recall which marshals the Internet's data-gathering possibilities toward something that's more than just an blueprint.

At very least, it's an unobtrusive and pretty way to catalog a bunch of good records. But it can also enable a lot more learning than that.

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