"Clothes make the man," goes the old saying. Which is, of course, countered by the equally ancient aphorism, "You can't tell a book by its cover." But in the case of jazz record packaging, both phrases have their applicability.
In the '50s, it wasn't uncommon to use the image of a pretty girl--one who had utterly nothing to do with the music--on the cover of jazz albums. Not a bad idea if it helped to sell a few records, but hardly a way to define what was in the album grooves. And, in Japan, where radio has not traditionally been an important promotional medium for selling CDs, cover art--related or not to the music--is always given extremely careful consideration in the preparation of an album.
On the other hand, there are those examples in which the cover art is in perfect sync with the music: Think of Bill Claxton's quintessential visual definition of West Coast jazz in his work for Pacific Jazz Records in the '50s, or Francis Wolff's atmospheric images for Blue Note in the '50s and '60s.
Lately, however, the market has become so competitive, with such enormous quantities of product pouring into the record stores, that albums from anyone other than name artists tend to get lost in the rush, regardless of how they look. One alternative that seems to be working, especially for reissued product, is what might best be described as Series Image Packaging--album covers designed with an artfully consistent look that embraces a group of albums. At its best, the process creates an immediately identifiable visual style, one that can sparkle through the surrounding albums in a store rack to draw the record buyer's attention.
A good example: the immediately catchy, eye-candy covers in the Putomayo World Music collections.
And now 1201 Music has initiated a similarly snappy-looking line of jazz albums titled Hip Jazz-Bop (a nomenclature clearly designed to touch as many stylistic bases as possible). In addition to the colorful and eye-grabbing cover art, the first nine albums in the initial Hip Jazz-Bop release also bear such youth market-oriented titles as "This Is Your Brain," "Chaos Out of Order" and "Batteries Not Included."
"In order to increase the number of new jazz consumers," says series producer Joe Maita, "we have to bring the music to them, not wait for them to come to the music. Hip Jazz-Bop is designed to shift the image from jazz being presented in a studied, historical context to more playful tones."
Sounds good, but to paraphrase our opening aphorisms, the covers may be appealing, but what's inside? In this case, there's quite a bit.
The 1201 recordings are drawn from the catalog of the Black Lion record company, active in the late '60s and the '70s in England. And they include some impressive performances. Just to mention a brief list of the artists represented, there are tracks from Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Lee Konitz, Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Duke Ellington, Freddie Hubbard, Ben Webster and dozens of others.
The individual album titles don't seem to bear much connection to the music included inside. What, for example, does "Need a Guide?" have to do with selections by Monk, Hubbard, Konitz, Gordon, Ellington, et al.?
But the bottom line is that the music is first-rate, regardless of the unrelated signage. And, if the covers do, indeed, draw more listeners into the jazz web, that's all to the good.
"The major labels aren't doing anything to build a young audience for jazz," says 1201 President Achim Neumann. "While they make cutbacks and consolidate, we're bringing the whole swing revival one step further. . . . In the end, we're going to help all jazz labels sell more music."
Wide-Eyed for Mehldau: A lyrical rendering of the Oscar Levant ballad "Blame It on My Youth," performed by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, is featured in Stanley Kubrick's much-anticipated film, "Eyes Wide Shut." The song originally appeared on Mehldau's 1997 Grammy-nominated CD "The Art of the Trio, Vol. 1," and is included in the film's soundtrack album, which was released this week on Warner Bros. Interestingly--given the late film director's own well-known eclecticism--the inclusion of the track comes at a time when Mehldau has momentarily set aside his work with standards in favor of the classically oriented excursions included in his current album, "Elegiac Cycles," a collection of original works seamlessly blending jazz elements with traces of Schumann, Chopin and Beethoven.
Festival Track: San Francisco's North Beach Jazz Festival started out in 1995 as a modest event centered around Washington Square Park. The fifth installment, scheduled for July 25-Aug. 1, has expanded into clubs, cafes and parks around the North Beach area, including a large, opening-night event at historic Coit Tower. The programming includes a particularly attractive blending of major-name jazz artists with performers from San Francisco's talented array of players.
The Coit Tower program on July 25, for example, includes the groups of vibist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist-composer Marcus Shelby and singers Anne Dyer and Paula West. Other programs throughout the week include a jazz and poetry evening (with legendary North Beach poet ruth weiss), a female vocalist series (with Barbara Linn and Jacqui Naylor), Jazz Forward (with Terry Callier and Bobby Matos), a Latin jazz series (with Poncho Sanchez) and a tribute to Duke Ellington (with the Manhattan Transfer's Janis Siegel).
* North Beach Jazz Festival, San Francisco, July 25-Aug. 1. $6-$50; there also are several free events. Information: (415) 267-6943.