Conversation Piece: Blue Cuscuna (2016) Interview

Occasional Series: LJC Conversation Pieces

An experiment, sound off about topics related to the music we love and the things around it we love to hate, or anything else reasonably on-topic for that matter.

Blue-Cuscuna2016

It is always interesting to hear the thoughts of Michael Cuscuna, who probably more than anyone is responsible for having maintained the Blue Note legacy over the last four decades

A link to a recent interview by Fred Seibert with Cuscuna – “Seven Questions” – popped into my maillbox today, you can read the whole thing here – but I thought I’d take the liberty of reposting his answer to the last and more interesting question, number 7, as a thought starter (Forget the interviewers standard opening question, a variant of  How did you get started in this business?)

Fred: You’ve produced during every format era except 78’s. Vinyl LPs, cassettes, CDs, MP3s, and streaming (I’m skipping right over direct-to-disc and super audio CD). Any comment on any of them –or their business implications– for us?

 

Michael: “In the early part of our century, recordings for the home (as opposed to radio broadcasts) were made and sold in 3 to 5-minute doses, regardless of genre. When 10” and later 12” LPs were introduced in the early ‘50s, only the genres suited to limited budgets, jukeboxes and AM radio retained a substantial singles market (rock, pop, R&B and country).

 

As the LP became the norm, the record business upped the dosage to 18 to 21-minutes per LP side. With the advent of the CD, the dosage grew to a single wallop of 60 to 78 minutes. Territorially, the space for self-indulgent material or second-rate filler grew with each format change.

 

I think listeners sensed the physical (from digital media) and mental (from content) fatigue of the listening experience for recordings at home. I think this has led younger buyers to MP3s of singles and EPs, in other words, the cream of the crop in a much shorter time span. It has also pushed an older demographic to stop accumulating CDs or LPs and to chase the convenience of playlists and streaming, again to get the cream of the crop and move on to the next artist.

 

The CD essentially saved the record business in the mid ‘80s. The industry had shrunk severely in the late ‘70s and there were not enough hits and viable artists to sustain the level at which the industry functioned. The CD raised the quality of sound reproduction (though a lot of mistakes were made in the early years), increased the amount of music one could issue and was far more convenient than LP. And labels soon discovered that they could entice the record buying public to replace their entire collection in the new format. So old best sellers became new best sellers all over again.

 

For me, at the beginning of reissuing the revitalized Blue Note catalog, this was a boon. Rudy Van Gelder’s sound was ahead of its time and suited to the new medium. All my research into the Blue Note vaults paid off because I had room to add extra tunes or alternate takes of merit to an original album.

 

Digital recording and the CD delivery system were launched too early to a desperate industry. Limited by a 16-bit system and without any of the great analog-to-digital converters that came in the ‘90s, the audiophile segment of the music market began to return to the LP, mastered in analog throughout the process onto 180-gram thick virgin vinyl.

 

With so many improvements in CD and LP sound, I find it very discouraging that the squashed MP3 file played through computer speakers or a phone is the new standard for this generation. The ease of sharing and the scorn for intellectual property that so many people have harmed the creators and what they create. It’s not a rosy outlook as far as I can see.”

(Interview ends)

LJC-Michael-Caine- Professor Jazz fastshow30Cuscuna’s musical knowledge and understanding of the recorded Blue Note legacy is unparalleled. However his “view from the bridge” is not one I share in every respect, especially as a member of his “older demographic”. He needs a closer look at modern vinyl home listening technology, but then if you spent your life listening to the original tape from the vaults, why would you?

Where he touches on something more significant, my words not his, is the modern  problem of infinite choice and reduced attention span, which converge in what he concludes is a rush to the “cream of the crop”. Like, anyone knows what the cream of the crop is, especially if they are in a hurry: someone elses pick, maybe?

Though I give digitally produced  music a hard time, and deservedly so, the real problem with it is not so much to do with inferior audio quality, that may be resolved over time, but to do with The Playlist, and the buttons on the handset that invite pressing. Combine Fear of Missing Out with Infinite Choice, what the heck do you listen to, without constantly moving on to the next track and the next artist, in search of (but never finding) “the cream of the crop”?

Though you can get 80 minutes of music on a CD, and only 20 minutes on one side of an LP, but less than half that LP side gives sufficient space to work through most of the musical ideas in a composition, with a quartet, quintet or sextet at work. So two maybe three tracks an LP side seems to provide a natural satisfying listening session experience. This is the formula that Cuscuna has spent four decades curating, not 80 minute tunes. What is the right length of a piece of recorded music? If there is one there one, it’s eight minutes. With exceptions, of course.

PC-LJC-fastshow22MasterchefI’ve been watching a bit of Masterchef (Mrs LJC’s choice) got me thinking. We are familiar with the three-course meal, each course consisting of three or four main ingredients. Six courses is not twice as good as three, fifty ingredients doesn’t make something ten times better, quantity is not a substitute for quality. We get it with food, food that meets our nutritional needs and the size of our digestive capacity. Isn’t that how it works with music too?

MP3 and Playlist is just snacking. Filling yourself up with snacks gives you bad skin, pasty complexion, and energy you don’t need turns into restlessness. Sitting down with an LP is like dinner at a top restaurant.

Your usual table, Sir? You don’t hop from restaurant to restaurant, LP to LP, like a playlist. You sit where you have chosen, your artist  and LP of choice. Each course or tune arrives, mixing interesting and harmonious flavours with textures and body. The sommelier has paired the a matching wine. And at the end of a satisfying meal, you are left with a thumping great bill. That’s how vinyl works, and why it works, or works for me, may be your dietary needs or cullinary tastes differ. I like to listen to around three LPs in a row, both sides.

Perhaps we all use music for different purposes, in different ways, at different times. Cuscuna, apparently, says he likes listening in his free time to ’60s soul music, Ray Charles and the like, and I suspect not on vinyl.  Which is a shame, as I warrant it would sound very very good.

Floor is open, dinner is being served..

 

 

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29 thoughts on “Conversation Piece: Blue Cuscuna (2016) Interview

  1. In his email of April 5, 2016, Shaft comments on certain criteria he uses in evaluating a record’s playability. Missing from the list is cleaning the record carefully and thoroughly. I clean every record I buy or am given before I play it. This applies to previously owned CDs, as well (finger prints, food residue). Sometimes I will even use a photographer’s loupe to examine the surface of a 78 or LP for possible groove damage. I have done this for many decades. The result is improved playability, cleaner sound, and a more satisfying listening experience. Unlike many commenters here, I don’t compare media. I buy CDs of reissued material when I can acquire alternate takes, have extra tracks on one source, or CDs of new recordings not available on LP (my preferred medium). I was not accepting of CDs when they were first introduced. Only later did I acknowledge that if I wanted a certain musical performance available only on CD I would either have to buy the CD or forego the listening experience. My first CD was Charles Mingus’ “Epitaph.” How many LPs would that eat up? I have no experience with MP3 or Spotify, but I will listen to You Tube for its convenience.

  2. What I like best about this site is that no one is ranting about how right or wrong someone else is. We all seem to have a great appreciation for music, no matter the genre of production. I’ll listen to jazz, from the 20s thru the late 60s mostly, regardless of the medium….because it has life, and I suspect most of the rest of you feel something similar. Cheers!

    • amen, brad. i am young enough (i hope!) that it is indeed a rarity. i once tried to actually talk about jazz on 4chan. ::shudder::

  3. Everything can be devalued by superfluity or over-indulgence. Too much food, too much art, too much music, too much wine, too many books, too much….too much….too much. And I think it is superfluity that is the main problem here – not how we listen, or what we listen on or with.

    I think we are all in our own ways trying to teach ourselves to HEAR music rather than merely consume it.

  4. i listen to a lot of music, and most of it is in mp3 format. this is because i like to listen to music, but i am rarely at liberty to listen to my records directly. when i can, i do. but when i cannot, because i am in the office, or it is late at night, or i am travelling, i like to listen to my iPod. i am a fanatic about listening to entire albums. i literally NEVER skip tracks or jump around, and i browse my album library in alphabetical order and choose whether to listen to each thing as it comes up. it is an interesting way to listen, and it forces me to diversify my choices. the temptation with my records is to listen to only a few choice prizes, letting great music languish.

    as much as i love my records and stereo system, the one thing they will always lose on is delicateness. it is not often fun to buy a record on eBay or out of town, only to get it home to the turntable, where it cannot be returned, and discover a skip that is invisible, or hidden groove noise. and while i love collecting and listening to my records, it is nice to listen to my iPod at work knowing that it will not skip, and it will not ever get warped, or scratched, etc.

    LPs, for me, are about the magic of the era of the best jazz (or other things, as i occasionally venture). i do not buy records for sound quality. i want them to play well, but i do not require twelve NASA-engineered tubes and a house-wide static reduction agent and rubber cookware for fear of arc noice. i simply require a record to play through and present the music as it was pressed, for the most part. they are a gateway to a time when horace silver was still innovating, and when mingus was still punching people for next to no reason. that’s why i love my records, and why i especially love original pressings!

    • “I do not buy records for sound quality.” – Probably the most honest, and most realistic, statement ever made on this website.

      • haha make no mistake groovewear, i think that to well-trained ears, LPs are tops. but the effort required to have a top-notch listen with an LP is huge compared to the essentially cost-free experience with digital audio, which is only a small fraction lower in quality. all just my opinions, of course.

        • Quite so, Gregory. Only thing I object to is the accepted usage of the term “digital”. CD is digital too, isn’t it?

          • did i say it wasn’t? i don’t think i did. if i did, i retract it! but yes, they are digital, although many people are beginning to use “digital” to differentiate from CDs, which are physical, and realistically have as close to lossless audio as you are going to get. 320kbps mp3 is still worlds below a well-made CD. but i hate CDs. not as fun as LPs, not as easy as files. only good for big ‘complete’ collections, like monk on columbia!

            • It’s your “essentially cost-free experience with digital audio” that made me think of (free) downloads in the first place. You are so right about CDs being “not as fun as LPs”, maybe “not as easy as files” – though to me (personally, subjectively, no intention to hurt anybody’s feelings …) they are still the best choice soundwise, BY FAR.

              • interesting. so you’ve done head-to-head comparison? on similar speakers? just goes to show, taste is subjective.

                i don’t get why some get so huffy about listening opinions, though. if it is joyful, then you are doing the right thing.

    • I love records too – but as you I do not buy records because they generally sound better to me than CD or Spotify. I have many albums both on CD and as vintage LPs and it is a hit or miss when yo try out a newly purchased LP. Everything has to be right for the LP is to be more enjoyable to listen to:

      Condition – no scratches that causes tics – check!
      No pices of dirt or paper stuck to the surface that make the needle skip – Check!
      No constant background noise due to dirt or record just played to much – check!
      No groove distortion from being played with old turntables/needles – Check!
      No warps that causes wow and flutter – check!
      Mastering and manufacturing needs to be of high standard – check!

      Only then can I start to relax and just enjoy the Music 😉

      It’s a pain sometimes and as described by Gregory can act as a “filter” between you and the Music.

  5. I like my vinyl rig and records like I like my manual transmission sport cars. . . for the seer pleasure of indulgence. Sure I own a high tech computer laden automobile and a hi-end music server – ripped all my CDs to a hard drive, and sold the CD player, because why bother.

    Which car do I prefer driving, the 2007 Porsche. What music format do I indulge myself in, the vinyl rig. Bottom line, I like getting my hands in the soup, being involved in the process. Makes me feel alive.

    More power to Mr. Cuscuna. Whatever rocks his boat.

  6. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, LJC. This is a loaded topic. The truth is I sit here and my obsession with the LP format wanes. I started collecting vinyl almost 20 years ago when I started DJing and I will continue to do so moving forward, but for me it seems to be turning into more of a leisurely pastime than the full-on obsession it’s been at times in the past. The main thrust is that it’s expensive and life changes are forcing me to reevaluate my priorities.

    For someone like me who has obsessive tendencies and hyper-attention to detail, the vinyl collecting hobby in a way actually discourages me from focusing on the music opposed to which pressing I’m listening to, how perfect the actual slab of vinyl I’m listening to is, etc. Again, this is for someone like me specifically, but the nice thing about digital is it cuts all the B.S. out of the equation, leaving nothing but me and pure sonic energy. In this sense, my appreciation of vinyl actually has a lot to do with appreciating the art and science of recorded music being manufactured for home playback. When I listen to vinyl, psychologically I’m often focusing on things other than the actual music. With digital, there’s no ‘filters’ per se and I get to the core of the content instantly: the ideas and emotions being expressed.

    The advent of the MP3 and streaming has created a personal listening culture where I get an album in a digital format, pick and choose my favorite songs, and usually forget about the ones I don’t like. Those songs get lost in the sea of my hard drive or the cloud. What this means is my listening is more concentrated in what I personally find to be “quality” music. So given twelve songs to listen to, instead of having maybe four songs I would rate 4 or 5 stars, I will listen to all twelve songs many times over.

    The times they are a-changin’. Full LP listening is going the way of the dinosaurs, dinosaurs. 😉 Collections of songs for fans to pick and choose their favorites are becoming the norm now, replacing the concept of an album as a complete work of art. This is typically only “wrong” in the sense that the Earth’s veterans are unable to adapt the younger generation’s perspective and worldview. In defense of tradition, however, when an contemporary artist does deliver a packaged, cohesive piece of work that is most importantly done well, it sure is a treat. I suppose the truth is the percentage of albums being in this class of cohesiveness has declined in the digital age, and I do wish more artists would work to present their music in such a way.

  7. Ask any old record dealer and he will tell you that many folks owned only a few LPs or had only 45s, and many of those would not have payed a dime for them (ala modern file sharing) if they didnt really have to. Its not a modern problem. When i look though old albums I find garbage 90% of the time, not BN or Miles or even Cannonball. People have always liked shoddy music, with a small slice of the population (ie us) wanting something better. Nothing has changed in that regard.

  8. Interesting post LJC. As I have a partly leisurely morning on my hands I’m going to put my two peneth forward.
    There will always be people who are not prepared to give music much time in terms of its own quality and sound quality.
    In today’s prevalent streaming medium they can have what they deserve: a facile approach which limits the artists’ intentions.
    The vinyl album is still king of all the options available to me. I have bought several recent releases for which the album is superior in every way to other formats.
    But I simply don’t have the resources to buy everything that may take my fancy.
    That’s why I have a Spotify account and I find it invaluable. It’s a wonderful way to investigate all kinds of music you may not have explored otherwise. And the sound quality can be improved to an extent.
    But Spotify is by default anti-LP. It’s impossible (I think) without manual intervention to play the contents of a album straight through as the artist intended; it’s always set to shuffle.
    This is a sad state of affairs although I think playlists and random selections have their uses: for me, cycling, parties, in the car.
    And that is something which is a bonus for someone who grew up with analogue only sound sources and their limitations.
    However I find the idea of storing all my digital music in computer files abhorrent.
    Last night I pulled out some of John Zorn’s beautifully packaged CDs made by his Tzadik label.
    As I listened I read the notes and looked at the pictures.
    CDs can be artistically satisfying and I don’t wish to hide them all away.
    In other words, if you love your music, things haven’t been really been any better.
    Whether that’s good for the welfare of the artists is a different question.

  9. I also have a Squeezebox but never use it as I fall into the usual digital trap of forever jumping from track to track…I don’t think I have met anyone with a digital setup that can play more than one track from an album before jumping off again (in fact large numbers can’t even listen to the whole of one track)

    Vinyl LP’s force you to concentrate and accept the artists/producers vision for a full 20 mins something few people are willing to accept today, however I dislike your food analogy plenty of different cuisines work because of the everything on the table at the same time limiting yourself to a 3 course progression is really only a very small part of European tradition what about Tapas, Japanese, Indian to name just a few…all work well without limitations

    • I mustardmit the analogy is a bit of a collander, full of holes, but then collanders are quite useful for draining pasta, so not entirely without merit.

      The last time I faced an “infinite choice” menu was a London chinese restaurant in the ’80s, where the menu must have run over twenty pages. My host was native chinese and felt confident here. Following his guidance, I chose what turned out to be sea-slug and abalone. Sea slug was everything you might imagine in your worst nightmares, and abalone was like chewing a small hard pencil rubber.

      It was somewhere around that time I decided too much choice is not always a good thing. Now I stay with the crispy duck. Any more foodie stories, you are welcome.

    • I don’t think I have met anyone with a digital setup that can play more than one track from an album before jumping off again (in fact large numbers can’t even listen to the whole of one track)

      We’ve never met, I expect.
      My usual listening for an evening of music is pretty much as the OP suggests:

      I like to listen to around three LPs in a row, both sides.

      But, I do this via Google Play Music cast from my phone to a Chromecast attached to a television with some decent (to my ears) speakers on it. The MP3s so cast are in fact complete albums which have been ripped. Whilst the tracks play the album cover shows on the screen. It’s quite easy to manage whole albums with this system, and at the end of each it stops and awaits my next album choice.

      Wouldn’t it be better to hear it on the original vinyl? Probably, but the quality is good enough through the setup above and it is very convenient. It may take considerable time to find the original album (I don’t have much shelf space and many are in boxes) yet the electronic version is always moments away.

      As for shuffling, it has its place for such purposes as listening in the car. I don’t see it as much different from a radio station.

      • We all consume music in different ways, a balance of convenience, portability, selection control, audio-fidelity, and of course musical taste. I’ve never tried these digital delivery systems, if they satisfy you, that’s what matters. You can’t argue with someone who says they are happy with what they have got.

        I have a (high-end) digital streamer, which I hardly every play because the sound is lifeless in comparison to my heavy-weight vinyl artillery, I just want to turn it off.

        If you don’t actively seek out and experience the comparison, I guess what you don’t know what you are missing, no slight intended. I’d just encourage you to try-out a good vinyl system, A:B if you can, and convince me you are still satisfied with what you have.

        I’ve done it, which is why I am where I am today. Vinyl is inconvenient, expensive, non-portable, liable to damage, and wouldn’t listen any other way.

    • hi moko. nice to meet you. your claim is now invalid, though, i fear. 🙂

      i utterly refuse to skip any tracks, and demand at all times to listen to full albums.

  10. I tend to regard many of Cuscuna’s comments too swayed by his business priorities. While the CD may have saved the music industry, it certainly never lived up to it’s marketing claim of “perfect sound forever” or even to offer improved audio quality. Personally, I obtain the highest audio quality from the LP and prefer this format in focused listening sessions. Having said that, I assembled a music server a couple years ago and ripped my entire collection of evil silver discs (a wide range of genres including jazz, classical, rock, electronic, on so forth). To my surprise, it transformed my listening habits. I select all tracks into a massive playlist and go with random play to produce a wonderful collage of musical styles. It’s been a fantastic approah for “rediscovering” recordings deeply buried in my collection.

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