An Alternate View

The CD era brought about a proliferation of alternate takes on many jazz reissues, and the practice continues in archival boxsets and individual titles. Some listeners aren’t interested in alternates and may even take issue with them being released; other listeners value them for their nuances. I fall into the latter camp, and this has everything to do with the performance-oriented nature of jazz. There is no perfect take or rendition of a given tune, although one performance might be more suited for album release than others. Ideally, every time out, you’re going to get a different performance with different improvisation; therefore, if the artist is of interest, the various takes will likely of some interest as well.

To make the point clearer, remove the distinction between studio and live recordings. Do we complain about Miles’ Plugged Nickel box set because it contains more than one rendition of each live set within? Then why complain (or withhold interest) when the very same band delivers more than one take of a tune in the studio? Yes, they’re looking for that one magic take worthy of release, but sometimes the choice is a coin-flip. The variations are an intrinsic part of the art. In fact, forget whether or not a performance is even being recorded at all. Do we ignore a live jazz performer’s song because we heard him play it the night before?

At the bottom of it all is the listener’s interest in a particular player or group. I don’t know how a John Coltrane fan could not be interested in hearing different takes of “Giant Steps”, given the notoriety of the tune and the fact that thousands of players have learned the master take’s solo by heart. Who wouldn’t want to know how Coltrane approached it on a different take? Even if we recognize that the alternate isn’t of the same stature - or that it might have a flaw or two and that the rhythm section is pretty much going to be playing the same thing from take to take - we can still glean information and enjoyment from the experience. Or, in the case of an intriguing group, the ‘60s Miles quintet again comes to mind, a band whose very identity relies on spontaneous interplay. Therefore, flaws or not, their alternate takes are probably going to be of some interest. And sure enough, the different versions of “Country Son”, “Limbo”, “Pinocchio”, and other tunes by that band are all worth hearing. It’s not just the solos that are different - the whole performance can change.

To be sure, there are a lot of alternate takes out there that don’t come close to the quality of their master counterparts and that don’t contain much retrospective worth at all. I can spot the duds for what they are and wonder why they were even released. However, I don’t take this attitude to every alternate take in existence because many of them do enrich my understanding of the artist(s).

All of the above is written from the perspective of the consumer. If we’re in the producer role - or at least thinking about it - we then come upon the question of artistic intent. In other words, should “rejected” performances be made public? To generalize on this would be folly, because every record has its own circumstances, and to be specific on each case would take forever. But let me say this in defense of the practice: a lot of times, tunes were recorded two or three times, maybe more, and the artist and/or producer would pick the best one for release. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the take left aside is especially inferior. In fact, half the band may have preferred it while the producer insisted on going with a different take for whatever reason. In other words, not everything is rejected because the artist flat-out thinks it’s crap.

A good example of valuable alternates can be found on the CD reissue of Grant Green’s Idle Moments. During the sessions, the title track ran too long to fit onto LP with the tracks that had already been cut. So rather than chop up the long tune, or any of the others for that matter, the band re-did a couple of tunes in shorter versions. A few decades later, we’re able to hear all the takes on one disc.

Another somewhat controversial issue is when reissues restore lost segments to edited takes. An example of that might be Mingus Ah Um, to which Columbia restored some missing bars in its latest remaster. Having lived with both editions of the album, I prefer the restored version, if only because I default to the sanctity of real-time performance. If Mingus didn’t want those eight bars in John Handy’s solo, why were they recorded in the first place? LP time constraints - that’s the answer to so many snips of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Monk’s Underground album was reissued with a couple of missing solos, as were some live albums he did for Columbia. Good, I say, even if these solos don’t change the face of jazz as we know it. The same happened with Miles Davis’ expanded Blackhawk package, which restored several Hank Mobley solos. These snips, by and large, were done because the original releases had time limits.

Anyway, assuming the original album program isn’t disrupted, I think alternate takes can often be beneficial to the studious listener. And for those who don’t care, there’s always the stop button.

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