Classical Music: Still hooked on 'classics'

They're built up as icons. But are so-called seminal albums actually an y good? By Nick Coleman
POPULAR MUSIC is as preoccupied with calibrating its own value as every other branch of the arts; in some ways more so, because with an acknowledged canon of great works comes respectability.

We're used to it now. Pop and jazz get the full arts treatment on television. Niche magazines such as Mojo confirm that there is a hierarchy of value in rock. We're forever being flogged the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time. Even the big retail outlets are keen to impress on us that some things are more "classic" than others. Quite right too. Where would we be if every mote and beam produced by popular culture were of equal value? Up the creek with a CD-stacker full of Natalie Imbruglia singles, that's where.

True canonicalism requires that some things be of such elevated quality that they function not only as a defining moment in culture, but also as a Platonic ideal, a model of perfection. Rock and jazz canonicalism has special adjectives. "Seminal"; "classic"; "epochal" all get the message across: do not touch.

Sergeant Pepper was probably more epoch-making than epochal, but let's not get hung up on details. Pop culture has its own canon that exists beyond the compass of normal, leisurely apprehension, as if they inhabit a parallel universe reserved for inviolable "seminal" product designed to be appreciated as much as enjoyed. It is simply not possible to hear the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, or Love's Forever Changes for instance, and not be assaulted by a tinnitus of seminal classic, epochal, ground-breaking, mould-shattering adjectival hyperbole from the invisible commentator we all have to carry around with us like a cultural conscience.

The same thing occurs in jazz, only worse. At the time when I made my own epochal decision to like jazz as much as I liked the Clash and Marvin Gaye, I had fairly limited options as to where to go for sound canonical wisdom. This was before black British youngsters donned smart suits and talked up their connectedness with John Coltrane in colour supplements. All you could do was read books,listen to bufferish radio late at night, buy sticky specialist magazines. You quickly learnt that there were certain fundamental jazz ur-texts from which all else of value flowed.

Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool was one such. Well, obviously. You can't get much more jazzily seminiferous than that title.

The first mistake I made was to play it. By that time I had three Davis albums: Kind of Blue (well, obviously), Porgy and Bess and a "twofer" containing a brace of the sessions Davis recorded with his great quintet of the mid-Fifties, Workin' and Steamin'. I'd grown accustomed to the plangency of Miles's music, its apparently endless reach, its hardness and blackness. I'd assimilated the Milesian principle that less is more. I'd even made a few bold connections between this kind of music and abstract Expressionist painting, and was keen to talk about it at every opportunity, especially to girls. Birth of the Cool did not measure up at all.

Why not? Because, in the catch-all jargon of the period, Birth of the Cool was a bit bland. It swung gently, but not hard. It comprised three- minute tunes played liltingly by nine players. Its arrangements (by Gil Evans, John Lewis, John Carisi and Gerry Mulligan) were kapok-dense but pillow-soft. I played it three times and mentally filed it away as "seminally dull".

My second mistake was not to play it again for 20 years. Birth of the Cool is a lovely record. It isn't as profoundly moving as Kind of Blue or Miles Ahead, and it doesn't cut you up like On the Corner or Miles Smiles. But it is enjoyable and it does connect, if you listen without preconditions. There's something in its pillowy arrangements that does more than prefigure the "cool" noodling of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Lennie Niehaus et al. It invites your involvement, rather than commands it. It suggests that jazz has the capacity to connect in more ways than one. It enriches the language.

All of which adds up to "seminal", I suppose, given the music's original context: late-Forties, post-war, contemporary with Charlie Parker, in advance of the conceptual suites that would confirm jazz as proper to a later generation of highbrows. Essentially, Birth of the Cool is seminal because it got there first.

But be warned: when you come across the new, juiced-up Complete Birth of the Cool in your local megastore, and feel the first shivers of seduction brought on by its gorgeous new packaging, and the use of the words "classic" and "seminal" in the publicity material - be cool, if you haven't heard it before, and listen to the thing first. You may love it. But you won't love it because it's seminal. You'll love it because it's lovely.

`The Complete Birth of the Cool' is out now on Capitol Jazz.