The conductor Otto Klemperer once said, “Listening to a recording is like going to bed with a photograph of Marilyn Monroe.” Recordings have long been demonized-accused of destroying amateurism and live music, promoting soul-killing perfectionism, cheapening appreciation. The jeremiads have a grain of truth, but only a grain. We would no more give up on recordings than we would electric light. For one thing, they define the difference between Buddy Bolden, a subject of eternal speculation, and King Oliver, the object of eternally strained ears.
The strain has just gotten easier. Archeophone, the indispensable company that resurrected the complete Bert Williams a few years back, is distributing one of the most vital jazz reissues in many years: King Oliver Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings. The careful title reminds us that only the Gennett sides were credited to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band; “Creole” was dropped for the selections he made for OKeh, Columbia and Paramount. Here they are: all 37 tracks in presumed chronological order and in startlingly resonant audio transfers. Given the tradition of Oliver mastering breakthroughs, I wouldn’t bet a nickel that these CDs will remain the last word in audio redemption forever and ever-just for the next few decades. All earlier editions are now obsolete.