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Michael Cuscuna: The Art of the Reissue

Michael Cuscuna

If online bulletin boards and listserv groups are an accurate measure, discussion of record-company reissue policies is a sure-fire blood-boiler for jazz fans. Start a thread on any deserving artist long absent from the retail racks-old, obscure or out of print-and temperatures immediately rise. Expand the focus to details of current reissues and box sets-tune selections, packaging, pricing-and a fever pitch is nigh. Label motivations are vilified, and outraged “How could they?” questions start to fly.

The answers, if considered after a deep breath with a modicum of empathy (it helps if one has worked in a corporate environment), might help explain the reissue policy of whatever label is the target du jour. Whether these reissue policies are inconsistent or intelligent, quality- or quantity-driven, well-there’s the heart of the ongoing argument. That question was also the opening shot in a recent conversation with the maven of the jazz reissue, Michael Cuscuna.

Though Cuscuna has produced many a contemporary artist since the early ’70s, it’s his leading role as a freelance reissue producer for a multitude of labels (and his own artfully packaged Mosaic imprint) for which he’s known, lauded and Grammy-awarded. Given the wide reach of his research and the high quality of his output, he’s one of the few reissue specialists who’s unassailable in public forums (well, usually).

Cuscuna can be incredibly comprehensive in his approach, assembling label-specific overviews of the likes of Brubeck, Clifford Brown and Grant Green. A former DJ, he also has a proven knack for creating winning mixes, cherry-picking tracks for tasteful single discs that focus on, say, the ballad work of Dexter Gordon or John Coltrane, or the best of Lee Morgan or Billie Holiday.

Cuscuna’s current big project-in addition to Mosaic Select’s new three-CD sets dedicated to composer-arranger Johnny Richards and boogie-woogie/swing pianist Freddie Slack-is producing and mastering the recently discovered tapes featuring Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane in a 1957 performance at Carnegie Hall. That CD is scheduled for a late-September release on Blue Note; Mosaic will also issue an LP version.

So if any person can boast cross-label insight into the inner workings of the jazz reissue biz, it would be the man from Stamford, Conn.

JazzTimes: A substantial number of jazz consumers think reissue programs are trying to squeeze yet another drop of blood from the stones. Do you agree?

Michael Cuscuna: Yes, to a degree that exists. But those stones are their own masters [laughs]. What I mean is there is a lot more going on in reissue decision-making than just the marketing department. Many titles that sell best are time-honored recordings that were bestsellers when they first came out and continue to be bestsellers. And as recording technology gets better, a lot more can be done, and things can be improved. Almost everything that came out in the initial CD era-let’s say from ’85 to ’90-is, on a relative basis, dreadful. Some of them are fine to listen to but are dreadful compared to what we can do now.

I believe that everything that continues to sell, that people have interest in, deserves to be upgraded if it can be. So there’s a bit of a P.R. problem because the people who care most about those albums happen to be the same people who bought them back when they were on vinyl and then rebought those LPs on CD. Now people find themselves looking at newly upgraded CDs or SACDs of their favorite stuff, so it’s like they’re rebuying stuff yet a second time-or a third or fourth. But what do you do? Do you not treat these titles with the best technology you have today? Everything we’re doing today will eventually be improved upon. That’s just the nature of the world.

When formats settle down, and there’s a way for everyone to play 24-bit digital technology in their homes, everything will sound a lot better than it does in 16, which is the standard for today. And so everyone who cares about the sonic quality of their music-a lot of them are jazz fans-will eventually be rebuying stuff again.

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