Jazz listening: Is it about the music? Or is it about the sound?


The thread title says it all. I can listen to jazz recordings for hours on end but can scarcely name a dozen tunes.  My jazz collection is small but still growing.  Most recordings sound great.  On the other hand, I have a substantial rock, pop and country collection and like most of us, have a near encyclopedic knowledge of it.  Yet sound quality is all over the map to the point that many titles have become nearly unlistenable on my best system.  Which leads me back to my question: Is it the sound or the music?  Maybe it’s both. You’ve just got to have one or the other!
jdmccall56
I posted a few months ago that many of my old rock albums sounded pretty poor on my new system - now some I only listen too on an old system I have in my workshop in the garage. I have not heard a really unlistenable Jazz album yet. In fact all The Modern Jazz Quartet albums sound amazing on the new system and have brought me back to listening to more Jazz. I have replaced some of my old rock with 180 gram reissues when available and that has helped.  
assembling a system that can deal with the wide wide range of recording quality of the various forms and sources of music we listen to is a key learned skill in this pursuit

that been said, it is still hard to have cake and eat it too... whereever on the spectrum you choose for your system’s tonality

and oh, yes, to the top line question... it is about the music... the brilliant music... they system is there to convey and hopefully not distract
It's the recording. 
It's the sound of the music.
I have found Jazz to be one of the tougher music genres to reproduce via an audio system. The tone quality of instruments is important with the right balance of smoothness and attack (but without artificial sibilance to the leading edge of notes). But also important is timing and the flow of the music. Systems that lean to much to the side of smoothness (generally tube amps) can sound too slow for jazz. On the other side, solid state amplification that is too focused on resolution can make the tone quality of acoustic instruments sound harsh. My experience is that good equipment for listening to jazz doesn't have to be super expensive, but finding the right blend of equipment to get the right sound personality for your preferences matters. For instance, the quickness of my pretty reasonably priced Monitor Audio Silver 300 speakers seems to allow a lot of leeway for sweeter sounding amplification which will likely be my next purchase (after working on my digital front end.

For me it is all about the music, but how that music is reproduced matters as well. Listening to 'Kind of Blue' right now and it's hitting the spot for me this morning...
I think it depends on the material you're listening to. There are some recordings that have historic significance because of the lineup, the style of jazz, the performance of a particular player or the interplay between band members. Several Miles Davis/John Coltrane recordings come to mind, like the first European tour by the Davis/Coltrane quintet, certain Newport Jazz Festival recordings and, of course, Kind of Blue. In addition to repeated listening, I've read different books and contemporaneous reviews. So, for those recordings, I have much more "encyclopedic" knowledge about the lineup, the venue and the historical significance of the material. 

Then there are those sources where the quality of the recording is superior but there's nothing spectacular about the music itself nor any notable historic significance. I'm much less informed about these albums but I love the way they sound in my room and they allow me to hear deep into my system. Chick Corea's Trilogy albums come to mind. The music itself is stellar, the lineup is superior in jazz terms, and the recording is phenomenal. It doesn't matter to me that they're bot necessarily breaking new ground the way Davis and Coltrane were. I appreciate these albums and listen to them in a different way.

The same can be said for rock music, though. I'm much better informed about historically significant rock albums (Beatles, Yardbirds, Al Kooper) than about other rock music. 
Maybe I'm just not a big enough jazz fan, but for me it's probably the only genre I listen to where it's important for it to sound good. This doesn't mean, though, that I refuse to listen to Django or scratchy old Louis Armstrong reissues.
The best systems make everything sound better. They do not disseminate from old 78's of Fats Waller   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSNPpssruFY to 192/24 Nine Inch Nails. It all sounds incredible. 
Seems as my systems have gotten better, my recordings have gotten worse!  Jazz almost always sounds good though.  So I listen.  But Iove my pop stuff.  Geez it can hard to listen to though.
I'd say that it's both, and I too listen to more jazz than ever these days.

To my ears acoustic music almost invariably sounds better than electronic on a high-quality system, and I suspect that the recording engineers (e.g. Rudy Van Gelder) who focussed on jazz were among the very best.

I grew up listening to should and funk, and still love to spin Tower of Power discs, etc. But ultimately, the nuances of acoustic music draw me in more deeply. 
Hate to tell you, but if any of your recordings sound worse then your system is more selective, not better. I have zero recordings that don't sound a whole lot better, and a lot of them that were blah are now captivating. Whole lot of em. Could give all kinds of examples, but what's the point, easier to just say all of em. 

Always loved rock and blues, always had jazz and classical too but never really got into them. Now my favorite record is Tchaikovsky, but my U2 is more awesome than ever and playing Crime of the Century the other night at concert level was a religious experience right up there with Tchaikovsky. I paid big money for a White Hot Year of the Cat, and it is in a whole new universe from the average pressing I had, but there was nothing wrong with that average pressing in fact it got better and better as my system improved. Which is one of the ways I know my system really did get better and better! 

If you are noticing ANY recordings that sound worse in any way, focus in like a laser beam on precisely why that is, because it is in your system and not the recording, and so if you can fix that problem then you will indeed have made your system truly better. 
I only got into jazz once I set up a vinyl system a few years ago.  Now, it's about all I listen to.  I can put on nearly any jazz album and just relax into listening.  It's really the sound that my system produces rather than specific albums/artists/songs, at least at this point, that I'm attracted to.  I can even listen to the same albums frequently and not tire of them.  That's not the case with other genres.
I can put on nearly any jazz album and just relax into listening. It's really the sound that my system produces rather than specific albums/artists/songs, at least at this point, that I'm attracted to.
Exactly!  So...the sound is the thing.  Not the melody or anything so much about the musical details.  At least with jazz.  Still, it's not like all jazz is created equal.  There's still jazz I like and jazz I don't, irrespective of sound quality..  Personally, I have a hard time with so-called "free jazz".  And I can't tolerate some artist's tendency to vocalize along with the music.

IMHO, with jazz you get both – good music and good sound. Like @whipsaw mentioned, Rudy Van Gelder (Blue Note) engineered tons of material from the bebop/hard bop/post-bop eras. Several other labels had good production quality as well, like Prestige, Riverside, Columbia, Verve, and Impulse. I don’t know if there was an unspoken standard or a small group traveling within that genre, but most of the stuff they produced was pretty consistently good.

 

Yeah rock, R&B, even blues, can be all over the place. But again, I think that was a function of engineering and where/how they were recorded. Earth, Wind and Fire’s first album sounded like it was recorded in someone’s garage. Their sound improved substantially with the move to Columbia. Chicago (CTA) put out great stuff with Columbia as well.

 

The other day, remembering my high school days, put on “Stand” by Sly & the Family Stone. It was pretty bad. I liked that album playing on the system I had back then. If one’s system is fairly resolving, capable of faithfully reproducing what’s been recorded, then sound quality will necessarily vary based on how well it’s been engineered. It’s the old adage “garbage in garbage out” at work.  

 

One last thing, keeping with the central theme: is it the music or the sound? I had a plumber doing some work and I asked him “… anything or anybody you care to hear while you’re working?” He suggested Vince Gill, Randy Travis, and a couple of other country artists I can’t remember. That day – song after song - I discovered how much high quality sound comes out of Nashville. Those guys really know how to engineer great sounding music! Am I now a country music fan? Well no, all things being equal, music trumps sound. Just saying …      


there are many good sounding, well engineered jazz labels... to me though, manfred eicher's ecm sets the bar as the gold standard over the years and still, today

you must like the selection of music/artists though... 
As a long-time jazz collector, to me, it is about the music first. That's not to say that sound quality isn't important too, but in looking at my collection, it contains a lot of jazz history. Back in time, there were some pretty poor quality recordings that contained fantastic music. Charlie Parker albums readily come to mind. "Bird's" influence on jazz musicians cannot be denied, including current ones. His recordings belong in any serious jazz fan's collection. 

Frank
It is about both but when you get the best recordings of really great music the thought about the sound goes away and yes the better the system the more the flaws of most recordings are shown. When you have the best music and it is not recorded or played back well it is a shame because you do not want to listen to it.
@OP,  I get it.  I listen to the Bill Evans Trio, Waltz for Debby, album nearly every week.  Sonically, it still blows me away.  And it's a 1962 recording, made live inside the small Village Vanguard.  

I think MillerCarbon has some good advice about trying to focus in on what's off with other genres so you can improve your system to maximize your pleasure across all music.  Nonetheless, I'm with you--jazz can be so pleasing and its recording quality pretty high, generally, that we can start to feel like other genres are more difficult to enjoy or not as pleasant.  My situation has gotten better on the other genres--yet it cost me a bit to get here.

jbhiller:
I listen to the Bill Evans Trio, Waltz for Debby, album nearly every week.  Sonically, it still blows me away.  And it's a 1962 recording
I think a pretty good argument could be made that regardless of genre, some of the best, most present sounding recordings came from the late 50's and early 60's.  The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison come to mind.
True, OP, very true. 
Great to see us share a passion for quality Jazz pressings. I can also listen to Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, Chick Corea for hours. Acoustical instruments, especially the Piano, is difficult to sound perfect due to the complex physics behind the harmonics. Some of you have very customized systems to deal with that, based on what I’ve read over time. As of me, I’m still saving-and-trading in this journey of a hobby. 
Americans are prone to binary thinking.

Is it this or that?  This is the reason, not that.  Blah blah blah...

Guess what - jazz lovers love both the music and great recordings.  We don't have to draw some kind of imaginary line between the two.
I am a big jazz appreciator. I have been listening to jazz for years. Both live and recorded. As an audiophile, like with any genre, it is about BOTH, the music and the quality of reproduction. Perhaps this is the case in classical, as well. But in jazz, it is especially important to me to have a highly resolving system which reproduces a very black background, so you not only hear the notes, but the spaces between the notes. Soundstage, imaging and depth also add a lot, because in some recordings there can be one or two or three instruments on the recording. This leads me also to the quality of the recording. That matters a lot and ads to the enjoyment of the music. My journey as an audiophile has led me from solid state to tubes. I have a PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium HP integrated that I had not given enough. listening time to. Well Steve Guttenberg recently reviewed the Boyuurange A50 Mk3 300B tube integrated amp. At the time it was about $760 on Amazon. I thought what the heck. I bought it. I listen to a lot of ECM jazz. Wow was I blown away at the soundstage imaging and depth of this amp! I never heard a ss amp do what this cheap little 300B tube amp did! The quality of sound recordings and reproduction ads so much to the enjoyment and appreciation of jazz. Please keep in mind that what constitutes jazz these days is very broad. Well I now am back to the PrimaLuna and “auditioning” it again. I am thinking if the Boyuurange can do the things I heard, I would love to hear what a high end tube integrated could do. Hence, my assessing Raven, VAC, Decware and perhaps other options for a high end, perhaps, “end game” tube integrated for ME. Right now I am circling around the possibility of a Raven Osprey Mk3 and the VAC Sigma 170i. 
I think that jazz is one of the most diverse genres.  I say that I love jazz, about 1% of it anyway.  There is tons of jazz that will drive me out of the room, no matter how good the recording.  To illustrate I used to get a jazz magazine, Jazziz, I think, and there were well over a hundred album reviews in it every month.  So to talk about jazz as a single type of music that one enjoys in total is inaccurate.  I think it would be an accomplishment for someone to listen to 1% of all the jazz albums ever released just once.

One thing that jazz music has going for it is that most albums are recorded live in the studio over a couple of days, so you don't get all the "feel" or emotion or humanity lost before that final take, or because the musicians playing on the album never actually met each other.  Studio effects are usually kept to a minimum too.  Of course that is changing as time goes on, but a lot of jazz is still recorded that way.
I don't really need the answer to my question.  But to me though, it is an interesting question.  I think for me, it's mostly the sound.  With Jazz and classical, anyway.  Pop music?  Maybe it's both.  For you it may be mostly about the music.  And then there are no doubt many that would find it hard to separate the two.  It's all good. 

I just received some bad family news, so please excuse my absence from this thread.  Best wishes to all.
Devil music.  Switch to rock.


@jdmccall52 Thoughts and prayers are with you!
Both.... It's about the sound of the music.

I will say this about albums.
Since I got my Bob's Devices Sky 30 SUT, I've gone back and listened to some albums that just sounded dull, but now many of them seem like they have come to life. What I mean by that is the sound is more lively, the definition and the sound stage have gotten better. It made albums I didn't really care for, listenable. 
I am most impressed.
It's both, no question, and one can have precedence over the other depending on my mood. I'm not a big jazz fan, but jazz  might be the best kind of music to test most hifi systems. Treble, bass and mid-range - jazz contains the entire audio spectrum in abundance. John Coltrane's Blue Train album is a prime example but there are many others.   
I hate spell check sometimes. That was supposed to be discriminate.
Anyway, better systems make everything sound better. You hear the antiquity better. The music and artistry are still there. In order to really understand some artists particularly horn and reed players, you have to hear them early in their careers when they still had lungs. People who shy away from very old recordings and 78s are missing a lot of very important music. Enrico Caruso and Louis Armstrong are great examples.
Both were genetic misfits who had lungs twice the size of ours. Both had no need of a PA system. 

There are people who listen to lame examples of music because it was recorded in a special manner. There are examples of great music recorded in a special manner. Find those.
Both!

I'm also a Bill Evans Trio fan. Big Time. Mitchel's "Song for Sharron" is on now and that's utterly moving to me. 

Isn't that the whole point of all of this; getting an evocative experience over and over or as Ben Sidran said "it's copacetic man" Heck yah. "Jesus Just Left Chicago" or "Blue Rondo a La Turk" (the live at Carnegie Hall version) both thrill.

Recordings of the likes of "Mingus Plays Piano", Teddy Wilson, Red Garland and Django Reinhardt are not amazing recordings but the music shines through.

Jarrett, Peacock and Dejonette on "Whisper Not" playing "Poinciana" is another one that sends me and the recording is good too.






Is sex about the sensations and release? Or about the communication, intimacy, closeness?
Is food about the interesting textures and flavors and how they're put together? Or is it about the emotional and physical satisfaction that results?
Are movies about the pacing, plot, and character development? Or about the immersion, excitement, and adrenaline burst?
To answer one or the other or both or neither is a good Rorschach test for members. It answers a question, "How should one live?" (Those who claim "both" are just as subjective as those who say one or the other, by the way. What they mean is, "For me, both!")

My MRI of the question reveals a philosophical question (as well as a personal and practical one). (And it's not "truly" a philosophical question -- that's just how I take it.)

Kierkegaard wrote a book about this basic question, entitled "Either/Or" in which he portrays two life views. From good ol' Wikipedia:

"The aesthetic is the personal, subjective realm of existence, where an individual lives and extracts pleasure from life only for their own sake. In this realm, one has the possibility of the highest as well as the lowest. The ethical, on the other hand, is the civic realm of existence, where one's value and identity are judged and at times superseded by the objective world.'
I too also am listening to a lot of jazz.  The thing about a jazz trio or quartet is that there is a lot of space between the players...and the music. the sound is in the space. And that space is much different then an orchestra or rock and roll band. the music is in the space.....

hilde45, sound quality and the music itself are both examples of the aesthetic and become purely a matter of taste. There is no ethical component. Ethics have always been a problem for humans. There are painfully few examples of ethics trumping survival. Survival for humans is now financial. Money trumps all. With the secularization of society ethics have flown out the window. Sodom and Gomora all over again.
’’Not So Special Keepers" (any genre)

That’s why I went from two arms (MC Stereo; Mono) to 3 arms ( added MM Stereo). Luckily I chose a vintage SUT with 3 inputs and MM pass.

I realized, I was wearing my non-replaceable stylus on LP’s that are keepers, because, like OP said, they are quite memorable, could name the tune, artist, get the year right most times, BUT not audibly special i.e. just ok (or none) musical talent, early poor equipment, poor engineering, but BIG HITS nonetheless.

I now play them with MM replaceable stylus. If I own these in CD format I will sell the LP or toss it if beat up as many are.

Meanwhile, if sonically great, I replace favorites with new LP, toss the old. Our advanced systems can easily reveal ’much better’ playing a new Eurythmics, (any frequently played favorite)
......................

Jazz, I agree, most often I could not give you the name of a tune if you had me on a firing wall.

I go by primary instrument, then artist(s), then superior engineering resulting importantly in individual distinction of particular players which naturally creates appreciable imaging.

When young and poor (redundant?), not knowing anything about Jazz, I was given about 50 Jazz LP’s that were in a flood. I washed em let em dry in dishwasher rack, played em on my decent low-budget system, and learned: I like Trombone; Trumpet; Sax; Piano, not electronic keyboards, yes trios, quartets, not large groups so much, not Jazz mixed with strings. Special voices, particularly female.

Back then, I had a weekly budget, CD’s were blowing LP’s out of the stores at low prices, and every payday I began refining which saxophone player, found Stan Getz ..., which piano found Earl Hines, Red Garland, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Terrance Blanchard ... i.e. refined what I liked and didn’t like as well.

Next: superior recording, superior versions, then moved into R2R tapes, technically nosiest, yet my best sounding format, limited by content that stopped due to CD’s.
.............................

One thing I learned to do, if not special, or Mono, is not to listen from my centered listening position, but go back to my corner sofa spot, then your mind does not seek imaging which detracts mightily from non-special or Mono recordings.

1. There is something seriously wrong with your best system.
2. What utility is it to you if you can‘t play the bulk of your music collection?
3. Personally, I would rather listen to good music on an ipad than inferior music on a $50k system. The system is always subsurvient to the music. In my view, at least.
:)   or a graphic equaliser......

Both - but I think Jazz is especially amenable to sounding good. In terms of a system making a given genre sound better or worse, I think it is simply that good recordings benefit a lot more from a good system. But all recordings should benefit to varying degrees from a good system.
I lost my interest in mainstream jazz a while ago, but got turned on to so-called spiritual jazz a few years ago, starting with the Strata-East catalog- some amazing stuff there, and a lot of what I listen to and chase these days are in this more offbeat jazz area that is not so cacophonous to be free jazz but comes pretty close sometimes- Pharaoh Sanders, Cecil McBee are two of the great players among many. A lot of the records were originally released during a low point in vinyl in the U.S. but they still sound good. What is now limiting is price- some of the OGs are nutty money or pretty hard to find, let alone in first tier condition. I don’t know that there is a common thread to this sub-genre, since the term is applied loosely to a lot of private label and small label post bop jazz that uses eastern or African influences. Some of it is fabulous, sonically. One that was mainstream was Alice Coltrane’s Ptah, the El Daoud, on Impulse- now very hard to find in mint- condition and pricey even for beater copies- recorded in the family studio in their basement in Long Island. Ron Carter on that one. Lots to discover and learn. There is a movement among current younger musicians to tap into this vein too, so from relatively inexpensive to collector’s pieces, you can spend a fair amount of time doing a deep dive. Even the records Nathan Davis released on his return to the U.S. are pretty rare and made on some of the thinnest vinyl I’ve ever seen, but sound good. Usually pretty simple combos, very little in the way of string fills or heavy-handed production- some of the material, like Horace Tapscott- is fairly large ensemble playing. Worth checking out if you’ve lost interest in jazz or want to take a different path. Most all of it is attributed to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as inspiration.

The thread title says it all. I can listen to jazz recordings for hours on end but can scarcely name a dozen tunes.  My jazz collection is small but still growing.  Most recordings sound great.  On the other hand, I have a substantial rock, pop and country collection and like most of us, have a near encyclopedic knowledge of it.

We remember the rock, pop and country collections because this is what was played back in the days of no format FM radio stations.

To my ears acoustic music almost invariably sounds better than electronic on a high-quality system, and I suspect that the recording engineers (e.g. Rudy Van Gelder) who focussed on jazz were among the very best.
IMHO, with jazz you get both – good music and good sound. Like @whipsaw mentioned, Rudy Van Gelder (Blue Note) engineered tons of material from the bebop/hard bop/post-bop eras. Several other labels had good production quality as well, like Prestige, Riverside, Columbia, Verve, and Impulse.

@strateahed,

I noticed you left out the Rudy Van Gelder post strateahead CTI years! ☺
Which are some of my favorites to this day, but I do also love the above!

Off the top of my head I can't remember some of the Bill Evans session engineers but they were some of the sharpest ever!

Does anybody really listen to pure jazz with bad sound quality?

Thing is these days the most interesting music to me is that which cross or defy traditional genres, including traditional "Jazz", which alone is very wide and varied in styles to the point that "Jazz" has become almost a useless label except in the historical sense. That all started with fusion Jazz back in the late Miles Davis era. Most of what happened with Jazz as we traditionally know it in the modern recording era happened as a result of Miles Davis.

Even Ken Burns Jazz miniseries did not quite know what to say about Jazz as it had been traditionally defined anymore once they got past the fusion jazz era that Miles Davis started back in the latter sixties and after Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the key figures that helped form, popularize and evolve traditional Jazz, had passed, which is a long time ago already baby, yeah!

I guess if there is a lot of group improvisation and extended solos going on, that is still the "essence" of Jazz. I know it when I hear it, especially when listening to an actual live performance. Oh and yes the sound quality better be good, right?
Having played professionally, it’s the quality of the recording AND the composition.  I never listen to some of my favorite rock recordings due to poor recording sq.  Jazz musicians know a lot of their commercial success is in the equipment/method of the recording, not mass appeal.
@mijostyn
sound quality and the music itself are both examples of the aesthetic and become purely a matter of taste.
Excellent point. I do think taste is more objective than that famous quote intends, as we have so many points on which we agree and even have reasons and arguments about taste. Then again, I don't think objectivity means what most think it means. [Tables topic.]

I’m sorry the Kierkegaard quote mentioned "ethics." Misplaced word in this discussion.

The better contrast is between the Apollonian preference for rational order, patterns, objectivity and Dionysian for feeling and spontaneous abandon. They’re both tastes.


I can lose myself more easily with jazz these days, especially with recordings from ECM and just about everything by Bill Evans (the Complete Village Vanguard sounds brilliant on cd; a great vinyl pressing of the full set would be apocalyptic). Listening to "Trio '64" yesterday was mesmerizing. Piano in the center of the living room, drums off to the right, bass over to the left. I almost looked for a waiter to order a drink from. 

No, I couldn't name a single title on that disc, while I can tell you stories about most U2 songs. But when I was in my 20's music meant something very different than it does now. It was much more social, whereas jazz and classical are today much more solitary pleasures for me. And the (generally poor) SQ of most U2 recordings in the '80's and '90's was irrelevant then. I suspect the pleasures I derive from music have changed as a result of age. Not in the sense of "growing up" or maturing, but simply changing. Evans, Miles, Trane, Jarrett, Jamal, the contemporary Scandinavian stuff on ECM: it all sounds great, but I listen to all of it alone. And I expect the very best SQ. But when I put on "Achtung Baby" or "War," or most of the rock I grew up with, I'm looking for someone to share it with, and SQ isn't nearly as important.

Except with "Quadrophenia" and "Who's Next." Go figure. . .
It sounds like having a limited library perhaps points toward your relying on your CD collection.  If this is the case you might be a great candidate to stream music and get a Tidal subscription for $20 per month.  I have a BlueSound Node 2i and it only costa $550.  I have an OPPORTUNITY 105 and I don’t miss having to get up from my sofa to change the CD.  By having my BlueSound I can now listen to hi-res recordings.  What is also nice about streaming is being able to remain seated and listen to a few songs by some artists and switch over to something else by using my iPhone as a remote.  You are missing out on a being able to hear music from an enormous library.  This expand you taste for jazz.  You can also create a custom play list.  This is handy when having company over.  I have created playlists to create different moods.  This also allows for you to concentrate on your guests.

i haven’t used my CD’s for the past two years.  I personally think CD’s are becoming a thing of the past.  The real game changer is the ability to use such an extensive library.
Yes...and it's "ALL THAT JAZZ"

"I can listen to jazz recordings for hours on end but can scarcely
remember a dozen tunes."

If you can’t remember what you are listening to, either the music is not leaving an impression on you or you are not paying attention to it. I suspect you are multi-tasking with the music in the background and are probably a digital listener. There is nothing wrong with that per se. People listen to and collect music for many different reasons. Some want the best recordings, some want rare or historic content, some collect from a certain era, etc, etc. I don’t have any music in my collection that I don’t like and wouldn’t play. It’s mostly jazz and I can name most any song from any album. I don’t try to intellectualize the music as many do, I just listen and enjoy it on a nice system that allows me to do so.

If I’m auditioning a piece of gear or changing something in the system, I cannot relax until I get everything in synch and singing together. At that time I am listening to the sound of my system. Once everything is satisfactorily tweaked, I'm back to listening to the music.