Ray Crick: seeking the music’s soul

The creation of each collection of vintage jazz for the Retrospective catalogue - now approaching 200 titles - is exacting work, says the series' compiler

Ray Crick will blame coronavirus – “this year’s rude interruption” – for reducing the average of 50 jazz concerts a year he’s attended since he was a teenager transfixed at one given by Acker Bilk’s Paramount Jazz Band in Walthamstow. Such devotion has equipped him with the knowledge and expertise required for being the Retrospective record label’s compiler and guide to the twin categories of vintage jazz and nostalgia, though for most of his career in the business he’s been promoting “classical” music.

Retrospective is an offshoot of Herefordshire-based Wyastone/Nimbus Records. Its catalogue of fast-approaching 200 albums resurrects musicians as diverse as Edith Piaf, Slim Whitman and Red Norvo. “But it’s vintage jazz that takes up the more significant half of the operation”, Crick told me. “I can’t see an end to the long list of jazz projects just waiting to be compiled.”

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As well as Norvo the tally already includes Harry Edison, Jay McShann, Billy Strayhorn, Henry “Red” Allen, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Muggsy Spanier, Django Reinhardt, and Benny Goodman. That Billy Butterfield, Wilbur de Paris and Wingy Manone might be considered to be off jazz history’s main highway raises the question of who chooses what and on which criteria.

“I get plenty of suggestions from customers, distributors, colleagues and musician friends”, Crick said. “All of these go into the mix. I aim to be objective – does the market need a Jimmie Noone retrospective? – but personal taste always influences my choices. “I don’t apologise for including Butterfield and de Paris: the byways of jazz are often the most enjoyable, and both these are among the delights of the label. One of the first jazz LPs I bought was Wilbur’s 1958 Something Old, New, Gay, Blue; its music is still a happy cure for lockdown blues.”

Crick recognises the paradox of the requirement to nail down names, dates and recording locations for a music by definition floating free and spontaneous

Having decided to create, for example, the Muggsy Spanier album, he first checked that he could access all the tracks needed, either from his own library of 100,000, or from valuable contacts. He had to become an expert on Spanier, topping up his knowledge by wide reading and listening. Relaxin’ At The Touro and the rest of Spanier’s Great Sixteen plus all eight of the superlative Bechet-Spanier Big Four sessions had to be included. Then came the “fun” part of selecting from the 1924 Bucktown Five to the Hines-Spanier All Stars charts of 1957. All this was distilled into around 79 minutes of music per CD. Full discographies, booklet notes (often by himself) and picture illustrations were sent to Nimbus designer and co-founder Gerald Reynolds. Crick prepared rough CD masters which were sent to Martin Haskell, the audio engineer lauded for getting the best from vintage recordings. And it’s been much the same procedure for every other Retrospective album.

Early-jazz enthusiasts of a certain age and perhaps influenced by ace discographers are often compulsive about accuracy. Crick recognises the paradox of the requirement to nail down names, dates and recording locations for a music by definition floating free and spontaneous (or spontaneous-sounding). “As a devotee of historic jazz, I am an almost obsessive stickler for discographical detail and accuracy. Every musician, matrix number, original record number and recording date has to be tracked down. Fortunately for my sanity, jazz is probably the best documented area of music. Monumental works such as Tom Lord’s The Jazz Discography make the job relatively easy – often much easier than trying to find details of more recent popular LPs. I pay tribute to the extraordinary pioneering work of Brian Rust, who amassed an unbelievable amount of accurate detail before the arrival of computers.

“It’s usually possible to list classic tracks that must be included and reference books such as the New Grove Dictionary Of Jazz or Digby Fairweather’s Jazz – The Rough Guide can give useful pointers. One can tell from Lord’s discography that a recording issued many times over is likely to be more significant that one with a single release. But there’s no substitute for careful listening and, typically, I tend to break down each number into timed segments of intro, solos, ensembles etc., to evaluate the contribution of the musician in question. Some performances immediately choose themselves and many can be quickly discounted, so most of the time is spent making difficult choices from all those in between, then trying to balance following chronology with an enjoyable listening sequence, all within the parameters.

“Disc one of the two-disc Spanier album was the easiest programme I’ve so far compiled. The Great Sixteen and Big Four sessions were timed together at 77.40, perfectly filling one disc. The most problematic choices occur when there are both quantity and quality, as with many of the great jazz masters. How could you possibly compile just one disc each to sum up the careers of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald? The double album of Sidney Bechet involved sifting out the small amount of dross; that still left a huge goldmine of masterpieces. So, it’s the crème de la crème that has been skimmed off to give two hours 38 minutes of sublime jazz.”

‘I’m delighted with the vinyl “renaissance”, but to claim sonic superiority for them is a delusion. The love of music itself must remain constant so that people will always thrill to the jazz masters, whatever the format’

Sublimity calls to us across the decades, its source in relatively basic recording techniques. Crick said many “enhanced” originals by other labels had been anything but. Over-processed sound exorcised the music’s soul, leaving “an attenuated travesty”. A fine balance had to be struck between removing extraneous blemish and retaining the music’s essence. He’d been lucky to have worked with two great audio engineers: Alun Bunting and Haskell. The latter had worked with him in building ASV’s Living Era label to 656 albums before it eventually disappeared with the arrival of the giant Universal Music Group. The Retrospective team consists of Crick, Nimbus’s Antony and Kate Smith, Reynolds, Haskell and, for the jazz liner notes, Fairweather.

“I first came to records at the tail-end of the 78rpm era so lived through the age of the LP, working with them every day. CDs provided music without the clicks and pops that would mysteriously appear on even the most cosseted vinyl. CDs are fine and I’m thankful that Retrospective’s customer profile tends towards my age-range of similarly minded music lovers. But few people under 30 know what a CD is, enjoying instead limitless access to downloads and streaming. I’m delighted with the vinyl ‘renaissance’, but to claim sonic superiority for them is a delusion. The love of music itself must remain constant so that people will always thrill to the jazz masters, whatever the format.

“There’s plenty of ‘modern’ jazz I do enjoy but I’m afraid its further reaches from Ornette Coleman onwards leave me far behind. It would take a bold soothsayer to predict what new forms jazz might take. Who in the 1930s could ever have imagined the music of Parker and Gillespie? But, while both audiences and musicians age alongside me, I’m encouraged by the number of supremely talented young musicians already carrying the torch. I’m convinced that ‘our’ music will never die – that’s why we have Retrospective.”

The Retrospective catalogue can be seen here:

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