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Urgent messages from the past

(Jazz alert)

I don’t understand how CDs become unplayable.

About five years ago, I got a friend with the necessary equipment to make me a safety backup copy on CD of a vinyl album in my possession, Kind Of Blue – the classic 1959 CBS session by the Miles Davis quintet (with Bill Evans), that is still the best-selling jazz album of all time, unless you believe that Brubeck and Desmond’s Time Out is. I was worried in case the vinyl got scratched or worn out, as I play it almost every night before bed.

Last night I put the CD copy on, to which my friend has annoyingly added ‘bonus’ tracks of takes that Miles obviously wasn’t happy with, that made me think he’d downloaded it off the remix CD and not taken it directly from the vinyl album, and it started skipping about everywhichway,  stammering and yammering and doing wheelies and whatever it is that technically CDs do when they are completely buggered, and I thought, this is crazy, I’ve played this thing about twice in its life, and I’ve played the vinyl version about two thousand times and it’s got only two little pops on it but they don’t jump, and I can’t remember if I’ve ever even cleaned it.

What is especially annoying about this discovery is that the hard drive died on my laptop a while back and after the shop put in another one half my music had reverted to some Platonic realm where Microsoft won’t let me play it without a licence, so I have had to re-load a lot of albums from my CDs, and this was going to be one of them. Now, I don’t have a copy of Kind of Blue on my laptop, to take around with me to play in strange rooms before bed. I shall have to buy one. Bonus tracks and all.

Do you remember when CDs first came on the market about 30 years ago, everyone said they would last forever and were far less likely to become damaged and ruin the listening experience  than groovy, melty, scratchy-poppy old vinyl, that you assaulted with a worn stylus and not a techy laser beam delivering scientific perfection every time? It was bullshit! You only have to breathe on CDs and they won’t play. The frequencies are compressed and have to be continuously sampled and re-expanded digitally and it sounds crap. Bleah.

All of which goes to remind me that next year sees the 50th anniversary of the day I bought my vinyl copy of Kind of Blue.

I was stuck at a tragically expensive boarding school outside a dull provincial town somewhere in the English midlands, the selection of jazz music in the local record store was pathetic, a rack of Pye Golden Guinea compilations, but miraculously one day there it was. I’d never heard of Miles, I don’t think, but I was kind of blue too (mainly through cold) and he changed my life. Fifty years of listening pleasure.

Although I have lost probably dozens of other recordings down the backs of sofas during that time, it is astonishing to think that I have been lugging around this one precious disc of vinyl for half a century, from school to home to house to farm to town, through two marriages and two kids and six dogs and fifteen cats and two dozen jobs lost that I will never do again, a hundred dangerous DIY projects, and here it still is delivering the same deep sense of satisfaction every time that it did when I was 14 years old. It’s extraordinary, like it’s divinely protected.

Blue in Green is still the Moonlight Sonata of the modern jazz era, an almost perfect, eternal creation; Flamenco Sketches still haunts my dreams, and the first tune I tried to play on the bass was Paul Chambers’ riff from So What? Coltrane still has the power to move mountains, and Evans’ eloquent minimalism creates profound silences that say more about the human spirit than a thousand whining digital dirges from Rihanna or One Dimension.

Last month, my 89-year-old mother, who goes to Zumba classes and smokes 20 a day, called to say she’d been reading on an album cover about Juliette Greco whom she last saw live in Paris in the 1940s but hadn’t known about the long affair with Miles and would I send her some of his music because she didn’t think she’d ever heard any?

So I got Amazing.uk to send her the KoB CD, but it’s not the same as the vinyl original: a diminished, homogenised version of a venerable object bearing urgent messages from the past.


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