Before you die, listen to this critic’s ‘grand’ plan

Monday, November 17, 2008 at 12:02am

Music critic Tom Moon’s extensive knowledge of all styles is on display throughout the remarkable new book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die: A Listener’s Life List (Workman), which qualifies as the most diverse and enjoyable work of its kind.

Moon makes no separation between so-called “high” art and popular taste, and as a result readers get examples of vintage opera, classical and symphonic works right next to jazz, blues, pop, rock, reggae, punk, folk, rap, Broadway musicals and film soundtrack works.

“I really wanted to write something that would appeal just to people who love music, without making any other distinction,” Moon said. “I really believe that people who truly are music lovers want to hear more and different kinds of music.

“The book is designed to reflect great recordings in many genres. I’m sure there will be those who will pick and choose through the different sections, but hopefully it will introduce someone who may not have heard any classical music or opera in their life to take a chance on it, or show the jazz buff that there are some equally good rock records out there.”

Moon, a longtime musician and critic, has devoted many years to providing fans with detailed, incisive analysis and reviews of numerous releases both in print (two decades as a Philadelphia Inquirer staffer and freelancer for Rolling Stone and Blender) and on air (regular contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered).

In addition, Moon has played professionally as a saxophonist in both rock bands and Maynard Ferguson’s big band.

Initially in compiling the book, Moon had one ironclad rule regarding the choice of selections, but he soon found out that he had to disregard that mandate.

“Originally the publishers said that they didn’t want any greatest hits works or anthologies, and they also wanted me to concentrate on albums,” Moon said. “For the most part the album idea worked because I really did want to spotlight complete works rather than hits, but there were some cases where I used a single to communicate the essence of a performer to the reader (Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson).”

Moon acknowledged that there were occasions where an artist was too important to be left out, even if they didn’t have one overwhelming or important album, so he had to make some adjustments.

Another problem he faced was deciding how many entries could come from some performers.

“In the beginning it was going to be strictly one selection per artist,” Moon recalled. “But then you get into the problem of saying how can you only have one Dylan record, or one Miles Davis record? How do you pick one Beethoven or Mozart work? So eventually it became a process of trying to decide which were the essential works, the albums and selections that personified the greatness of a performer or a composer.”

Moon interviewed hundreds of musicians and spent more than three years researching and writing the summaries for the book. The artists are listed alphabetically. Each entry has a short guide that gives such basic details as year of release, genre, label, and key tracks, plus suggestions of other valuable works by that performer.

There’s plenty of additional material once you get beyond the listings. There’s a series of occasion indexes with such titles as “Get the Party Started” and “Music to Inspire Reflection” that offer recommendations for titles hooked into particular moods.

And, Moon includes special indexes for classical music and opera, with one for composers and the other for performers.

Finally, there’s a list of sources, Web sites, retail stores, a blog listing and a forum where readers can share their favorite releases (1000recordings.com).

When asked his thoughts about the greatest Nashville musician, Moon struggled to come up with answer.

“Well, there are so many great musicians in Nashville, it’s very hard for anyone to say that one is the greatest of all,” Moon said. “You could certainly make a good argument for Johnny Cash, but then from a country music standpoint has there ever been a greater singer than George Jones? You also have all the heroes of the Grand Ole Opry. Emmylou Harris is certainly one of the all-time greats, as well as Loretta Lynn and let’s not even talk about instrumentalists.

“It’s really an impossible task to cite just one,” he concluded.

Jazz has always been one of Moon’s passions, and one person he’s sometimes criticized is Pulitzer-Prize winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. There is no Marsalis entry in the book, but Moon says that’s more due to his feeling that no single Marsalis album approaches his artistry in live performance.

“I’ve been both complimentary and critical of Wynton Marsalis over the years, but I think he’s a very gifted musician,” Moon said. “But in going over such albums as The J Mood or Blood in the Fields, parts of which I like a lot, I just didn’t think overall they merited being included. The most recent release that he did with Willie Nelson really comes closest to having the energy and the spirit that he displays in live performance. I’ve seen him do some amazing things in concert, and that disc is perhaps the best one in terms of approximating that concert quality.”

What: Author Tom Moon discusses his new book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 2121 Green Hills Drive

Cost: free and open to the public

Info: 385-2645

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