Alternatively Speaking by Alan Purslow

To many of us the use of alternative takes (or ―alternate‖ takes – see my footnote below regarding the difference in US and British usage) arose with the introduction of the CD when reissued albums were often too short to justify fitting onto a single disc and previously unused out-takes were therefore added as fillers. Looking at things a little more closely, however, I see that the matter is not so simple as at first ap-pears. Throughout the history of recorded jazz there have always been alternative versions or performances recorded at the same time as the original issue, sometimes as far back as the early twenties and it isn‘t, as I had initially thought, just a question of adding takes that were rejected for inclusion on LP.
As far back as the early 1920s musicians and singers were making more than one attempt to record a performance and given the lack of editing facilities and the risks involved, it is surprising that the alterna-tive takes reveal few if any errors. Ma Rainey (Mother of the Blues), for example, made more than one version of ―Titanic Blues‖, ―Bessemer Bound Blues‖, ―Seeking Blues‖, ―Mountain Jack Blues‖ and others but I am unable to detect any mistakes or fluffs (although the pretty awful sound of the primitive recording of the time doesn‘t help). Playing times are almost identical so it was obviously not a matter of aiming the second version at a different market. (I must mention in passing that, although the monumental Bessie Smith is rightly lauded as ―the Em-press of the Blues‖ and an icon amongst singers and public alike, Ma Rainey is for the most part neglected. I suspect this is partly to do with the primitive sound quality of her recordings and it‘s regrettable that the recording industry was in its early days and unable to reveal the full ex-tent of her vocal powers).
Looking through my collection of CDs and LPs for alternative takes I see that King Oliver recorded two versions of ―Mabel‘s Dream‖ as far back as 1923 for the Paramount label (masters 16222-1 and 1633-2) and, later on, Jelly Roll Morton recorded two or sometimes three ver-sions of many of his most famous compositions. Unfortunately, com-parisons are made a little difficult in the boxed set I own (JSP Records JSPCD 312-325) as the different takes are separated from each other and on different CDs. When I listened to this wonderful music in my teens and delighted in the sheer energy of ―The Chant‖ and the humour of ―Sidewalk Blues‖, little did I know that fifty years on I would be lis-tening to different performances of the same tunes recorded on the same day.