I've been musing on the nature of alternate takes lately. While watching a science documentary explaining string theory (or trying to!), I was struck by how alternate takes in jazz seem to offer us parallel universes for exploration.
It's an illusion and ALL takes actually took place in chronological order, but to a obsessive jazz fan like me, listening to the alternate take of a familiar track - one of Billie Holiday's records with Teddy Wilson, for instance - creates the impression that in a particular moment, Lester chose a different path.
Just this morning I was playing a bunch of 78s I recently acquired. I put on Eddie Condon and his Chicagoans playing 'Friar's Point Shuffle', a record I've known well for years. To my surprise, Max Kaminsky led the band off in an unfamiliar direction! It was as if a favourite novel or film had suddenly changed its plot, without warning.
Of course, a jazz fan can become irritated by the regular inclusion of alternate takes on CDs or vinyl - after all, it's the same song all over again, and the ear quickly tires of such repetition in casual listening. But when I have the energy to pay closer attention, I'm fascinated by the differences in solos, tempos, phrasing, feel etc.
A case in point is the excellent Jazz Oracle CD 'Red Nichols on Edison' (buy it!). It features a whole stack of alternates, often three takes of the one tune. However, the obvious differences between solos by Nichols, Miff Mole and Jimmy Dorsey, coupled with the quality of their playing, makes for absorbing music. Miff Mole's three solos on Hurricane and Red Nichols' three breaks on The Stampede are worth the price on their own.
Next time you hear an alternate take begin, stay away from the skip button and instead enjoy what can feel like the parallel universes of jazz!