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The Jazz Ear

Ben Ratliff

Times Books

ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8146-6

£17.99

The Jazz Ear

One of the reasons that The Jazz Ear is reviewed here is because it has recently been published. That’s normal. I’m stating the obvious. One never sees a review appearing a couple of years after the publication date of the book or CD to which it applies. Linkage to the new, so much an ingrained habit, so much a part of a symbiotic relationship in arts journalism, is a given. The practice goes unquestioned.

Until now, that is. One of the several strengths of The Jazz Ear is that Ratliff has turned this around. "I got tired of writing pieces about musicians that were keyed to a new record, because in jazz, records are sort of not the point," he says. Thus Ratliff chooses 15 musicians, plays their choice of recordings to them, and lets the conversation roam. "Any kind of music was fine," he writes, "as long as that musician hadn’t taken part in it."

Ratliff, who has been a jazz critic at The New York Times since 1996, is clear about his reasons:

"Jazz is this evolving thing and it's a music all about revising and changing, and t's always moving. And I just found that in social situations where I would be listening to music with a musician, I would watch their face light up at certain points in the music, or they'd fix on certain things."

Among his interview subjects, Ratliff chooses a fair proportion of veterans: Hank Jones (b.1918), Bob Brookmeyer (b.1929), Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes and Paul Motian. To these he adds articulate mid-career players Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, Pat Metheny and Maria Schneider. Ratliff then surprises us with a couple of unexpected choices: Bebo Valdés (b. 1918), the Cuban pianist now living in Stockholm, and Guillermo Klein, the Argentinian-born pianist and composer, a one-time New York resident, now in Barcelona.

Along the way come surprises. Wayne Shorter chose only to listen to Vaughan Williams Symphonies. Among Branford Marsalis’s choices were Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, and Wagner. Bob Brookmeyer "admired Coltrane’s musicianship but hated the form his influence took on others." Brookmeyer once dreamed of becoming a student of Witold Lutoslawski, whom he regarded as: "part of a world that’s sophisticated and skilled beyond my wildest dreams." Maria Schneider tells of her pet goose, which never learned to fly, but used to go up in her father’s plane, back home in rural southwest Minnesota. And drummer Paul Motian, 74 at the time of the 2005 interview, who doesn’t get on airplanes anymore. He runs a few miles in Central Park every day.

Stuffed with revelations, and written with charm and intelligence, The Jazz Ear is a welcome addition to the jazz bookshelf.

John Robert Brown

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