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"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
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Saturday, August 7, 2010

THE NEW FACE OF JAZZ, a remarkable new book.

Jazz has not always fared so well on the page.  Most fans have a favorite book or two about jazz, but it is an art form that is somewhat resistant to verbal description.  Perhaps because the music has a strong mythology and set of visual clichés, writing about jazz has a way of become trite with little effort.

There has been at least one great novel that is explicitly about jazz: The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor (check out my radio commentary about this book here), and there are plenty of classic short stories that use jazz as essential material:  Eudora Welty's "Powerhouse" (based on a memory of Fats Waller) and James Baldwin's great "Sonny's Blues."  If you are hungry for this kind of stuff, I heartily recommend The Jazz Fiction Anthology, which came out just recently.

Of course, there are some great jazz biographies (Lush Life, about Strayhorn), autobiographies (Miles Davis's profane, hilarious book), and purely historical studies (Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz and The Swing Era).

When I was first learning about jazz as a kid, I loved reading books that either collected short essays about the music or let the musicians tell their own stories.  Material by Nat Hentoff was great, particularly Hear Me Talkin' To Ya and Jazz Is, both of which let the musicians themselves talk about the music.  I also loved The Jazz Book by the late Joachim Berendt, which has recently been updated by a younger writer (check out by review here)—a book of classification and opinion that still seems smart and fresh and unafraid of different styles.

Musician and writer Cicily Janus has just published a new jazz book in this style: The New Face of Jazz.  Janus's book takes the form of more than 200 short profiles of individual musicians.  First, Janus provides a career overview, including a website and single representative recording.  Then there follows a statement by the artist in his or her own words, condensed from the extensive interviews conducted for the book.  This is the kind of book you would never read straight through but, rather, one you want to flip through and sample in little bites.

What makes The New Face of Jazz different is that it profiles only living jazz musicians, and it gives equal space to legends (McCoy Tyner and Sonny Rollins), crossover figures (George Benson, Lee Ritenour), contemporary stars (Esperanza Spalding, Melody Gardot), players on the modern edge (Vijay Iyer, Matthew Shipp), mainstream figures (Maria Schneider), and scores of musicians you almost certainly do not know.  Janus's goal was to project a fresh sense of what jazz is today rather than merely recounting the usual stories about Pops and Duke and Bird and Miles.  Mission accomplished.

Also different about this book is the substance of most of the artist's statements.  There is relatively little about the usual topics: their influences, their technique, their personal history.  Rather, Janus asked the musicians to talk about what the music means to them, about their feelings about life beyond music, and about what makes them tick as creative people.  This results in statements that range from the ponderous to the profound, but it is a fresh way of thinking about jazz.  This is a book about how jazz intersects with life and feeling—not a history, not a set of biographies, not a mess of reviews.

To choose just one example, it is fascinating to read Vijay Iyer's explanation of how and why jazz reflects his experience "as an American."  His parents came to the US from India in the mid-1960s, and he explains:

The experience of growing up "different" in this country is . . . fundamental to who I am.  [L]earning how to be a person happened in the context of an experience of newness and difference.  Improvisation is central to how we dealt with that reality.  It's something I learned from my parents—their adaptive skills.  They had to find a space for themselves in this culture.  In a basic sense, it was all about improvisation.
This kind of expression is all over The New Face of Jazz.  This is a book that allows musicians to find new ways of talking about music, and there is hardly a single reference to a diminished chord or a flatted ninth.

Not that the book is perfect.  At times Janus struggles to find fresh ways to write about the musicians in her summaries.  Trying to explain trumpeter Tom Harrell's music: "the aural landscape coming through his sound portraits is organic in its wholeness."  But this kind of thing is near inevitable in jazz writing.  How would I explain Harrell's mesmerizing arrangements any better?  More peculiar—and probably to be laid at the feet of editors or publishers rather than the author—is the decision to designate certain musicians "Living Legends" and others not.  (The book's subtitle is "An Intimate Look at Today Living Legends and the Artists of Tomorrow").  Fred Hersch is a "Living Legend" but not McCoy Tyner?  Michael Abene qualifies but not Phil Woods?  Who cares, but it's still curious.

Also notable: the book is sprinkled with excellent but too-small photos by Ned Radinsky.  I dearly wish there were more and that they could have been reproduced better.  The stories here deserve the extra zip that these photographs could have provided.

In the end, The New Face of Jazz is an immensely valuable labor for the music.  Janus dedicated the better part of two years of her life to reaching out to the these many musicians, many of whom dearly deserve recognition but rarely get it.  And with a lovely forward by bassist Marcus Miller and an opening word from Wynton Marsalis, it is clear that this book was embraced by the community that it serves.

The New Face of Jazz affirms that the community of brilliant jazz musicians is immense and deeply intelligent, and it reminds us that jazz is a great American art form because of how deftly and powerfully it reflects our lives and our culture.

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