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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Book Reviews

A Call to Read

By Published: January 8, 2003

There are individual chapters devoted to Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne (what a great, odd, musical drummer he was!), and Art Pepper. All of these people were active in California, yet they displayed a wide range of styles. There is also a chapter devoted to the first recordings of Ornette Coleman. It's easy to forget that Ornette was first recorded out west, with many West Coast players (including Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne). He discusses the significant contributions to Free Jazz made by West Coast musicians, including Coleman, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Paul Bley, and more. All of these players either came from the west of spent significant time developing their sound our west. This in direct contrast to the image most people have of "West Coast Jazz".



This book does a remarkable job of dispelling myths, and uncovering a fascinating history of jazz on the West Coast, in all its facets. For anyone who would like a deeper understanding of this music's history, or if someone is interested but not sure where to start, this book is highly recommended.



The other book that I found to be valuable was Free Jazz by Ekkehard Jost. This book is not only a history of Free Jazz and it's practitioners, it also contains fairly detailed analysis of the music on a technical level. Again, so much nonsense has been written about what Free Jazz was/is that it's easy to be convinced that this music has nothing to offer you before ever hearing a note of it. Or you're influenced from the other side of the debate, those devotees who feel that Free Jazz is the most important stylistic development in the evolution of jazz, and if you don't hear it then you're just lost. This book manages to be sympathetic to the music without becoming over-zealous. It is an appropriately enthusiastic appraisal of the music, while remaining dispassionate enough to qualify as a work of serious scholarship.



Jost divides his book into ten lengthy chapters, each dealing with a particular player and their contributions to the evolution of Free Jazz (John Coltrane gets 2 chapters, deservedly so). He starts out looking at Coltrane's modal playing, and how this allowed a loosening of the reigns on improvisers. No longer bogged down in be-bop's of post-bop's complex, labyrinthian harmonic progressions, modal playing allowed more focus on melody, and less on "making the changes". This shift of focus from the harmonic to the melodic, which he traces to Miles Davis and the recordings Milestones and Kind of Blue, had tremendous implications for the music that would follow.



The next chapter details Charles Mingus' important contributions, including his expansion of the bassists traditional role from time keeper/harmonic underpinning to a more contrapuntal, dialogue like interaction. While Scott LaFaro is often credited with these types of advances in his work with the Bill Evans Trio, Mingus actually took things farther by letting go of steady temo altogether at times. His advanced sense of form in his compositions, and his frequent use of group improvisation also are discussed.



Next comes a chapter about Ornette Coleman, perhaps the central figure to Free Jazz. Jost presents a clear, lucid discussion of Ornette's music, following from his early recordings for Contemporary which have more traditional characteristics than one would be led to believe, on through his work with his "classic" quartet of Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell. He gives a detailed analysis of Coleman's use of deviations in pitch to vocalize the sound, working intonation as an expressive element. He also discusses Ornette's compositions, and how they act as a springboard for his improvisations. He also discusses the landmark double quartet recording which gave the style it's name, Free Jazz, and Ornette's later trio and the way he began playing trumpet and violin. The book was written in 1974, so there is no discussion of anything more current. This in no way diminishes the books value, however.



This is followed by a discussion of Cecil Taylor, which gives a measured examination of his music, his aesthetic position, and the techniques he employs. This is a great service to the music. Such devotion to get the information across is noteworthy. For the open minded, who haven't yet found their way into this music, this book is a perfect map.



After this comes the second chapter about Coltrane, specifically the years 1965-1967, when he recorded his most avant-garde works. Much of the chapter is devoted to Ascension, what many see as Coltrane's Free Jazz. Again, there is such a lucid discussion of this music, it is hard not to want to listen to it with new ears, with new information gleaned from reading this book.



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