Understanding Jazz: Ways To Listen

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Tom Piazza
Understanding Jazz: Ways To Listen
Random House
201 pages
ISBN: 1-4000-6369-8

Beware jazz snobs! This book isn't for you. For one thing, it was produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center, which you probably can't stand, and it features an introduction from Wynton Marsalis, who you probably hate, too. Also, it barely acknowledges that there was any jazz recorded after 1970, and gives short shrift to "free and "avant-garde styles. You will immediately put this book on the burn pile with Ken Burns' Jazz, so do yourself a favor and don't bother picking it up.

Understanding Jazz is a book in which author Tom Piazza teaches novices how to listen to jazz or, in other words, what one should get out of any listening experience. While it may seem odd that a book might help explain the peculiarities of any music (isn't just listening enough to get it?) Understanding Jazz is a valuable text for those just embarking on the wild and woolly journey of being a jazz fan.

The book is divided up into sections that cover the basic building blocks of jazz, like "Improvisation, "Swing, and of course "The Blues. At the end of each chapter is a "further listening section that highlights several more important recordings that by and large make up the jazz canon. Piazza explains how each idea was developed and became an essential part of the music, while also pointing out that, given the highly experimental nature of jazz, each musician has a large amount of freedom to put his or her own spin on it. Piazza uses several ingenious examples to prove his point—the game of Monopoly is used to illustrate how musicians go through sequences of chord changes—that will help newcomers understand how the music functions.

Piazza has also included a companion CD of music that he refers to throughout the text. He has chosen those recordings from classic sessions that illustrate his points most saliently and not attempted to create a greatest hits collection. There's a little Basie, a little Duke, and "Footprints from Miles's second great quintet among others. For the amateur listener, this CD may prove to be a useful tool when used along with the book, as Piazza clearly explains the ins and outs of each part while also comparing each recording to others on the CD to illustrate where they diverge.

Experienced listeners will find a good read, but not much new information. A few years of reading and collecting and, above all, listening will give you the same amount of knowledge that Understanding Jazz will. However, this book is probably not for them anyway. As an introductory text to jazz, it's full of insight and offers a quick overview of styles, musicians, and movements.


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