By Ray Olson
What Jazz Is: An Insider's Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz
Walker & Co (June 1997)
There have been many jazz appreciation primers over the years, but none clearer and more accessible than King's, and, of course, his is up-to-date. A pianist with two albums as leader to his credit, King describes jazz's musical basics (improvisation, musical conversation, and swing) and the elements crucial to its performance (the rhythm section of bass, drums, and piano; the melodic voices of horns, other instruments, and singers; and the set list or on-the-spot performing repertoire) both abstractly for those who know virtually no jazz (e.g., onomatopoeically representing musical effects) and by reference to particular musicians' characteristics (e.g., bassist Ron Carter's "smooth attack where each note is articulated but sustains into the note that follows") for those with some listening experience. The final third of the book he devotes to guiding readers through some classic recorded performances exemplifying various common jazz forms (blues, ballads, etc.). This is a staple tactic of jazz primers that King recharges by choosing working musicians' rather than critics' favorites to analyze and by restricting his sampling scope to the middle 1950s through the 1960s, the period most influential upon today's jazz mainstream. So quit moanin' low, "I can't get started." Take some time out with King, and start cookin'.