Richard Cook It's About That Time: Miles Davis On And Off The Record
ISBN: 978-0-19-532266-8 Oxford University Press
Hardcover, January 2007
Miles Davis is one of the most thoroughly researched and documented musicians of all time. So a writer who wants to present him in a new light needs either to have a new approach or some significant writing chops. Happily, Richard Cook demonstrates both in It's About That Time: Miles Davis On And Off The Record.
Cook is probably most familiar to jazz fans as the co-author of The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD and the editor of Jazz Review magazine, and with these two demanding activities ongoing, one wonders where he found the time to write a book. Nevertheless, he has put together a terrific read, one that even the most well informed fan will enjoy.
Some previous biographers have tackled Davis by focusing on his tempestuous relationships with producers, musicians and women as much as on the music. Cook's approach is to look at Davis solely via his recorded output, only discussing his personal life when it pertains to a particular session. Thus It's About That Time is a combination of a biography and a discography. Each chapter is centered around a particular album that is discussed at length, while other albums around the periphery are discussed more briefly. The end result reads very much like an extended entry from the Penguin Guidea perspective which plays to Cook's abilities as a writer, and a method he also used successfully in his authoritative Blue Note Records: The Biography (Secker & Warburg, 2001).
Those familiar with Cook's writing style will recognise his trademark dry wit and clever metaphors. He has the rare gift of expressing ideas in a way that seems just right; even with well-worn topics like Kind Of Blue, Cook finds a novel turn of phrase. Consider this example, which describes Davis' playing on "Freddie Freeloader : "It is a clever mix of dynamics, plangent notes followed by soft, dying-away phrases, rests, a moment of jauntiness followed by a crestfallen blue note. Few have described Davis' playing any better. One can also marvel at how, throughout the book, Cook always finds a fresh way to describe Davis' playing.
A book of this type is always an interesting read; there's analysis of records that you've listened to over and over and commentary on records that you've never heard (and some you probably never will). Cook is up to an appreciation of all aspects of Davis' career and not just the most celebrated ones. Thus your engagement with the book probably depends on which Davis records you admire most. As such the book tends to falter toward the end as Cook approaches Davis' 1980s and 1990s records, which relatively few listeners bothered with. However, Cook does make sense of the patchwork 1970s albums, placing the recordings in their proper context, while also addressing Columbia's enthusiasm for releasing "complete sessions of albums with out-takes included (Cook's opinion: they aren't worth the trouble).
Even if you have read every Davis biography available, It's About That Time will certainly be worth your while. As a complex artist, Davis resists being pigeonholed by any particular biographical approach, and Cook has provided a newly stimulating angle. His assessment of individual albums will, inevitably, be debated, but he generaly presents a balanced critique. A Davis newbie could easily use the book to build a collection of highlight albums (as well as noting those to avoid). If nothing else, it's a pleasure reading analyses of albums you already know and love by someone who evokes them so effectively. One longs for another book from Cook where once again the music, rather than the personality, is the focus. Charles Mingus, perhaps?