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Book Review

All That's Jazz


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All That's Jazz
Sammy Stein
198 Pages
ISBN: 13: 978-0-9557670-9-8
Tomahawk Press

Sammy Stein is a brave woman. Take that title—not just a riff on "All That Jazz" to cover a personal memoir of time spent in the jazz trenches but ALL that IS jazz. This is a book that in the author's words attempts to ..."share this wonderful music with as many as possible, to allow people to understand that jazz has few limitations...." Not only that but Ms Stein looks to reflect the views of a large number of industry figures, labels, musicians, venues and radio presenters, to get the most comprehensive overview of the state of jazz today possible.

If the enormity of that ambition hasn't hit you yet, think about the typical new listener's follow up question 'well WHAT do you mean by jazz anyway?' and picture just about every music journalist you've ever read coughing, looking at their shoes and mumbling about prior engagements. Those of you who know Sammy Stein from her astute writing on jazz both for this site and others in the UK and Europe will know that if any writer in the UK blogosphere could pull this off then she can. The approach fits well with the author's signature style, a feature of her pieces being a willingness to give a voice to musicians views on their own work alongside her own well thought through perspectives.

None of this entirely gets away from the issue that asking 10 people to define jazz will elicit at least a dozen shades of opinion, but the combination of the multiple voices is an effective way of mitigating the potential for chaos. For the record the "what is jazz" question is not ducked but tackled upfront in the first chapter, Stein ably marshalling the range of opinions around the core of improvisation. The reader will to some extent be able to find their own view in the views expressed, but arguably Mats Gustafsson summed up the discussion best: "Everyone should have his or her own definition... In my world, the word 'jazz' represents resistance, improvisation and swing...." As the source of that quote suggests, Ms Stein clearly has an exceptional contact book—in addition to the aforementioned Mr Gustafsson the musicians alone include exclusive reflections from the likes of Peter Brötzmann, Claire Martin, Norma Winstone, Gilad Atzmon and Sam Eastmond.

Each of the chapters that follows looks at a different aspect of the current jazz scene with Sammy Stein's infectious enthusiasm both leading the discussion and curating the material from the interviewees into a coherent text. The ground covered is very wide, for example, chapter 2 is a potted history of the music that is particularly good on the relatively neglected free jazz sub-genre. I also liked the chapter on "labels" which it turns out is as much about jazz terminology and sub-genres as Blue Note, Impulse et al. It's a fascinating read, taking in a range of opinions on some of the biggest issues in the industry. For example, take this quote from the ever on point Mats Gustaffsson regarding the impact of jazz's ever present past on new artists "If new players were as good as the old ones, the inventors, the pioneers... [and were prepared to] improvise a bit more, go deeper... develop their own language... then they would get the credit they deserve!... And there are actually huge numbers of great players and great music these days but I have no idea what to call their music...." Some might find this provocative, but the point is that it is up to the individual to form their own response from the range of opinions available. Surely as fans of a medium as open as jazz we can cope with that?

Another favourite section was the chapter on "The Musicians and Being a Jazz Musician," where the contributors are mostly interesting once you get past the unsurprising opening comments along the lines of "being a jazz musician is great"—how could the opportunity to follow your talent be anything else? I especially liked the observation here of Sam Eastmond, best known as part of the Spike Orchestra: "When the mainstream doesn't move you, it can leave you feeling isolated and marginalised... the transformative jolt I got the first time I dropped the needle on Bitches Brew did make me feel ... that I belonged somewhere for the first time." Mr Eastmond also has the stand out anecdote on how the musician's life is all consuming—if it is even part true that he publicised his forthcoming Ronnie Scott's gig during his wedding speech then he is clearly fortunate to have both such an understanding spouse and continued good health!

The black and white photographs of some of the interviewees are also worthy of mention—these are some way beyond the normal, familiar, PR shots. Ms Stein has been granted access to original photographs by the late Freddy Warren taken at London's Ronnie Scott's Club that were rescued by his nephew following a fire. The shots used include great exclusive images of Tubby Hayes, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Stan Tracey and Sonny Rollins that enhance the "history" chapter in particular. There are several other more contemporary shots too—Daniel Laskowski's picture of Colin Webster, Ziga Koritnik's picture of Mats Gustafsson and Sam Eastmond's self-portrait peeking through a brass instrument are particular stand outs but there are many others.

In summary "All That's Jazz" is a highly enjoyable read that covers the biggest issues facing the music today in an enthusiastic and stimulating way. The breadth of the topic inevitably means that not all of the areas covered or the musicians interviewed will coincide with any individual reader's tastes, but the writing is top notch and the contributions from industry figures add another dimension. As a summation of the state of jazz today Sammy Stein is an engaging guide with a wholehearted positive touch, not to mention some interesting exclusive material. Really what's not to like?

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