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The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music Ben Ratliff Hardcover; 256 pages ISBN: 0805081461 Times Books 2008
Jazz critic Ben Ratliff's new book, following closely on the heels of his well-received expose of the sound and influence of saxophonist John Coltrane, is a compilation of annotated interviews originally published in The New York Times as a series titled "Listening With." The dramatis personae includes a veritable who's who of jazz MVPs, including trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter, drummers Roy Haynes and Paul Motian, pianists Andrew Hill and Hank Jones, guitarist Pat Metheny, singer Dianne Reeves, and composer Maria Schneider, plus two surprises: Cuban pianist Bebe Valdés (Chucho Valdés' father, memorable for his appearance in Calle 54), and Argentinean pianist Guillermo Klein, an under-recognized up-and-comer.
Ratliff's modus operandi was to conduct each interview while listening to recordings that his subjects had preselected, using the music as lubrication and inspiration, a set of "changes" to blow over. This would, hopefully, provoke spontaneous reactions instead of usual worked-out "licks" that many understandably self-promotional musicians are likely to regurgitate in the heat of media attention.
For the most part Ratliff is successful and the reader is treated to a variety of engrossing insights into each artist's aesthetic ethos: Metheny talks of the "glue" that makes musical ideas cohere; Schneider reveals underlying metaphors of flying in her compositions; Klein revels in the impact of "freshly discovered" harmonies; Haynes and Motian offer insightful critiques of their drumming peers; Brookmeyer advises "Keep your hand on the soloist"; Reeves pays homage to Shirley Horn by duplicating every nuance of her sung phrases; and Coleman expounds and expands on his concept of "unison". Some of the most interesting moments occur when Ratliff ventures an opinion of his own, only to stand 'corrected' with a clarifying riposte.
In spite of Ratliff's careful preparation, proprietary editorial hand and brusque, pithy prose, these interviews emerge finally as co-improvisations, freewheeling blowing sessions that, like many a classic Verve side, make up for in panache what they might lack in polish.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.