The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz

Kyle Simpler BY

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Considering the amount of jazz music available, even the most avid jazz fan might feel somewhat overwhelmed when it comes to building a decent collection. It’s obviously much more intimidating for newcomers. This, of course, makes reference material an indispensible asset. Admittedly, there are some excellent books on the market to help educate people about creating their jazz collections. Frequently, these books rely on some sort of rating system, accompanied by text similar to that found in an encyclopedia. This is great, but sometimes it helps to have a discussion of the material without a rating system.

Such is the case with Ben Ratliff’s The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz . Ratliff, a music critic for The New York Times has compiled a collection of essays, which lists jazz recordings he considers essential listening. These are listed chronologically, from the earliest jazz recordings to the present. In spite of its title, Ratliff doesn’t attempt to provide a ranking, but simply a selection of some great moments in jazz history. Of course, any grouping of this nature lends itself to the author’s tastes. This means, of course, that the reader might question some of the choices.

Generally speaking, most of the usual suspects are here. Ratliff even jokes about this to a certain extent. “So you’re doing a book on the hundred best jazz records? OK, let me guess, Kind of Blue ...uh...what else?” Well, he has Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, John Coltrane, and (of course) Miles Davis. Along with these, Ratliff includes some lesser-known candidates, such as “Baby Face” Willette and Evan Parker. He also discusses some more unlikely choices. For example, he lists an album by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Admittedly, Wills possessed an amazing talent, but you’re probably going to have a hard time finding his recordings if you’re looking in the jazz section.

Inclusions (or exclusions) aside, though, Ratliff’s collection provides a wealth of valuable information. His essays bring the reader to a better understanding of the music, even if they’ve listened to the album in question a zillion times. Also, throughout the book, Ratliff never fails to entertain the reader. He provides a well-educated viewpoint, without assuming an overly-academic tone. The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz manages to reference material ranging in scope from classical composers such as Stockhausen to rock groups like Black Flag to help shed light on the artists and their music.

Ratliff truly knows his subject matter well and has a great admiration for these recordings. Along with the hundred essays, he also lists an additional hundred albums he feels you should own or at least know about.These essays, however, aren’t filled with glorification. Ratliff calls it exactly how he sees it. Consider his take Kind of Blue, for example. Ratliff didn’t include it until he was nearing completion of the book. He felt that “all the best playing of the musicians is to be found elsewhere” and the album itself is “for the most part, rhythmically dull.” Ultimately, though, he did include it. After all, as Ratliff says, “it really is a pretty good record, you know?”

A reader can also offer the same treatment to The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz . Some might argue over specific details, while others disagree with a few of his selections; however, one could never accuse Ratliff of being myopic. His choices are not solely limited to the critics’ favorites. He provides an educational and refreshing look at a wide variety of artists. Agree with him or not, ultimately, you have to admit, it really is a pretty good book, you know?

The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz
Ben Ratliff
Times Books
272 pages
ISBN: 0805070680

Related links: Press Release | Review #2

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