Close readings

By JON GARELICK  |  November 24, 2008

The Same Thing is politically tinged, often rawly expressionistic, but Katz's skill for orchestration and rhythmic shifts keeps it aloft. His "Like a Wind," with a text from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, flows the most easily; it's dreamlike and, like the other pieces with text, more art song than pop song, vocal and instrumental passages alternating in a freely written structure. Then there's "Everybody Loves Ray Charles," one of those scraps of composition he had lying around, reluctant to use it because he couldn't write himself out of its simple I-IV chord progression. "I wrote various versions in a much hipper harmonic language — but they always sucked!" When Ray Charles died and the JCA decided to perform a memorial concert, the piece emerged, with bits of "What I Say" call-and-response and some of Katz's most exuberant writing.

For his new The Jazz Ear: Conversations over Music (Times Books), New York Times critic Ben Ratliff has adapted his "Listening With" series from the paper, revising and rewriting, sometimes expanding the articles to two or three times their original length, "with more talking but also more context," he tells me from LA, on the road working the book.

The idea behind those pieces was to get away from the standard "news peg" profile based on an artist's latest release. Instead, Ratliff asked musicians to get together some recordings — not their desert-island discs, not their top five, just music they'd be interested in talking about. He asked them to clear an afternoon — three or four hours.

The musicians are often wildly impressionistic, in a way that most jazz critics would avoid. "I really really wanted that," he says. "One reason was to redress the constant complaint from musicians that all jazz critics do is reduce reduce reduce and end up misinterpreting and spreading all kinds of wrong information about music. I wanted to get musician talk in there that isn't play-by-play clinical analysis but more based on emotion and gesture and feeling."

This was provoked by something Ratliff had noticed long before he started writing the pieces for this book. "I was amazed at how musicians reacted to certain things in music as it was moving along. And by those physical reactions, even by their body language, I knew more about who they were as musicians."

There are surprises. Wayne Shorter wants to listen only to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Branford Marsalis's choices veer between seemingly contradictory obsessions, "slow art songs and songs that make you move," and he makes the Wagner-deficient Ratliff listen to Götterdammerüng for the "Fate" motif, which becomes a four-note figure in Marsalis's piece "Fate." And emotion itself provides context. Trombonist and composer Bob Brookmeyer recalls his unhappy childhood, and hearing the "smooth, rhythmic 4/4" of the Basie band as an 11-year-old in a Kansas City theater: "It was the first time I felt good in my life."

"Stretching the conversations out for a while made it possible to drive toward this final idea of what music is for," says Ratliff. "It got down to really basic and important stuff. That was more than I really could have hoped for, but it happened consistently."

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