Sugar-Free Jazz: The Jazz Ear, by Ben Ratliff

Ben Ratliff: The Jazz EarIf trying to define jazz is difficult, trying to get a jazz musician to talk about his or her approach to the craft seems harder still. As Ben Ratliff notes in the introduction to his latest book, The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, these interviews often as not take place as part of promotion of whatever the artist happens to have most recently released; much less often do they take place for no other reason than the conversation, with their subjects’ guard down.

Ratliff’s approach–to have his subjects use someone else’s music as a conversation-starter–yields some great results. As it turns out, musicians, like the rest of us, tend to tell the most when they’re talking about something other than themselves or their own output. The interviews contained here capture both their subjects–the musicians being interviewed, and the music to which interviewer and interviewee are listening–in miniature, revealing insights into their own personalities, listening habits, and their  approaches to composition and playing.

It’s appropriate that listening should be the thread that unifies the book. It’s not just because jazz, like any other form of music, is an auditory medium. It’s also because, from a composer or musician’s point of view, listening is vital to the process. Nothing created comes from a vacuum; musicians and their audiences both bring a wealth of previous listening to the experience of music. The best improvisation, moreover, depends not on a musician deciding, Well, this sounds like as good a place as any for that phrase I was thinking of last night, as much as it depends on a response to what the other members are doing at any given time. What’s played, at its best, is a direct response to, and outgrowth from, the other collaborators’ input.

It’s also appropriate that the selections listened to, including Vaughn Williams and Ukranian cantors alongside the usual suspects like Parker, Coltrane, Monk, and Davis, are as eclectic as they are. Fusion may have fallen into some disrepute, but jazz has been–and may it always be–about seeing what happens when styles collide.

Finally, and thankfully, the musicians profiled are not only a diverse lot, they’re also a good cross-section of where jazz has been (Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman), where it’s at (Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis) and where it’s going (Guillermo Klein, Maria Schneider), not to mention where it’s nearly fallen through the cracks (Bebo Valdes). These aren’t hide-bound traditionalists, but nor are they exemplars of the syrupy crap that too often passes for jazz; the only mention of Kenny G, for instance, comes in Ratliff’s reference to a scathing essay that Pat Metheny wrote on him some years back.

You don’t have to be a fan of jazz to enjoy The Jazz Ear, though it probably wouldn’t hurt. If, on the other hand, you’re not already a fan, you might find yourself wanting to learn–and hear–a lot more after reading Ratliff’s book. It’s a spirited discussion, perhaps best summed up by one quote from drummer Roy Haynes: “To have played with all the people we’re talking about? Jesus Christ. When I go through it, I’m reliving everything I’m talking about. It feels like a dream, going back.”

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