Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century
by Nate Chinen
Pantheon Books, 2018, US $27.95, CDN$36.95
This week, I finished reading Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century by American jazz and pop critic Nate Chinen. There aren't many books written about jazz each year, so I'd been wanting to read it since it was released last summer. I found it a fascinating – if incomplete – guide to what's on in jazz today.
What worked: it's right up to date, and covers a wide range of musicians and styles from avant-garde, to jazz crossovers with R&B and hip-hop, to Afro-Cuban, to mainstream. The musicians profiled in the book are clearly influential and interesting, and continuing to push themselves. Many will be familiar to Ottawa listeners, whether from performances at the Ottawa Jazz Festival or mentions in other jazz publications or on jazz radio.
The chapter-long profiles of musicians such as Esperanza Spalding, Brad Mehldau, Vijay Iyer, Mary Halvorson, Miguel Zenon, and Dave Douglas were what I found most interesting. Chinen has done a good job of providing a sympathetic and music-focused profile of each of these artists, condensing their history and their ideas from different interviews and reviews, and giving an informed context for their music.
I also really enjoyed the learning more about Jason Moran's combinations of music and visual art, Chinen's excursions through Beijing's increasingly self-propelled jazz scene, or how Donny McCaslin linked up with David Bowie. The “Changing Sames” chapter about the links between hip-hop and jazz – and in particular, the continuing influence of the late producer J Dilla on both – helped me understand more about that scene and how much it added to the recent music of, for example, Roy Hargrove (and how much we lost with Hargrove's recent death).
Claude Ranger, Canadian Jazz Legend
by Mark Miller
Tellwell Talent, 2017
reviewed by Alayne McGregor
Does a story need an ending?
I've heard it argued, by authors as prominent as Philip Pullman, that a basic tenet of stories is that they must resolve. And yet in real life, not all stories have a final resolution, and sometimes they are all the more memorable because of that.
As, for example, the story of Canadian jazz drummer Claude Ranger, which jazz journalist Mark Miller recounts in his most recent book. It's a highly readable account which has many resonances with today's jazz scene.
Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend has no concluding episode because Ranger simply disappeared in 2000, after more than three decades as a notable performer, composer, and influential teacher in Canada. But, as Miller explains in this biography, it makes Ranger's story and his legend all the more compelling – and reflective of Canada's jazz scene, which "went largely undocumented" during most of the time Ranger was performing.
Miller himself has arguably been the major figure in documenting that scene, as a journalist and jazz critic with Toronto's Globe and Mail for 27 years, and the author of many books and articles about Canadian jazz and jazz musicians. For this book, he interviewed dozens of musicians who had performed with and learned from Ranger during his career, as well as drawing from earlier interviews, reviews, and articles by himself and others.
Each chapter is extensively documented with footnotes, and Miller has included a full discography of the albums Ranger played on between 1967 and 1994. That included recordings by prominent Canadian and American musicians: Dave Liebman, Michel Donato, Jane Bunnett, Doug Riley, Moe Koffman, P.J. Perry, Sonny Greenwich, and Don Thompson, among many others.
Miller became acquainted with Ranger when Ranger lived in Toronto. He interviewed him, heard him play, and photographed him (and includes several of these photographs in the book). But, while Miller includes his own impressions occasionally, this story is primarily told through the words of all the other people who performed with, learned from, or were friends with Ranger. It's an account revealed from many angles, giving it more depth and believability.
Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz
by Fred Hersch
Crown Archetype, 2017
reviewed by Alayne McGregor
Fred Hersch, who performed here earlier this month, is a perennially-popular artist among Ottawa jazz fans. His recent autobiography is a fascinating look at an innovative and creative composer and performer.
In this book, pianist Fred Hersch turns his life into a composition with shape, and drive, and flow, driven by absorbing and not completely expected developments. There's slow passages, and some tragic ones – and periods of great triumph and joy.
There's also times when he's clearly improvising, trying and discarding musical and career options, but always continuing to explore his own voice as a composer and a musician.
Hersch is a pianist and composer, primarily in jazz, who is known both for his interpretations of jazz standards and for his own work. He primarily plays solo or with his trio, but he's also produced larger-scale works – for example, based on the poems of Walt Whitman. These days, he's one of the most acclaimed performers in jazz, but for many years he felt as though he didn't fit anywhere.
It's a fascinating personal account, particularly of times past in the 1970s to the 1990s – both in jazz and in the gay community. Hersch talks openly and confessionally about his family, his fellow musicians, his mentors, his friends and lovers, and his work and his art – but also places them in context, so one can understand the barriers he faced and the opportunities he had.
The book opens with a young man in Cincinnati who knows he's a talented musician and knows he's gay – but doesn't yet know how to create a life for himself which will use his talents fully and make him happy. It takes Hersch through his education, his early years on the road and in New York City, his initial recordings, and finally to the acclaimed musician he is today – all the way through talking about what he learned on the way.
How Music Works
by David Byrne
McSweeney's, 2012, $37.95
reviewed by Alayne McGregor
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I had, of course, listened to the Talking Heads, but I had never seen their ex-lead singer, David Byrne, in person until a few years ago. Byrne was on a book tour to promote a collection of essays about cycling – Bicycle Diaries – and spoke at the Ottawa Writers Festival. The book turned out to be an interesting mixture of the personal and the larger picture. In person, Byrne was modest and interesting to listen to without being dogmatic.
He's just written a second book – this time about music – and again it contains a mixture of personal experience and larger-scale musings on music as a social phenomenon and a creative spur. And its publication happens to coincide with a concert appearance by him in Ottawa, on Sunday, June 23, at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.
Now, Byrne is a rock musician with worldbeat and art song influences. He doesn't play jazz. But a lot of what he has to say has great relevance to jazz listeners and musicians, because the music business and the experience of listening are common to all music fans. You may listen to different styles and different instruments and in different environments, but how you find that music or get to that concert poses the same challenges and provides the same joy.
Festival X is Ottawa's Photography Festival. The 2010 edition starts on September 23. To mark the start of Festival X this week, and Culture Days, we present a review of a jazz photography book by longtime Ottawa jazz photographer and jazz fan John R. Fowler.
Renee Rosnes Playing Glen (sic) Gould's Steinway - Images of Canadian Jazz
by John R. Fowler, 2009
self-published at blurb.com
Preview and order at www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/626018
reviewed by Brett Delmage
It is perhaps not surprising that as a jazz photojournalist I own and enjoy a collection of jazz photography and written word books. I found early personal inspiration in these books, including the late William Claxton's Jazz Seen.
Jazz Life - A journey for jazz across American in 1960 is the most expensive book of any kind I ever expect to own. Retailing for $300+ (yay for Chapters half-off sales), it's 695 pages of 29 x 41 cm each, a massive 7.8 kg. It's the only book I own that came in a box with a carrying handle.
Heavy. Expensive. Large. Why would anyone want a jazz photography book anyway, now that we can view photos on the Internet for free, on a device that fits in our pocket?