Book Review: “The Jazz Ear”

“The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music”
By Ben Ratcliff

Jazz musicians often avoid discussing their craft, for fear of destroying its improvisational essence, says the summary on “The Jazz Ear,” by New York Times music critic Ben Ratcliff. So to get to the heart of the art form, he sat down with 15 of today’s greatest artists to do the thing no one wants to do: Talk about jazz.

Well, that’s one reason I don’t get jazz: Because no one will tell me anything about it. Not even my college professors, who had only enough time to pass it over like a magician’s hand over a trick box. And that’s what jazz has always been to me: kind of like a ruse that I can’t figure out. I mean, how do you play a song that depends on the person playing it? Really, all I know, concretely, about jazz can be summed up in a line from the movie “The Comittments”: “You were playing spirals. That’s jazz. Soul has corners.”

Look, I own “Sketches from Spain.” Sometimes I even listen to it… when I’m trying to sleep. But, in my mind, jazz has always been this undulating ball, curled upon itself, feeding off its own flesh and thus constantly dying and being reborn. And, according to Ratcliff’s new book, that’s not entirely wrong; because jazz is by nature ephemeral. And that’s its beauty.

When the author talks to Maria Schneider, for example, she says of composer and arranger Gil Evans, “There’s always a line moving. He’s so much like Ravel; everything’s always moving.” And when he speaks to Dianne Reeves, she says, “You know, people always talk about ‘what is jazz,” and it’s really hard to describe. But one thing I do know is that it’s a very intimate exchange between everyone on stage, giving inspiration and ideas to each other; and the other part that’s magical for me is when the audience is in on it.”

And there it is, again: magic. If there’s one theme that runs through this book about jazz – a book that encompasses so much richness and insight into the music that so befuddles me (and, in my defense, many other millions of non-musicians) – it’s the discussion of magic, of spirit, and of mystery. It’s like being in church, says more than one source; like the spirit takes hold of you. Or, it’s like something supernatural grabs the musicians on stage, so that they can almost read each others’ minds. Joshua Redman calls it “immersing yourself in the language,” and says that it isn’t easy.

This book doesn’t make it any easier, really, for a nub like me to understand. I mean, the three-chord theory of The Ramones comes naturally to me. But there was nothing spiritual about their music. It was a base expression of personal desire. It doesn’t even live up to soul, which may frequently be a base expression of personal desire, but at least – at it’s heart – searches for human connection. Punk often rejects it outright.

But jazz is in a category all its own: A house that it continually constructs and deconstructs, where the color and pattern on the walls change with each performance. It’s a mad house; a fun house; a house of cards built on the backs of the musicians who dare to support an endeavor that is entirely democratic: independent musicians simultaneously creating new music at each performance. They are champions who reach for the edge of musical reason, and only pull back when the rest veto the direction.

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