Monday, August 31, 2009

Roundup of Recent Reading - Books on Music, Pt. 1

Radio City (33-1/3 Series) by Bruce Eaton

[Disclosure: I submitted a book proposal to 33-1/3. It was rejected. In my limited dealings with them, the 33-1/3 people were very professional and it was a positive experience that I'm glad I went through. I'm fairly confident that the proposals that were chosen were better than mine. I don't feel that my comments below are colored by these facts, except perhaps that I was more surprised to see the errors I discuss after experiencing 33-1/3's professionalism first-hand, but I put this out there so the reader can decide.]

Perhaps it's somehow appropriate for a book about an album that contains songs titled "What's Goin Ahn" and "September Gurls" to be full of proofreading errors/omissions. On the other hand, one of the major themes of the book is the quest for sonic perfection that Big Star undertook and the technical expertise of Ardent Studios' John Fry that made it's realization possible. Sloppy but with flashes of brilliance, 33-1/3's Radio City could be the Like Flies on Sherbert [sic] of rock books, except that in Sherbert's case the "mistakes" were part of the scheme, perfectly in tune with Alex Chilton's unconventional aesthetic at the time. Radio City, the album, was the product of meticulous care and attention to detail. The book about the album deserved the same attention.

Many of the errors seem to be in the interview transcripts. My guess is that they were transcribed quickly from the recorded interviews with the thought that they would be cleaned up later, but that the clean-up never really got finished. In any case, I haven't encountered anything like this in other 33-1/3 volumes.

Whatever the cause, the errors distract from, but don't ruin, an enjoyable treatment of a great album. Eaton's acquaintance with Alex Chilton and success in getting him to talk extensively about Big Star (a rare feat, apparently) made the book possible, but his interviews with other key figures (Jody Stephens, John Fry, Richard Roseborough) are crucial in filling out the story and giving other perspectives, especially as Chilton is rather dismissive of much of his own Radio City-era work. Eaton's reminiscences of meeting and playing with Chilton might strike some as indulgent, but I got a vicarious thrill out of his rock'n'roll dream-come-true story. He manages to convey the excitement of an encounter with a hero that both defies and exceeds expectations.

While the Radio City book is understandably Chilton-centric, I would love to read a companion volume on #1 Record that focused more on Chris Bell. I don't know how many times I've reread the liner notes to the I Am The Cosmos compilation (written by Chris' brother David), which tell the bittersweet story of Bell's post-Big Star adventures, including a brief encounter with Paul McCartney. Liner notes aren't a widely appreciated art form, to say the least, but David Bell's personal, loving Cosmos notes are something special.

Considering Genius by Stanley Crouch

Stanley Crouch is a man with hobby horses. Anyone who's read more than two or three of Crouch's jazz pieces will never again want to hear about the four basic elements of jazz (blues, swing, ballads, "Latin tinge"). But he's also a very good writer, capable of elucidating sound with words at the highest level. Crouch is at his best when he digs deep into the music and highlights aspects of an artist's style or personality that the listener might have otherwise overlooked or been unable to express.

It's always a good sign when a music writer makes you want to return to the music to relisten with fresh ears and new insights. Crouch achieves this again and again in Considering Genius. His Monk and Mingus pieces are particularly strong investigations into the specific nature of the genius of these two musician/composer/bandleaders. Even his piece on the supposed "sell out" of Miles Davis, a piece whose conclusions I disagree strongly with, taught me a lot about Miles' early career and gave me a whole list of recordings I now want to explore.

Crouch seems to be comfortable dismissing so-called "avant-garde" or "experimental" jazz artists in the abstract, frequently mentioning that many of this breed use avant-garde techniques or "Eurocentric" concepts to cover the fact that they can't really play their instruments. But when it comes down to specific artists, he tends to qualify his statements, and to my mind comes across as much more fair. The piece "The Presence is Always the Point", from 2000, is a prime example. In this piece, he discusses his first-hand experiences in the New York jazz scene of the late '70s and early '80s, a time often thought of as a low-point for the music (commercially, this might be a somewhat accurate perception, but in terms of creativity, it's just wrong). Though he's been portrayed as fighting on the opposite side of the "Jazz Wars" from the AACM and their allies and associates, he has kind words in this piece for artists such as Sam Rivers, Air, and even the Art Ensemble of Chicago. And though he makes clear that he doesn't consider it jazz, he dubs Cecil Taylor's music "a massive achievement on a human level".

It's almost as if Crouch, despite his unwillingness to bend his definition of jazz, was wishing to move on from some of the ideological conflicts he had helped stir up. This is the Crouch, more generous, appreciative and open than his pugilistic image, that comes through in parts of Ethan Iverson's excellent interview posted on Do The Math. Strange to think, then, that between the 2000 piece and the DTM interview from 2007 came quite possibly the peak of Crouch controversy, his stint as a columnist for Jazz Times that ended in an abrupt dismissal, the last straw being his highly questionably use of trumpeter Dave Douglas as a bludgeon to bash white critics with whom Crouch had a beef. The Jazz Times columns are included in Considering Genius, and to me they are not up to the standard of much of his other writing. They are provocative, but not as instructive, insightful, or well-written as many of the other pieces in the collection, more polemic than thoughtful criticism. At Jazz Times, Crouch was in the belly of what he considered the sick beast of contemporary jazz criticism. He kicked at the sides and got spit out.

Despite being limited to his writings on music, Considering Genius presents multiple facets of Crouch's complex personality. Reading him requires being open to this complexity, and even contradiction, but the rewards are substantial. I hope Crouch continues to stir the pot, because no one does it better.

Living With Music by Ralph Ellison

Along with Albert Murray (whose Stomping The Blues I plan to read at some point), Ralph Ellison was something of a mentor and model for Stanley Crouch as a music writer. Known by most only as the author of Invisible Man, Ellison wrote frequently and well about jazz, blues and classical music (blues being for Ellison the critical, indispensible component and foundation element of jazz). This collection combines pieces both specifically and tangentially dealing with music, from reviews, essays, and letters to short stories and even excerpts from Invisible Man. While the short stories are very good, many of them seem to be more informed by music than about music, or else music appears only in the background. I don't fault the editorial decision to include these stories, though, since I might not have encountered them otherwise.

Some of the most interesting strictly musical content comes in Ellison's letters, mostly to Murray, in which the more measured criticism of his published pieces gives way to sharp, sometimes harsh, opinions on the jazz of the day. In the published criticism, it's clear that Ellison preferred big band jazz, especially Ellington but also Basie, to bebop and post-Charlie Parker small combo jazz. In the letter recounting the famous Columbia Records jazz party at the Plaza Hotel featuring Duke Ellington and Miles Davis (documented on the records Jazz At The Plaza Vols. 1 & 2), he minces no words in stating his preference for Ellington's performance, referring to Davis as "poor, evil, lost little Miles Davis" and the group as "a bunch of little masturbators", as opposed to Duke, "the master of a bunch of masters". He also suggests that Duke and his men shared his opinion of Miles' performance and were not shy about making it known at the time. Keep in mind that this was the Kind of Blue quintet with John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Cannonball Adderley (the only one Ellison has a kind word for).

Much of the pleasure of this book is simply in reading a great writer on an interesting subject, but there's also the added historical interest derived from Ellison's firsthand accounts of figures such as Count Basie, Charlie Christian, and Duke Ellington. These men are the stuff of legend today, but Ellison's portraits of them, while recognizing their grand stature, have the incalculable advantage of being drawn from life.

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