(My apologies if this review is long-winded!)
I began listening to jazz almost 27 years ago as the '80s drew to a close and I had become utterly bored and restless with pop. I really had no idea what to listen for in jazz but was starting to feel an increasing affinity for the wistful sounds of horns, cymbals and the double bass that drifted through the radio, especially in the wee small hours (as it were, LOL!). I remember asking a staff at the first HMV store in Toronto for a recommendation and heard the name of Coltrane for probably only the second time in my life. Long story short, I started my exploration with CDs of the Holy Cole Trio (at the time, an up-and-coming Canadian jazz trio), Linda Ronstadt & the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, and Coltrane's "My Favourite Things" album.
Since then, more than 95% of my CD purchases have been of this genre. As a person who neither plays nor read music, all I do is listen and try to appreciate the music for what appealed to me; in other words, enjoy jazz in my own terms. Over time, I've learnt to appreciate the spontaneity of sounds in the music; to enjoy discerning order or harmony in their apparent chaos/freedom; to try to shadow along the musicians' "detours"/improvisations of familiar tunes; and just immerse in the musicians' seemingly superhuman mastery of their instruments and performance. This, and catching live performances in jazz clubs whenever I could slip some precious little time in to do so in my travels, especially in Europe. After all, how else could a lay listener get guidance on how to appreciate jazz music?
It was with this backdrop that when I first stumbled upon a review of Gioia's book, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to discover how seasoned jazz aficionados and musicians listen to the music.
Reading the book has been a very satisfying experience, not the least to learn that one's uninformed exploration of the music has been in the right direction, hitting many of the markers identified in the book. Over my own years of listening, the names most bandied about in the media and by the odd acquaintance are well rehearsed ones like Davies, Coltrane, Parker, Armstrong, Monk, Marsalis, Corea, Hancock, etc, etc. I can't recall the exact circumstances in which I came upon my first Coleman Hawkins CD but that one afternoon when I put his CD through my hifi for the first time has remained, to this day, the most memorable revelation (even to someone with moderate hearing impairment like myself). Mainly because I had not heard/read of him before, and that first listening was simply sublime. I understood that musicians and their music can have a way of resonating with particular listeners, yet make no impression on others, and I had thought Hawkins might be such an artist given I hadn't noticed his name before and certainly not in the company of the others I've listed earlier. Imagine my surprise (vindication?) to find him listed among the haloed giants of jazz by Giaio - it was like an affirmation that my years of exploration and discovery hadn't gone astray or been for nought. Giaio has succeeded in keeping jargon to a minimum in this book; although I've had to refer to a dictionary a couple of times to remind myself of the meanings of some of the music terminologies, on the whole the author has kept the book accessible to lay readers with no music background like myself. Giaio has managed to inject a little history and clarity into the birth and evolution of jazz, the infusion of regional influences through the decades, and the artists who spawned or inspired these influences, yet kept the reading apace. The lists of recommended listening not only mixes some fun into the reading, they are immensely useful in illuminating the styles and markers of each musician's artistry. Notably, the author has also included a non-exhaustive list of 150 elite jazz artists active today whom he considers musicians worth looking out for. Some are familiar and commercially viable names among the younger generation such as Esperanza Spalding and Jamie Cullum while many others are relative "unknowns" - so much the better for listeners who aspire to broaden their appreciation of the jazz genre. This book serves as a very accessible primer for listeners new to jazz music, very readable and offers no shortage of tips and leads for our future listening pleasure. Highly recommended.
An acclaimed music scholar presents an accessible introduction to the art of listening to jazz
In How to Listen to Jazz, award-winning music scholar Ted Gioia presents a lively introduction to the art of listening to jazz. He tells us what to listen for in a performance and includes a guide to today's leading jazz musicians. From Louis Armstrong's innovative sounds to the jazz-rock fusion of Miles Davis, Gioia covers the music's history and reveals the building blocks of improvisation. A true love letter to jazz by a foremost expert, How to Listen to Jazz is a must-read for anyone who's ever wanted to understand America's greatest contribution to music.
"Mr. Gioia could not have done a better job. Through him, jazz might even find new devotees." --Economist