Archives for category: Book Reviews

Book Review & Playlist: My Life With Earth, Wind, and Fire, Maurice White with Herb Powell (Harper Collins, 2015)

Maurice White was the visionary, founder, and very much the Chief Executive Officer of Earth, Wind, and Fire. I recently read his fascinating memoir, published just a year before his death in 2016. He was 74.

What you would expect from a musical autobiography is all there: Rich detail about EWF’s beginnings and the backstory of their many classic songs and albums. EWF’s fascination with things celestial, astrology, and Egyptology are illuminated. For me, White’s observations on racism in the music industry were among the most interesting. Maurice White’s hard-fought journey was presciently articulated by African-American leader Booker T. Washington. This quote opened his chapter called Black Tax:

I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.  – Booker T. Washington

Wanting to include a playlist in this post, I struggled with how to keep it concise. White’s body of work is so vast and EWF’s hits so numerous that even a sampling would be inadequate. Instead, I’ve focussed not so much on EWF’s greatness but on White’s perspective of just how that greatness came to be. The playlist is in three parts, named: Inspiration, Evolution, and Transition.

Part I – Inspiration

  1. “I Will Move On Up a Little Higher” – Mahalia Jackson (traditional): White begins his story in Memphis TN where he lived with his “Mama,” who loved Mahalia Jackson. “The Queen of Gospel,” as she was known, could be heard frequently in White’s boyhood home.
  2. “It Should Have Been Me” Ray Charles (Atlantic Records, 1954): In Mama’s house, the spiritual was balanced by the boogie-woogie grooves of Ray Charles and others.
  3. “Sakeena’s Vision”Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers (Blue Note Records, 1960): Having moved to Chicago, White was exposed to more music. He described being “mesmerized” by this album from drummer Art Blakey, learning the parts by banging on schoolbooks with his drumsticks.
  4. “You’re No Good”Betty Everett (Vee-Jay Records, 1963): Now a session drummer in Chicago’s hot R&B/Soul recording scene, this was the first hit record featuring Maurice White on drums, reaching number 51 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
  5. “Sittin’ in the Park”Billy Stewart (Chess Records, 1965): White played drums on this lovely tune. Stewart was known to gesture and interact with his musicians during his recording sessions. Writes White, “Billy Stewart taught me how to the pull the best out of a rhythm section by just standing there half directing, half dancing.”
  6. “Hang on Sloopy”Ramsey Lewis Trio (Chess Records, 1965): Having joined the popular jazz pianist’s trio, White enjoyed his first major financial success, with a steady stream of work from hit records like this one.
  7. “Dance to the Music”Sly & the Family Stone (Epic, 1968): White was strongly inspired by Sly & The Family Stone, giving credit to the group for serving as a blueprint for some of the biggest R&B groups of the 70’s, including EWF.

Part II – Evolution

  1. “La La Time”The Salty Peppers (Capitol Records, 1969): Considered ‘proto-EWF,’ White recorded this with Don Whitehead and a band of session musicians from the Chicago scene. Donny Hathaway who would later become an R&B legend in his own right, was on keyboards and did the vocal arrangements.
  2. “I’d Rather Have You”Earth, Wind & Fire, Last Days and Time (Columbia, 1972): Written by Skip Scarborough who was a regular collaborator with White, this song was one of the first with the backing vocal sound that would become a signature of EWF. Jessica Cleaves is on lead vocal.
  3. “Evil”Earth, Wind & Fire, Head to the Sky (Columbia, 1973): I think this song is apt for three reasons. First, it features White on Kalimba, a traditional African instrument he was known for, even in his time with the Ramsey Lewis Trio (watch this touching tribute from Lewis recorded not long after White’s passing, where White’s kalimba performances are referenced). Second, it was the first record featuring a Minimoog, played by none other than Larry Dunn, who would be a core member of EWF for their greatest decade of recording. Finally, this album saw EWF enter a “flower power” phase and turn to a more visual expression, pushing the importance of costume in their live performances.
  4. “Devotion”Earth, Wind & Fire, Open Our Eyes (Columbia, 1974): This is the first album EWF recorded with Charles Stepney, one of White’s most influential collaborators. White notes that Stepney drew out one of Philip Bailey’s best vocal performances to date at the time of this recording, setting the tone for Bailey’s legendary contribution to the EWF sound, even to this day.
  5. “That’s the Way of the World”Earth, Wind & Fire, That’s the Way of the World (Columbia, 1975): Written by Stepney, this has become one of EWF’s most famous recordings. Also notable is that this was the first album recorded with George Massenburg as lead Engineer. Massenburg was key to the mixing of the numerous and complex layers to EWF’s arrangements.
  6. “Getaway”Earth, Wind & Fire, Spirit (Columbia, 1976): Another Stepney collaboration, White described the intro of this song as ‘blazing’ and credited it with putting heat into the EWF sound. Sadly, Stepney died before the album was released.
  7. “The Best of My Love”The Emotions, Rejoice (Columbia, 1977): Written by Al McKay and Maurice White for The Emotions, a vocal group White helped develop, it was the most successful single of White’s career, topping the R&B, Disco, and Pop charts.
  8. “September”Earth, Wind & Fire, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. 1 (Columbia, 1978): Also written by McKay and White, this now iconic song was released on the group’s first collection. Writing about this moment in their career, White quotes CBS president Bruce Lundvall as saying EWF was the biggest band in the world.

Part III – Transition

  1. “After the Love Has Gone”Earth, Wind & Fire, I Am (Columbia, 1979): White brought in new songwriters for the I Am album. Among them was David Foster a newcomer who would make his mark not only on EWF but on pop music for decades to come. This was the first album where no other members of the band were used as songwriters. A bit of salt on that open wound was an incident when Foster, hailing from the distinctly white community of Vancouver Island, naively used the term “boys” in the Canadian context (like “buddy”) while directing the famous EWF horn section. One of the musicians immediately drew a gun in protest, prompting White to step in and give Foster a crash course on American race relations.
  2. “Let’s Groove”Earth, Wind & Fire, Raise! (ARC Columbia, 1981): The longest running #1 R&B hit at the time, this song was co-written with Wayne Vaughn. The tour for Raise! was a massive production and demonstrates EWF’s exceptional scale. Pre-production for the tour cost $700k and each date cost $60k to produce. The crew was 60 people strong, with equipment, costumes, and sets filling up 14 tractor trailers. With the explosion of MTV and the importance of the music video in promoting new music, White points out the inherent racism that excluded black acts from the medium. Rick James and EWF had some of the biggest hits of the day but were absent from MTV playlists. White described this as a “black tax” and it was pervasive through their touring, media appearances, and promotional activities.
  3. “Time Machine”Barbra Streisand, Emotion (Columbia, 1984): An odd choice, I admit, but indicative of the stature White held in the business. His songwriting talents were sought out to create a strong single for Streisand’s 23rd studio album, which went on to Platinum. Despite the dated 80s treatment, this is essentially a pretty good tune. This was also the year EWF went on a 3-year hiatus. White would also record a solo album in 1986, including a hit remake of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.”
  4. “Sunday Morning”Earth, Wind & Fire, Millennium (Warner Brothers, 1993): Maurice White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease prior to this album’s release and the tour of Millennium was the first without White. Despite his health struggles and the changing musical tastes since the group reformed in 1987, the band reached #20 on R&B charts with this Grammy nominated hit.
  5. “Hearts of Longing”Urban Knights, Urban Knights (UMG Recordings, 1995): His performing career at an end, White continued to contribute musically to EWF and produced this project with his original jazz mentor, Ramsey Lewis. This smooth jazz album featured Grover Washington Jr. on saxophone, Omar Hakim on drums, and Victor Bailey on bass.

White wrote that he wanted his music to uplift and unify humanity. Listen and you’ll see, he succeeded by any measure.

 

Related:

UK DJ/Producer Patrick Forge podcast tribute to Maurice White

 

 

Book Review: Possibilities, Herbie Hancock with Lisa Dickey (Viking, 2014)

ct-herbie-hancock-possibilities-jpg-20141106Reading Herbie Hancock’s memoir is akin to reading the modern history of jazz. His career touched numerous branches of jazz and was responsible for sprouting some entirely new ones. From his mentorship with Donald Byrd, to being a sideman for Miles Davis, to becoming a band leader and trail blazer, reading Herbie’s history gives you a fair reading of the genre itself.

The book covers his life story, from his upbringing, discovery of music and performance, and the music he has made with great artists over five decades. Possibilities is an apt title because the book, and Hancock’s journey, can be characterized with a series of turning points that Hancock had the courage to embrace. It also resonates with his Buddhist philosophy, which receives generous attention in the book. Hancock handles this personal aspect of his story maturely, simply relating how it affected his outlook on life and ultimately his music. Similarly, his confessions and reflections on drug addiction are offered in appropriate contexts, without becoming unseemly.

I think the best way to write about this book is to offer a playlist of the recordings that Hancock himself cites throughout the book. Of course, there are too many to offer a comprehensive list. Instead, I’ve filtered my selections for those that I found reflected the most important turning points in developing his remarkable career.

1. Body & Soul, Coleman Hawkins, Body & Soul (Bluebird, 1939) – Hancock’s first professional gig was in 1960 with Coleman Hawkins and this song is recalled in the book as one of the pieces he had to first perform with a professional jazz player.

2. The Injuns, Donald Byrd, Byrd in Hand (Revolver, 1959) – I didn’t know until reading this memoir that Donald Byrd mentored Herbie Hancock as he was coming up in the music business. Byrd took Hancock on as a member of his band and this song was one of the first Herbie played with the band. I was especially intrigued by this connection because Byrd and Hancock happen to be two of my top three favourite musicians of all time.

3. Shangri-La, Donald Byrd, Royal Flush (Blue Note, 1961) – Hancock’s recording debut was on Byrd’s 1961 release, Royal Flush. This was a key event in Hancock’s career because it led to his own recording contract with Blue Note and more importantly, thanks to Byrd’s counsel and urging, culminated in Hancock retaining the publishing rights to his compositions.

4. Watermelon Man, Herbie Hancock, Takin’ Off (Blue Note, 1962) – Hancock’s first record. This would become a major commercial success, paving the way for financial independence thanks to his publishing rights. His income from this record would support more experimental work later in the decade.

5. Burning Spear, Eric Dolphy, Iron Man (Charly Records, 1963) – Playing as a sideman to saxophonist Eric Dolphy was Hancock’s first exposure to free jazz. It was Dolphy’s breaking of the rules of music that helped Hancock see the possibilities in music when new directions were taken. I believe this is one of the most important influences on Hancock’s approach to music, probably second only to Miles Davis himself.

6. Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Davis, Seven Steps to Heaven (Sony, 1963) – Hancock’s notoriety from Watermelon Man and his reputation as a singular talent lead the great Miles Davis to invite Hancock to join his now legendary quintet. This album was the first of Miles’ records that Hancock appeared on.

7. Maiden Voyage, Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965) – Now a sought after composer, Hancock took on commercial work, writing jingles on the side. A fragment of a jingle for a men’s cologne evolved into this, one of Hancock’s most recognizable compositions. It was unique in its spiralling structure and Hancock discusses his discovery of this form in detail in the book.

8. Blow Up (Main Title), Herbie Hancock, Blow-Up Original Soundtrack (Rhino, 1966) – Hancock’s first commission to do a film soundtrack. It had a sound that was influenced by the pop music of the day. The book contains an amusing story of how Hancock hosted a decoy recording session in Canada to navigate European content rules imposed by the film’s backers.

9. My Ship, Miles Davis, Miles Ahead (Sony, 1957) – Gil Evans’ work on this Miles Davis album strongly influenced Herbie’s first incarnation as a band leader.

10. Speak Like A Child, Herbie Hancock, Speak Like A Child (Blue Note, 1968) – Hancock’s first band was a sextet inspired by the fullness and smoothness of sound on Miles Ahead. He chose 3 horns (Sax, Trombone, and Trumpet). The rhythm section included Miles Davis Quintet bandmate, Ron Carter on Bass. Speak Like a Child was the sextet’s first recording.

11. Stuff, Miles Davis, Miles in the Sky (Sony, 1968) – Another key turning point was Hancock’s discovery of electric instruments. Hancock relates his first encounter with a Fender Rhodes electric piano while in Davis’ quintet. Without a piano to play at a venue they were booked at, Herbie asked his band leader what he was supposed to play. Miles pointed to the Rhodes sitting in the corner of the room and said, “play that.” This track is off the first recording of Miles’ that used the electric piano.

12. Fat Mama, Herbie Hancock, Fat Albert Rotunda (Rhino, 1969) – Having known Bill Cosby for some years before, Hancock was invited by Cosby to write music for TV special, which would later be adapted and become Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. This was also one of the earlier instances of funk elements in Hancock’s music.

13. Quasar, Herbie Hancock, Crossings (Warner Bros., 1970) – Now in his Mwandishi period, Hancock had embraced Afro-centric culture and was working more in the jazz/funk fusion mileiux with greater degrees of musical experimentation.  Hancock himself describes Mwandishi as an “R&D band.” This track off of their Crossings album showcases a new technology Hancock had adopted when he met synthesizer pioneer, Pat Gleeson. The Moog Modular synthesizer first appears in Hancock’s recorded work on this album.

14. Toys, Herbie Hancock, Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968) – Mwandishi’s bassist was Buster Williams and Hancock relates a story in the book where Williams performance of this particular track in 1972 was so focussed that Herbie asked him how he managed to play it so well on that particular day. Williams’ response was that he chanted before the performance in his practice of Buddhism. A philosophy and practice that Hancock adopted from that point forward, Buddhism can’t be overlooked in how it has shaped his personal and professional life.

15. Yes We Can, Can, The Pointer Sisters, The Pointer Sisters (UMG, 1973) – Having spent a few years with Mwandishi in “far out” experimentations, Hancock was searching for a change and was inspired by an unlikely encounter with the Pointer Sisters in 1973. Noting how much of a crowd-pleaser this tune was, Hancock made a sharp turn into funk.

16. Chamaeleon, Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters (Sony, 1973) – Another iconic Hancock composition, Chamaeleon was the first song written and recorded by his next band, The Headhunters. Bernie Maupin was on reeds, Paul Jackson on electric bass, Bill Summers on percussion, Harvey Mason on drums, and Herbie on synthesizers and clavinet. The clavinet allowed Hancock to play guitar lines on the keyboards and meant he didn’t need a guitarist in the band.

17. Doin’ It, Herbie Hancock, Secrets (Columbia, 1976) – His interest in electric instruments continuing to build, Hancock took on a young sound engineer, Brian Bell, for this record. Bell would become an integral part of Hancock’s creative process for years to come. His ingenuity and innovation is showcased heavily in the book. The passage where Bell describes how he managed patch cords in the first synthesizers (that had no memory banks) evokes thoughts of other technology pioneers like Hewlett & Packard or Jobs & Wozniak.

18. Don’t Hold it In, Herbie Hancock, Monster (Sony, 1980) – Now fully invested in making music with computers and electronics, this album was the first in a series where microcomputers, including the Apple II+ and several of Bell’s improvised equipment were featured. Another technological influence was Keith Lofstrom, who developed an automated patch bay for this period in Hancock’s work with early synthesizers.

19. Buffalo Gals, Malcolm McLaren, Duck Rock (Virgin, 1983) – A sea change was hitting popular music in the 1980’s with the emergence of new wave and the post punk British invasion. Hancock first heard this track through some associates who were exposing him to what young people were listening to. The scratching on this record was a direct influence on what would become Hancock’s biggest pop hit of the 80’s.

20. Rockit, Herbie Hancock, Future Shock (Sony, 1983) – Teaming up with producers Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, as well as pioneer turntablist DXT, Hancock released this song accompanied by Godley & Creme music video that hit number 1 on Billboard’s US Dance chart. Rockit also won best R&B Instrumental Performance at the Grammy’s in 1983.

21. Una Noche con Francis, Herbie Hancock, Round Midnight (Original Motion Picture Sountrack) (Sony, 1986) – Returning to more straight-ahead jazz, but still with an innovative spin, Hancock produced the soundtrack to this film, featuring Dexter Gordon in the lead role. He won the Oscar for best soundtrack for this work.

22. Manhattan (Island of Lights and Love), Herbie Hancock, The New Standard (Verve, 1996) – Composed with his sister, Jean Hancock, who had died tragically in a plane crash years before, Hancock included this song on his 1996 release, the The New Standard. Manhattan won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition that year.

23. Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Future 2 Future (Columbia 2001) – In this current stage of his career, Hancock states in the book that he seeks projects that bring something new to his experience and that have a purpose. This track is a tribute to Tony Williams, the talented drummer and Herbie’s bandmate in Miles’ quintet. Williams’ talent is mentioned at length in the book and this tribute featuring spoken word by Elenni Davis-Knight, is an excellent example of Hancock’s aim to be innovative and purposeful.

24. Both Sides Now, Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007) – A truly great talent never wanes and Hancock was on top again with this album, a deliberate tribute to an artist he respects greatly, Joni Mitchell. This record won Album of the Year at the 2007 Grammy Awards.

Although I’ve tried to distill what resonated most with me, I would recommend a full reading of Possibilities to personalize your own appreciation of Hancock’s life and career. Like the genre he helped shape, this book offers so much insight that each reader will develop a slightly different view of Hancock’s life and music. In this, Hancock and his writing partner Lisa Dickey have achieved what Hancock has done time and time again in his career: create something that adds to our experience of music but do so in a way that is not uniform among those who listen.

 

Book Review: Canada, Richard Ford (HarperCollins, 2012)

canada-hc-c-1 Richard Ford won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize  for his novel, Independence Day (Knopf, 1995). Canada was his most recent release two years ago when I picked up this title. It had taken a few attempts for me to start and finish this book but i’m glad I finally did.

Like many of the authors I appreciate, Ford creates an engaging depth of character and richness of time and place. Canada is set partly in Montana and partly in Saskatchewan in the 1950’s. Ford’s research and ability with detail brought them vividly to life.

One of the distinguishing qualities of Ford’s storytelling is his playfulness with timelines. He used to satisfying effect, a non-linear narrative that started with the end and invested most of the storytelling in the journey of how it came to be. This was not only true for the overall arc of the story but also for subplots within the book. There was anticipation and suspense but it was often followed by a plot revelation much earlier than the reader expected. These tactics somehow made the book more enjoyable to read, as if the author was giving us a break from the long work of getting through the story.

Written in three parts, the book transforms from an immersion in character and place to a faster-paced thriller — not the Ludlum variety but the stakes do get higher and the pages start turning faster in the latter half of the second part.

In this excerpt, the protagonist, Del Parsons, describes the experience of he and his sister, Berner, in their hometown of Great Falls Montana, after their parents’ arrest for bank robbery:

It’s a good measure of how insignificant we were, and of the kind of place Great Falls was, that no one came to see about us, or to get us and transport us to someplace safe. No juvenile authorities. No police. No guardians to take responsibility for our welfare. No one ever searched the house while I was there. And when no one does that — notices you — then people and things quickly get forgotten and drift away. Which is what we did. My father was wrong about many things; but about Great Falls he wasn’t. People there didn’t want to know us. They were willing to let us disappear if we would.

Berner and I walked home that Monday by a different route. We felt different now — possibly we each felt freer in our own way. We walked up to Central past the post office and down toward the river, along by the bars and pawn shops, a bowling alley, the Rexall, and the hobby shop where I’d bought my chess men and my bee magazines. The street was bustling and noisy with traffic. But, again, I didn’t feel anyone staring at us. School hadn’t started. We weren’t out of place. A boy and his sister walking back across the bridge in the sunny breeze, the river sweet and rank on a late morning in August — no one would think: These are those kids whose parents went to jail. They need to be looked after and protected.

Canada, chapter 38

I’m glad I stuck with this book through my many fits and starts. It’s a testament to the richness of character that allowed me to come back to it after many months of being away and reading on without much need for review.

Richard Ford’s newest book, Let Me Be Frank with You (Ecco/Harper Collins) is a collection of four novellas set during Hurricane Sandy. It is set to release in November 2014.

Book Review: Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, Nile Rodgers (Random House, 2011)

lefreak

Nile Rodgers is a mandarin of pop music. His discography is littered with colossal hits like Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, and Duran Duran’s “The Reflex.” These Eighties icons were follow-ups to 70’s icons like CHIC, Sister Sledge, and Diana Ross. Despite his superstar buddies with big personalities, Rodgers’ autobiography reveals him as a behind-the-scenes-music-theory-wonk.

Rodgers’ prose is crisp, easy to read, and his story is captivating. I didn’t expect to be all that interested in his childhood. But Rodgers manages to tell a fascinating tale about his early years, being raised by “junkies” as he referred to his biological mother and adoptive step-father.

The insight into his early years reveals something about the uniqueness of Nile Rodgers. He was an outsider in most circles and ultimately found himself at home with other outsiders. His anecdote about being out in LA at a young age and spotting a group of “freaks” across the street, engaging them in conversation, and later the same night dropping acid with Timothy Leary, seems torn from the pages of a neo-noir pulp novel. Later in life but still before his breakthrough, a personal intrigue with Roxy Music spawned the idea for CHIC as a concept band. That an American-born-and-raised a black touring and session guitarist with R&B and funk roots became fascinated with a British white glam group doing art rock was…weird. And thus is Nile Rodgers’ musical pedigree. Thank goodness.

The rise and fall of CHIC is a fantastic read. Rodgers delves into the creative process he and long-time collaborator Bernard Edwards used to pen their barn-full of smash hits. The precipitous fall of CHIC as the “disco sucks” movement rose was felt acutely by the duo but they are vindicated today to be sure. My post, In Defence of Disco, discusses that public rejection, which was so palpable as the seventies closed out.

Bernie_Edwards_Nile_Rodgers

Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers

Rodgers had a massive second wind through his production of David Bowie, Madonna, and Duran Duran in the 80’s. There is scrumptious detail about Bowie’s Let’s Dance album and the evolution of Madonna from a streetwise and business savvy recording artist to an international pop icon.

As I read the book, I found myself uttering, “oh, he wrote that song” and “that was him?” and “him again?” on every other page. Rodgers’ fingerprints and guitar licks are on so many hit records, you wonder why most people have never heard of him.

Which brings us back to Rodgers as a ‘geek.’ Being behind the scenes was a deliberate strategy for Rodgers and Edwards. They were more focussed on the quality and meaning of the music than the celebrity it would garner. Watch some Nile Rodgers interviews and lectures on YouTube (like this one) and you’ll see what I mean. He describes with glee the secret of CHIC, which was to utilize complex jazz chords in a funky way to trick the listener into thinking it was basic. “It’s what you don’t play that matters,” is a mantra he borrows from Miles Davis and applies artfully to his music.

Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny is a great read not only for music lovers and fans of CHIC but for anyone interested in the evolution of a career and an impressive legacy from the humblest of beginnings.

Book Review: The Low Road, Chris Womersley (Scribe, 2007)

Chris Womersley has an Ian McEwan problem. Worse can be said for a budding novelist. But if you know what I mean about McEwan, you’ll understand why this is a begrudgingly mixed review.

The Low Road is a very good novel about two men whose lives intersect just as each is at their nadir. Families long since alienated, caught up in a gritty and decidedly unromantic underworld, they find each other, and in their travels on the run, they give each other reason for hope.

The writing here is adept, like McEwan’s. Imagery is Womersley’s strongest suit. An example,

  Of acquiring his own tattoo, he had no memory, not even of the scabbing that occurred afterwards. It was as if – like the skin itself – it had always been there and sometimes as he rubbed at it, he believed it had just floated to the surface, some thin wreckage washed up on the shores of his body.

Womersley’s prose often paints a cinematic picture. One could argue that he is prone to using what Salman Rushdie recently called “filmic devices” that resonate with readers who have been trained by film-makers to imagine in a certain way. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, several times I found myself musing at how good a film this story would make, doing my own armchair casting.

However, the story is where the ‘McEwan problem’ begins and ends. I should explain that I hold a grudge against Ian McEwan for his novel, Saturday (Random House, 2005), which was beautifully written but really had no story in my opinion. It’s unfair to say that The Low Road has no story. There is great promise of redemption in the set up. Would each of these men indeed be the other’s salvation? They are flawed but their humanity drew my compassion. I invested fully in their relationship and I wanted it to unfold more than Womersley allowed.

Still, it was a good read and I’m glad I discovered this Australian author. His skill at imagery reminds me of modern masters such as Rushdie, Peter Carey, and yes, the very talented Mr. McEwan.

Womersley’s second novel, Bereft (Scribe, 2010), won the Australian Book Industry Award for Literary Fiction.

A short rant about airport bookstores…

I picked this book up in an airport bookstore in New Zealand after having been disappointed with the title selection at airports in Toronto, Chicago, and LA, where my journey began. At some point in the last year or two, someone wrongly decided that the only fiction airport bookstores should carry are books that inspired hit movies (Moneyball anyone?). I’m glad Asia Pacific is ahead of this curve. As for Womersley, some discerning screenwriter may yet make him a fixture on the shelves of LAX.

Book Review: The History of Jazz – Second Edition, Ted Gioia (Oxford University Press, 2011)

It is perhaps hubris to use “The” in this book’s title. There are numerous accounts of how “America’s music” germinated and flowered all around the world. But if a handful of people are to be given some latitude, Ted Gioia is one of them. As the founder of the Jazz studies program at Stanford and a former editor of Jazz.com, Gioia has the credentials to speak authoritatively about the jazz form and its beginnings.

Gioia’s research and depth of coverage in this 400 page tome are quite simply awesome. From the root of the African drum, to its evolution in New Orleans during the Slave Trade, to the jazz artists who top the charts today, this account is remarkable for its thoroughness. What Gioia does particularly well is take the reader on a mostly chronological journey through jazz’ family tree without forcing a linear structure. Instead, he takes us along a branch over the course of a decade or so, then pulls back and describes an adjacent branch, explaining its similarities and differences to the former.

I picked up this book simply because I wanted to understand just that – the complex pedigree of today’s jazz music and the great musicians that shaped it over the years. Much of the music I write about has its ancestry in jazz and I enjoy exploring those connections.

In the end, I was delightfully edified by the answers to all the questions I had before I read it: Where did bebop come from? How was it different from hard bop? Why is Ellington so important? Was Bird more influencial than Coltrane? And so on.

What’s more, Gioia cites generous examples of key players, compositions, and recordings. I found it fascinating to read a passage about Ahmad Jamal, for example, and quickly look up the tracks referenced on youtube or iTunes so I could listen along while I read.

At times, The History of Jazz comes across as professorial and academic but Gioia also captures the very human element of jazz with rich biographies of key figures. Generous (and welcome) length is given to Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis among others. Their personal history, influences, and choices are explored in good depth and give us an understanding of what made these musicians unique and how they shaped jazz.

Being a relatively recent Second Edition, the references are up-to-date and on the mark. The book comes full circle with the final sections exploring the “new traditionalists” who have recently reached back to the swing era of the 30s and 40s and the modern jazz era of the 50s and 60s. Reading about Diana Krall or Herbie Hancock in this context and then listening to their current works enriches our appreciation for what their music is today and where it came from.

Although it is a dense and lengthy book, those of you interested in jazz and its many subgenres will find it a valuable resource. For me personally, this book went even further. I hadn’t set out to read it cover to cover but once Gioia started connecting the dots for me, I wanted more. This, for any historian, is a job well done.

Favourite insights I gleaned from Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz:

  • Louis Armstrong was influenced and mentored by Joe ‘King’ Oliver, one of the first great players of the cornet. But Armstrong was a better virtuoso and heralded the beginning of the age of the soloist.
  • Benny Goodman was the first media celebrity. As radios made their way into American living rooms, band leaders would be among the first household names.
  • Duke Ellington brought a classical approach to jazz, making ‘art’ music instead of popular music. Although not as commercially successful as some of the more dance-oriented bands of the time (e.g. Benny Goodman), his work would later be recognized as some of the most ingenious musical compositions in the genre.
  • Charlie Parker is the father of Bebop, a form of jazz less concerned with the swing rhythm and simple melodies. He and Dizzy Gillespie characterized the form with their super-fast and complex melodies. When challenged about the seemingly off notes he played in his solos, Parker famously said, “there are no wrong notes if you play them in the right context.”
  • The relationships between band leaders and sidemen are numerous and intertwined. All the greats started as sidemen, ascended as leaders, took on new sidemen, who then ascended as the next generation of leaders. Miles Davis is a great example. In the late 40’s Davis at 19 years of age, was one of Dizzy Gillespie’s sidemen. In the 50s and 60s, Davis fostered talents under him like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Bill Evans. Each of them went on to be giants of jazz in later years.
  • As with any art form, jazz was shaped not only by its players but by its environment. The advent of the railway, racism, WWII, the rise of television, and the 60s protest ethos all had a significant impact on what kinds of jazz proliferated and diminished through the years. “Free Jazz,” for example, emerged in the 60s when conformity to the norms of the 50s was viewed as artistic compromise.
  • As the big band era gave way to the modern jazz era, some big bands carried on into the 70s. One of the most long-lived was lead by a Japanese-American woman named Toshiko Akiyoshi who, to date, has garnered 14 Grammy nominations. Akiyoshi was discovered in 1952 by Oscar Peterson. She was the first Japanese student at Berklee. Her daughter is Monday Michiru, a well known vocalist in contemporary House and Dance music.
  • Miles Davis’ 1969 release, Bitches Brew, is the progenitor of jazz fusion, most remarkably, the construction of jazz compositions around electronic instruments.

Book Review: The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman, 2010

This was a peculiar read – well written and easy to engage with the story and characters. Yet in the end I didn’t enjoy it because I felt the author didn’t want me to.

“The Imperfectionists” is a collection of vignettes of the lives of journalists, editors, and publishers of a Rome-based newspaper, based not so loosely on the International Herald Tribune. Rachman was an editor for that paper and manages wonderful detail to immerse the reader in the world of the international newsroom.

What Rachman also brings to the book, it seems, is some serious baggage. Each vignette, although nicely crafted, ends up punching the reader in the stomach with a burst of pathos or tragedy.

In each chapter, I found myself falling for his protagonist, cheering them on, and then watching them fall ‘splat’ into the cold, wet concrete of the Rachman’s  dark whimsy. Heck, he even has a dog murdered in one of the stories.

This is not to say that all stories should be happy. I’ve enjoyed many books with sad themes and failed characters (James Joyce, anyone?). But there is something relentlessly dark about this book that dulls the usual joy we get from reading.

Despite the gloom, Rachman’s is a very readable prose and his humor reminds me, at times, of Mordechai Richler. I’d like to read more from this author, but only after he’s had some therapy and accepted that the world can be a nice place, at least some of the time.

Book Review: The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud, 2009

My leisure reading is usually limited to holidays so in making my title selections, I often look to the literary awards for guidance. I’ve read a few Booker Prize winners and have not been disappointed. I thought the Giller Prize jury was similarly gifted in its judgement, based on excellent past-winners such as Mordechai Richler’s “Barney’s Version” and Vincent Lam’s “Bloodletting and other Miraculous Cures.”

2010’s Gilller Winner, however, has sullied their reputation forever. Skibsrud’s novel is hardly deserving of being called that. At best, it is a writing exercise that should have remained in her personal workbooks.

Promising to be a mystery of sorts, unravelling the hazy memory of a Vietnam war veteran as he descends into dementia in his daughter’s care, the book does not deliver; anything.

Instead, it scampers around the details of a derelict town, a now-broken family life once cherished, and never develops a through-line the reader cares about. Not even the characters are interesting enough for us to want them to succeed or fail or live or die.

It is not often that I have two regrets after reading a book. With “The Sentamentalists” mine were that I selected it and secondly,  that I finished it.

 

Book Review: Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill, 2007

Hill’s protagonist has one of the most important stories for all of us to read. It may be historical fiction but it is rooted in a very real and very dark aspect of our collective consciousness. History lessons aside, this is one of the greatest stories ever told, impeccably written and thoroughly engaging. It’s hard not to develop a ‘crush’ on this book part-way through and suffer heartbreak when you’re finished.

Aminata Diallo is a little girl in Mali, whose life is set on a remarkable and harrowing course as she is swept away in the slave trade. She is a heroine like no other, traversing the world and the breadth of human cruelty and kindness. Hill’s research detail makes this book utterly fascinating. Knowing that there actually was a historical document called “The Book of Negroes,” cataloguing the African-American slaves that had pledged allegiance to the Queen, thereby negotiating their freedom in British North America. Knowing that a settlement of liberated slaves flourished and then vanished on Canada’s east coast. Knowing this true history and reading this richly detailed work of fiction is what makes it so successful.

Still, Hill would probably not want this book to be remembered or celebrated for its reanimation of an important era in our history. He has written a great novel, created a miraculous heroine, and told a gripping story. That’s what fiction is about, afterall.