Invited into the Life of 'Picasso of Jazz' the Oxford Companion to Jazz. Edited by Bill Kirchner (OUP, Pounds 30). Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. by Ashley Kahn (Da Capo, Pounds 18.40). Reviewed by Peter Bacon

Article excerpt

In the bigger-than-a-brick sized Oxford Companion there is a 13-page chapter on the career of Miles Davis; while Kind of Blue is a 223-page volume on just one Davis recording.

To take the long road to enlightenment first, Ashley Kahn is a freelance music writer who contributes to the New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine, and his book is a meticulous bit of in-depth journalism.

Of course it isn't really just about one long-playing record, or about the two sessions in Columbia's 30th Street studios in New York: March 2, 1959 from 2.30pm, and April 22 in the same year and from the same time of day, if you really want to know.

It sets those epoch-making sessions in context by summarising Davis's career up to that point, and then plotting the success of the album down the decades and around the world.

But the heart of the book consists of the detailing of the sessions themselves, based on Kahn's access to the original tapes which included not only the music itself but the between-takes talk between Davis and his band.

How fascinating this verbatim stuff is depends to a large extent on the reader's interest in Davis in particular and jazz in general, but there are broader insights to be gained even outside the jazz realm - as a comprehensive account of an exceptionally distilled creative process, for example.

This gets to the essence of jazz and its magical nature. In what other art form would one of the crowning achievements, one which is even more valued more than 40 years after its conception, and will, if anything, grow even further in stature in the 21st century, have been created in just two days?

And created virtually from nothing - this is not a recording session on a par with the transferring to tape of a Beethoven quartet, for example. There was very little composition on paper before the sessions, and barely a rehearsal.

This is creation where composition and performance happen for the most part simultaneously, and for that reason alone, this 'anorakish' attention to detail is justified.

It's a lovely book, warmly written by an obvious enthusiast and elegantly presented, with some fascinating photographs from the sessions themselves.

And so to the excellent 13 pages in the Oxford Companion contributed by Bob Belden, himself a respected jazz musician.

Belden has little choice but to take a swift sprint through the life of one of the most influential and wide-ranging of 20th century musicians - comparable to Picasso, since both moved through a number of distinct styles in equally long careers. …