Books for Christmas: Jazz - What Real Jazzmen Have for Breakfast ; Part Two of Our Seasonal Special: This Week, the Best Sport, Music, Military and Politics Books to Curl Up with by the Fire
Byrnes, Sholto, The Independent (London, England)
It is a perennial problem for critics that they get so fond of their subjects that they cease to be able to write objectively about them. No one could accuse Benny Green of any such dereliction of duty in Such Sweet Thunder: Benny Green on Jazz (Scribner pounds 25), a magnificent collection of essays, pen-portraits and reviews. Every reviewer should read his definition of a critic's job: "The only criticism which is readable is the fiercely prejudiced, fiercely subjective criticism by a man who cares enough to show his enthusiasms." He obeys his own injunction to a T, and his descriptions are always apt. On Ornette Coleman's avant-garde meanderings: "Like a stopped clock," he wrote drily, "Coleman is right at least twice a day."
Whitney Balliett is another master of the bon mot, and there are hundreds to choose from in his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (Granta pounds 20). Like a box of Quality Street, a few chocs at a time satisfy the palate. Here's that bear of a man, Charles Mingus, playing his double bass: "Mingus tends to belabour his instrument, as if it had attacked him." He catches the stance of Miles Davis perfectly: he "stands motionless and slightly hunched, his horn pointed at the floor, like a crane poised on a mud flat." Balliett has his own prejudices too, some of them rather silly. Criticising Davis, Chet Baker and Art Farmer for not being brassy enough ("better indeed if they simply traded in their trumpets for saxophones") is like ticking off Alfred Brendel for not playing the Hammond organ.
Richard Cook has produced a more digestible morsel on a much- loved label. Blue Note Records: The Biography (Secker pounds 16.99) tells the story of how two German immigrants, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, came to define a period of jazz through their label's output of hard-bop issues. …