10 January 2009


Ben Ratliff knows something about jazz musicians. Having interviewed many during his years as a journalist, Ratliff has discovered that when a jazz musician is being interviewed by a journalist, the musician tends to "talk to a reporter about his or her own life in a way that mostly serves a product or benefits other people," i.e. a new album or the musician's record label. The musician puts up a facade for the sake of selling the new album or promoting a gig, and thus often comes across kind of superficial or disinterested.

However, Ratliff some time ago discovered that he could truly open up a musician by asking him or her to listen to some music with him and use the listening experience as a way of engaging in music criticism with the musician. By doing so, Ratliff found that he could learn more about his interviewees than he ever could by following the traditional guidelines of the musician interview.

Anyone who has read an interview with a jazz musician in Down Beat, Jazz Times, or the like has undoubtedly finished a piece disappointed more than once. What sometimes passes for interviews is nothing more than questions about how a musician feels about his sidemen or early influences, except the musician often does so in a way that reveals little about his or her music. After reading so many jazz interviews that left no impression on me at all, my interest was certainly piqued when I read Ratliff's explanation of his new interview method in The Jazz Ear, a collection of his "Listening With" series for the New York Times. Featuring interviews with a broad array of jazz musicians, including Sonny Rollins, Paul Motian, and Maria Schneider, I can honestly say that I learned more about the way jazz musicians approach their craft in this book than I could in a year of reading Down Beat or Jazz Times.

Ratliff asked each of his interview subjects to bring or suggest a list of recorings which they would want to listen to and discuss with Ratliff. There was no discussion about the latest album or gig, just the music at hand. Unfettered by the demands of promotion, the interviewees open up about style, harmony, and rhythm. The juicy bits are too numerous to mention, but one highlight for me certainly was Pat Metheny's criticism of the “creeping academicism in jazz,” and his explanation of the dichotomy between jazz as a quantifiable language created in the past and jazz as an invented language incorporating the quantified language of the past with “the materials, the tools, the spirit” of contemporary vernacular. This is not the kind of rumination you can find in most interviews.

However riveting the book was, though, I could not escape the feeling that these interviews are being presented in the wrong format. As the old saw goes, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."1 Though these pieces were originally written for print media, surely the tapes of these conversations, regardless of the sound quality, would be captivating to listen to. Ratliff periodically writes sentences beginning, "On the fourth listening of the track, X said Y." It would be interesting to me to listen to any of these musicians dissect the music they chose for these interviews upon repeated listenings, picking apart the layers of the music they chose.

For anyone willing to dig around the New York Times archives, some audio samples of these interviews are available with the original Times pieces (the Branford Marsalis interview, for instance, is available here). This may sate your curiosity a bit, but to me, this project is practically begging for a different medium than print. Imagine edited audio files of the interviews available as podcasts. Times Books (who published the book) could even charge for them on the iTunes store. But none of this should detract from what is a wildly entertaining and insightful collection. Ratliff has established himself as one of the leading jazz critics of the new century, and this book certainly enhances his critical reputation.

BONUS: Bop and Beyond recently posted an interview with Ratliff. Read it here.

1 I've seen this phrase attributed both to Thelonious Monk and Elvis Costello, among others. If anyone knows the actual origin of this phrase (and can cite it), I would greatly appreciate it if you could pass it on to me.

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