Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Reviews: Two Recent Music Publications

At its best, writing about music should inspire the reader to go out and listen to what has been described. And it should provide some deeper meaning or context to the musician/band and her or his/their work. There have been two recent books that have accomplished this very well.

Clawing at the Limits of Cool
Clawing at the Limits of Cool explores the collaboration between Miles Davis and John Coltrane, two of the most famous and important jazz musicians, ever. Even though I’ve listed Kind of Blue—their most famous work together—hundreds and hundred of times, the book provided me with me insights and ways to listen.

Additionally, authors Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington frame these two artists in the cultural and political context in which they lived and created. It’s their success in providing new ways to listen and understand Miles and Coltrane that makes this book such an important addition to the cannon of jazz writing.

Best Music Writing 2008

Da Capo Press publishes this excellent annual series that mines the years top writing about music. In his introduction to the 2008 edition is guest editor Nelson George talks about, “Looking for God in the vinyl.” That is that listening to music can be “spiritual. Even transcendental.” And it really struck me how right he was and how listening to music for me is a totally spiritual experience. His approach to music is definitely in evidence with the choices hs made for inclusion.

One of the great strengths of this collection is how it covers a multitude of genres. This is great because it draws the reader out of her or his normal music comfort zone. That said, some of the highlight pieces for me included, “Apparition in The Woods: Rescuing Sibelius from Silence” by Alex Ross author of The Rest is Noise. Also, “Band of the Run in New Orleans” is a very powerful article that describes the post-Katrina police crackdown on the historic and culturally vital tradition of funeral marches in New Orleans.

Like Clawing at the Limits of Cool, this collection connects music to the larger societal issues in which it was created. And for me, this is the way music should be approached.


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