on New Music Titles by Jas Obrecht, Will Friedwald, Fred Hersch, and Lilian Terry

This year has been rich with engaging, insightful music titles – Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever, Robbie Robertson’s Testimony, Ted Gioia’s How To Listen to Jazz, David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, Elaine Hayes’ Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan, and Anthony DeCurtis’ Lou Reed: A Life come to mind. Here are four more books that enhanced our appreciation of music and musicians this year.

Talking Guitar: Conversations with Musicians Who Shaped Twentieth-Century American Music by Jas Obrecht (University of North Carolina Press)
The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums by Will Friedwald (Pantheon)
Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz by Fred Hersch (Crown Archetype)
Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray and Friends: On and Off the Record with Jazz Greats by Lilian Terry (University of Illinois Press)

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In 1990, during his tenure as an editor and writer for Guitar Player magazine, Jas Obrecht asked Ry Cooder what goes through his mind when meeting and playing with the world’s most famous and gifted guitarists. “The thing is to empty yourself,” he replied. “If you’re truly committed in a real way, you come across as a receptacle of some kind, a vessel to be filled up. You’re not saying, ‘Look at what I got. Let’s see what you got’ – God forbid! You come and just say, ‘Imprint me with something.’” Taking his cue from Cooder, Obrecht sought to bring this attitude to his many interviews of players. His avid interest in guitar lore and broad range of playing techniques inspired him to let the flow of conversations be guided by his subjects’ interests.

TalkingGuitar.jpgIn Talking Guitar, Obrecht gives us 19 interviews with icons such as Barney Kessel, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, Carlos Santana, Neil Young and Joe Satriani. These dialogues comprise word for word transcriptions from tapes recorded between 1978 and 1999. As conversations, they carry the immediacy of response as well as thoughtful hesitations and sudden turns. Obrecht almost always brings up the question of influences and preferences. The talk is rife with anecdotes and opinions, especially about the record business. Jimi Hendrix’s name pops up throughout the book.

James Gurley, who played lead guitar for Big Brother and the Holding Company, claims Lightnin’ Hopkins as his first major influence – and says he didn’t even own an electric guitar when he auditioned for the band. Gurley says this about Janis Joplin: “I feel too much importance was given to Janis. It also was like the back-east mentality of the record companies who want you to be slick and commercial. They think in terms of things that have happened. They can’t think of what’s going to happen or making something happen. We’re talking about creation. As much as she made us a band, we made her as a singer. She had to sing the way that she did in order to sing with us. She just didn’t have any choice.”

Some of the interviews, such as with Tom Petty, focus on song-writing, the qualities of instruments, the fine points of recording, and what it takes to play at one’s best with others. Gregg Allman’s remarks reflect at length on his brother Duane. Jerry Garcia, taped in 1985, says the one late musician he would have most wanted to follow was Django Reinhardt: “You know, he’s got fingers that are about half a mile long. I mean, I just don’t know how he’s doing it. And this is with a fucked–up left hand.” These conversations go far afield, or rather, cover every aspect of guitar playing – but each discussion has an element of amazement, of not-knowing, aspiration, and utter respect for the greats. Eddie Van Halen says, “And Clapton, man, I know every fuckin’ solo he ever played, note-for-note, still to this day.”

[Published May 8, 2017. 320 pages, 28 photos, $35.00 hardcover. Includes an audio CD with excerpts from the interviews]

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“Jazz singing and popular singing are two extremely broad fields that have a great deal of territory in common,” wrote Will Friedwald in the first sentence of the introduction to his monumental A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (2010). “By and large, both kinds of singers collaborate with the same musicians, and, more importantly, they both rely on what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook,” he continued. That book, comprising incisive commentary on a wide assortment of singers, was mainly driven by their signature songs. His new book, The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums, focuses on the emergence of the record album in the late 1940s and the landmark recordings of the 1950’s and 60’s – specifically those that best represent “an overarching idea of some kind that links the songs together and connects the tracks on the album from first to last.”

Frie_9781101871751_epub3_cvi_r1.jpg“Compiling the ‘playlist’ for this current volume was for the most part remarkably straightforward,” he writes. “Most of these albums just jumped out at us without our having to give the question a lot of soul-searching thought.” In this way, works such as Nat King Cole’s After Midnight, Rosemary Clooney’s Blue Rose, or Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours are the forerunners of rock music’s “concept albums” that soon dominated the pop-rock market beginning in the late 1960’s. The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums is also occasioned by the demise of the album format, the disappearance of the CD (and its liner notes), and the rise of streaming.

Friedwald is a digressive writer who continues to find new things to say about musicians he has covered earlier. In his chapter on Anita O’Day Sings the Winners (1958), thirteen paragraphs go by before he actually gets to the album’s recording session. He discusses a film about O’Day and its songs, how singers re-recorded their old 78-rpm disks on the new high fidelity with longer playing time, and how “songbooks” came about to reinterpret the standards. (In the decade before the coming of singer-songwriters, “interpreting” the standards was the core of the art.) It’s all enlightening, and illuminates how O’Day’s album was conceived and produced. Each track and its arrangement receive a close look, yielding a composite that depicts its cultural moment. As it happens, Friedwald knew O’Day and interviewed her several times (and encountered the majority of his subjects in this book one way or another). “She frustrated and annoyed me to such an extreme degree that I vowed never to listen to her again,” he recalls, “which lasted only until, I got home that evening and put on my copy of Anita O’Day Sings the Winners. Who wouldn’t have preferred that Anita to the one I had just spent ‘quality time’ with?”

The 56 jazz/pop albums covered here comprise a canon. Many of them feature collaborations, such as John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Doris Day’s album with Robert Goulet, and the work Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby did together. Even if we now cringe at the misogyny in Doris Day’s movies, Friedwald makes it clear that her albums must be regarded for their thoughtful assembly. There is Peggy Lee’s Black Coffee, Sarah Vaughan’s self-titled album, Nina Simone’s Nina Simone and Piano, and Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. But Friedwald also makes a case for the pop/jazz strengths of Eydie Gormé and Steve Lawrence, and even Tiny Tim.

[Published November 7, 2017 by Pantheon. 432 pages, $40.00 hardcover]

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“When I was ten, our fifth-grade class put on a production of Peter Pan,” recalls Fred Hersch about growing up in Cincinnati in his bracing memoir Good Things Happen Slowly. “I asked the music teacher if I could work up a score of background and incidental music to set up the scenes, like I’d seen in TV … The teacher was impressed but wanted to change some of what I’d written. I said no on the spot.” The teacher also relented, apparently unwilling to challenge the prodigy. He continues, “For musically advanced but still a kid, I exhibited a combination of youthful bravura and ill-defined feelings of insecurity. As a result, for many years as an adult I have vacillated between grandiosity and low self-esteem.” David Hajdu, writing in The New York Times, quotes Hersch’s longtime engineer, Michael MacDonald, saying, “Twenty-five years ago, Fred was a petulant, stubborn, incredibly talented egomaniac eccentric who would dominate a recording session.” Blending genres, he absorbed the entire jazz tradition while refusing to fall in line with any single trend within it, and emerged as utterly unique. Good Things Happen Slowly narrates how he did it, beginning at the age of four, finding notes on the keyboard for the theme song of “Huckleberry Hound.”

Hersch.jpgBut then, in the mid-1980s, Hersch discovered he was HIV-positive. In 2008 the virus erupted in his brain. He fell into a coma, remaining unconscious for eight weeks, taking nourishment through a feeding tube and undergoing dialysis because his kidneys had failed. But he recovered – and made a new commitment, telling Hajdu, “It’s kind of a miracle I’m here at all. I had to learn to work with a more limited palette, technically, as a pianist. At the same time, I felt stronger than ever, creatively.” He launched “My Coma Dreams,” a multimedia project that depicts visions he experienced during his coma. And he decided to write this memoir. Michael MacDonald went on to say, “He gave up impressing and worked, increasingly, to move.” Things now are different -- and not so different. Listen to Hersch’s new album Open Book and you will hear a melancholic, meditative player, as technically brilliant as ever, but now making music that is haltingly lyrical and thoroughly gorgeous. What is the motive for memoir now? Why even turn to prose when you can play solo piano like this and tell the whole story through sound?

Jazz has always been capacious enough to accommodate a broad range of styles. One could say it is a genre based on differences, variations, and eccentricities. But Hersch struggled for years to find his place as a gay man within the intimacies of the jazz world. He writes, “My fear was that if the straight musicians I played with knew I was gay, they would mistake my intense musical connection to them for coming on to them, and I didn’t think that would go over well.” Despite those concerns, Hersch has produced 49 albums since his debut of original material in “Forward Motion” (1991), constantly tweaking the definition of jazz itself. In Good Things Happen Slowly, he takes us through the years of going to hear the great players of mid-20th century – Duke Ellington, Woody Herman , Wynton Kelly, Clark Terry, Joe Henderson, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Sun Ra,– only to emerge as an iconoclast and a mentor to young, non-canonical players like Brad Meldau and Vijay Iyer. His tart impressions enliven the narrative. “This is all I want to do for the rest of my life,” he thought after hearing Miles Davis’ 1961 recording In Person Friday Night at the Blackhawk,I want to swing like Wynton Kelly and writes like Charles Mingus.” He did it as only a genius could – and he still packs just enough tempered grandiosity to tell us so.

[Published September 12, 2017. 308 pages, $28.00 hardcover]

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Born in Cairo in 1930 to an Italian mother and Maltese father, Lilian Terry has been well-known among European jazz aficionados since the 1950s when she first appeared as a jazz singer. A discography on her website begins with a 1960 recording with trumpeter Nunzio Rotondo and a 1966 album of Burt Bacharach tunes. There were later albums with Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Drew, and others. As a producer of radio shows and TV documentaries for Italian national broadcast (RAI), she has grown a venerable reputation as an elder statesperson of jazz. In the 1980s and 90s, she produced a series of highly popular international jazz concerts throughout Italy, and co-created the “Dizzy Gillespie Popular School of Music” with Gillespie in Bassano. In 2010, she began to assemble her memoir, resulting in Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends: On and Off the Record with Jazz Greats.

Terry seems to have encountered everyone over the decades, but here she chooses to evoke her closest and most memorable friends in jazz -- Duke Ellington, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, Horace Silver, Ray Charles, Bill Evans, and Dizzy Gillespie. She knew Ellington during the final seven years of his life, and was close to Ray Charles for more than 10 years. Charmingly, she builds each chapter as a series of “acts,” a chronology of times spent together. Terry conducted lengthy interviews with many players, some of which are transcribed in these pages. Listening to them must have lit up her memory because she includes many detailed anecdotes as well.

Dizzy.jpgMost of Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends is sweetly appreciative, reflecting her longer relationships and intimacies. She remembers the moment in 1970 when Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach separated. Lincoln tells her, “I’m an ‘eyes wide open’ fool, Lilian. But I can’t believe there’s nothing left between us, after all we’ve lived through together, the political battles, creating our music, loving each other totally … When I think of those horrible years when his mind was shot to hell and he was going down the drain … yet I stayed with him, by his side facing together each stage of the cure … And when he was finally out of the woods, that’s when I broke down and went to pieces in my turn and, would you believe it? Max went on a long international tour … He was strong enough not to need me anymore, but what about me? I needed him. I still do, damn it!”

Her brisk chapter on Evans includes just three acts. First, in the mid-70s, she attends a reception in his honor in Bologna, approaches him courageously, and asks if he would be willing to do an interview the next day. “He gave me a sharp look behind his professorial eyeglasses and a reluctant smile opened on his sober face,” she recalls, “and then he asked if I was free to spend the next day with him until the afternoon sound-check.” The next day, act II, she solicits his opinion of “free jazz and avant-garde jazz.” Evans responds, “To my mind, each one is free to do as he pleases. He can kill, he can steal, and he can vomit inside a microphone if he wishes. But I will not waste my time listening to the frustrations and self-indulgence of any individual … When I’m a listener, I expect the artist to offer the best of his art, his best feelings. I have my own private portion of personal troubles and problems, and they are enough!”

The liveliest conversations here occur with Ray Charles who met up with Lilian several times in Europe between 1968 and 1979. At one point, she asks if he thinks of himself as a jazz musician. He replies, “I did the Genius Pure Soul record and then another one with Milt Jackson called Soul Brothers. But the thing is, I am not a pure anything. I’m not a pure jazz artist or a pure blues singer. I’m one who loves all kinds of music. I’m what they call utility, you know? I’m probably not too good at anything … so if you must give a description of me, it would be nice to say that Ray Charles is a very good entertainer because I like to venture into different avenues of music.”

[Published November 27, 2017, 208 pages, 17 b&w photos, $24.95 paperback]

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