All that jazz

New York Times critic Ben Ratliff waxes essential

To mainstream culture, jazz is seen as an antiquated genre, a daunting monolith that serves primarily as background music for commercials. (Never mind the racist undercurrent that informs these perceptions.)

So, if you're going to have it sorted out, you need a good guide. Enter Ben Ratliff, who's spent six years as a The New York Times music critic and now offers The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz (Times Books, 272 pages, $16).

Even if you're put off by journalism's Gray Lady, Ratliff's expertise and commitment can't be denied. He draws in references from all ends of culture, provides history, poignant observations and descriptions and manages to stay his ground with unorthodox opinions.

That's not to say that his methods are foolproof. Ratliff takes a clever tact by not only spelling out his 100 favorite selections chronologically (instead of a countdown) but by also providing a second list of 100 albums for follow-ups. As interesting and commendable as most of the choices are, anyone but a jazz novice will find fault with the omissions. Given my own post-war bias, I would've added Abdullah Ibrahim, George Russell, Carla Bley and Arthur Blythe, among others. And though Ratliff is much more thorough than Ken Burns in his Jazz documentary, some might wish he had more room in his heart beyond token choices from Euro-jazz and the New York loft scene of the '70s, not to mention the stars of the current NYC scene (e.g., David S. Ware, William Parker). His un-annotated listing of the second 100 albums actually has many tantalizing choices that deserve star treatment: Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Slim Gaillard, Lee Morgan, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy and John Zorn, to name a few.

But the quality of what is included is so high that you want to see more of it. Ratliff goes to great lengths to explain why he chose what he did. Warts-and-all records from Billie Holliday and Art Pepper get the nod partially because of what their imperfections reveal. An Abbey Lincoln album helped spark a press debate, which helps warrant its recognition. A second-tier '60s album from McCoy Tyner is chosen because it represents the small-combo jazz of the time. A Keith Jarrett pick isn't necessarily his best album, but it is the best intro to the artist. As such, the cream of the crop isn't the point here so much as getting an effective overview of the music itself.

That same impulse to draw broad strokes around the music while also focusing on noteworthy corners of it leads Ratliff to create wonderful little details and descriptions about his subjects. He makes plausible comparisons between his subjects and pop figures like Madonna, the Sex Pistols, Prince, Mick Jagger and the Grateful Dead, as well as highbrow icons T.S. Eliot, Stravinsky, Francis Bacon and others. (In one great example, he associates the loud/soft shifts of Ahmad Jamal with the same quality in Nirvana's music.)

Historical details also provide embellishment. We read about the World War II shortages that killed big bands, and how jazz became a college favorite in the '50s. Ratliff also takes the time to single out great unsung sidemen such as pianist Dick Twardzik, saxophonist Lee Konitz and cellist Joel Freedman. And he laces his narratives with memorable musical descriptions: Lennie Tristano's piano lines resemble cobras, while Roy Haynes' drumming is like a hipster's walk.

Yet he still finds himself at odds with some of jazz's orthodoxy: Coltrane's classic Giant Steps is "too formal"; Miles Davis' immortal Kind of Blue should be listened to for its shortcomings and strengths. And while Pat Metheny and Wynton Marsalis may appeal to a mainstream audience, Ratliff refuses to wholly bash them for crossing over. Also refreshing is his underlying theme that high art and pop culture shouldn't be exclusive, citing the careers of Jason Moran, Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson.

If there's a real problem with The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz, it's that you'll likely find yourself hungering for more. Not only was I tempted to run out and buy a pile of the records I didn't have, but also I craved more descriptions, more albums, more artists. Come to think of it, Ratliff's ultimate achievement may be drawing in the readers to the point where they want to explore even more.