THE JAZZ EAR
By Ben Ratliff. Times Books. 256 pages. $25.
Music lovers dig lists as much as anyone, maybe more.
New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff takes the form to new heights in “The Jazz Ear,” a series of conversations with 15 living legends. Here's the twist: Instead of having them rattle off their Top 10 favorites, he asks artists like Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Hank Jones to select tunes that serve as the undercurrents for their own work. He then sits down with each one to listen to the music together and talk.
The results are as bracing as John Coltrane's recordings at the Village Vanguard.
Along with the conversation, we get mini-bios that add context to the comments. And at the end, Ratliff provides recommended recordings of each artist.
Like any great jazz record, surprises abound. For instance, I wound up with newfound respect for Pat Metheny, whose selections include Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins' “All the Things You Are” from “Sonny Meets Hawk!” and Miles Davis' “Seven Steps to Heaven” from “The Complete Concert 1964: My Funny Valentine + Four & More.”
Like a lot of the best jazz, “The Jazz Ear” is challenging, too. If you're not a trained musician, you won't be able to keep up with every word. But don't let that scare you off; there's enough accessible material for everyday listeners. And who can say they understand everything in every Miles Davis record?
The best way to absorb the book is to read it, download a few of the tunes discussed, then go back to the book and listen along with your own jazz ear, the most important one there is.
Roland Wilkerson is an assistant features editor at the Observer.