This book is so compelling that I got bogged down whilst reviewing it. The musician's stories within are just great and led me to explore their music and online presence. As a series of interviews with jazz musicians, it's unusual to find such a wide variety of artists covered. There are 37 interviews with artists at different stages in their career and from different parts of the Western world, ranging from icons like Sonny Rollins to relative unknowns like (full disclosure!) myself.
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Debbie Burke is an award-winning author of eleven books. Her standing as a jazz writer is illustrated by the ability to include interviews with many musicians she has personally discovered alongside established names. The questions are carefully tailored to each individual but have consistent elements; "Who were some of your favorite people to collaborate with?" Not surprisingly, Sonny Rollins has the best answer; "Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach, among others."
As the introduction says, "Jazz not only builds upon what was but evolves into new art like sunlight seeking crevices." This book throws light on many unexpected places and different types of jazz, and gives equal attention to musicians who are thriving and those who are facing challenges. The result is a rare insight into what makes musicians and music careers tick.
Saxophonist Evan Carydakis summarises the challenges of being a musician today; "finding the time to do it all, from booking tours, speaking to venues, arranging radio and newspaper advertising, having the appropriate levels of insurance, writing new material, releasing and promoting new material, and practicing." Not to mention the grind of keeping up a social media profile, creating high quality visuals and film, and maintaining other sources of income such as teaching. With income from record sales almost disappeared, little or no return from streaming, record companies largely absent from new music and government funding for jazz mostly gone, artists are left to fend for themselves.
It's impressive that so many remain positive and determined. They describe a diversity of local scenes, some quite buoyant but others struggling to pay musicians properly. The challenges of finding viable gigs in a city like Montreal are described by Mehdi Nabti: "the stage is populated by professors who perform in front of students who in turn wish to become professors. The scene has shrunk to become even more closed than before.... tribute concerts have become normal. Those who are not lucky enough to come from a wealthy family to support them financially live on the edge of utter destitution." I've heard similar things said about the current London scene from a fine musician with a 20 year gigging pedigree.
There are some great examples of people finding ways to adapt to these challenges. Singer/songwriter Jessica Magoch has broadened the scope of her album launch party: "We’ll be playing the album and some cover songs and then we’ll be opening up to a live jazz and blues jam." Benny Saxable Rubin Jr. has been doing a lot of street performing. "Playing more popular music of today, widening my audience and my social media followers."
Building a profile is often a "chicken and egg" situation; "Getting gigs today is difficult. You’re always asked about your following, and many times you don’t even get to be heard." But there are always new ways to approach things; Hot Pants de France from Southern California (formed by Sam Kaufmann) release a single every six weeks. "Inspiration is the easy part. It’s seeing things through that is difficult"
The interviews are impressively open and frank; for example Betty Bryant admits "I don’t have much of a voice and I never have had one. I’ve always considered myself an interpreter of songs rather than an actual singer" - none of which has prevented her from getting airplay on over one hundred jazz stations and her 2013 CD iteration+ appeared on JazzWeek’s national charts. Beny Hartgers explains that music is not only about live performance; "I live in Los Angeles but I don't have the time to go to concerts. And for myself, I am not playing live anymore by choice and only want to do studio recording work"
Many artists talk about their musical education; some are self-taught and found this liberating but most appreciate having learned and networked at college. Japanese vocalist Yuko Kawasaki says "I am very glad that I was able to learn the essential elements of jazz performance in a systematic, comprehensive and efficient manner at an American university."
There are plenty of insights into the creative process, both performing and composing. Australia-based percussionist Chloe Kim again took an unusual approach; "Throughout one hundred hours of (continuous) improvised solo drumming, I developed an expanded list of new repertoire and techniques on the instruments"
The effects of the Covid pandemic were not all negative, with many artists describing the benefits of taking time to stand back and develop new ideas. Producer/composer/synth and sax musician Valentino Maltos found recording remotely a revelation; "people do their best work at home where they’re in their comfort zone and can take time to learn the music without the time burdens of a traditional studio."
If you're looking for insights into the current jazz scene, this book is a rare treat and introduced me to a fine array of new music. It's available from Amazon in kindle and paperback formats. Debbie's blog is also well worth reading at: debbieburkeauthor.com.
© Stephen Godsall
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