Book review: ‘The Power of Jazz: Photography by John Watson’

Henry Grimes. Photo (c) John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

‘The Power of Jazz: Photography by John Watson’
(Blurb, 2011, 110 pages, 20 x 24cm, Bookeview by Geoff Winston)

John Watson captures his musician subjects with an alert and sensitive eye. A practicing musician himself, his early journalist’s career became increasingly focused on his jazz photography which, because of his passion for the music, has taken him to leading venues in New York, London, Birmingham, and way beyond, to photograph many of its leading exponents.

In the second edition of his book, ‘The Power of Jazz’, Watson takes the reader through images loosely arranged by the instruments played – a section on keyboards has Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, on one double page spread, in relaxed and concentrated modes, respectively – and ends with sections on big bands and the filming of live concerts.

Watson gets remarkably close to his subjects without any evidence of being intrusive, and skilfully – and deceptively effortlessly – captures something of the essence of each of their personalities, stage personas and technical approaches.

Carla Bley: Photo (c) John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

There are many excellent shots which stand up on their own as portraits, as well as records of an event. It is worth noting, too, that Watson, in his pursuit of the honestly envisioned image, resolutely eschews computer manipulation of his photographs, so this portfolio is all ‘live and direct’ from the camera. These include: a trio of stunningly stark, elegant photos of Carla Bley (above); a sequence showing the octogenarian Sonny Rollins in full flow at the London Jazz Festival; a moment of laughter with Carol Sudhalter at the canalside; a thoughtful, pensive Arve Henriksen; an enigmatic monochrome portrait of Tomasz Stanko; a razor sharp Pat Martino; and Stan Tracey beautifully captured with a half glance at Watson. There is a lovely spread, in black-and-white with Stanley Clarke on upright bass, looking a touch like Mingus, complemented by a haunting image of Henry Grimes (top image), head tucked behind the fretboard, caught with a look that is half-way between an assertive twinkle and deep poignancy, a window to the soul, perhaps.
Watson ends with a summary of his career and philosophy, but it is disappointing, however, that there is no index of the specific dates and venues for each photo, nor reference to the musicians featured in the more abstract images early in the book, and, like the recent Penguin Jazz Guide, without a general index, selective navigation is not possible.

That aside, the images themselves are the main protagonists of this book, and they reward repeated viewing. Watson has received recognition at New York’s prestigious JJA Jazz Awards: he was nominated this year for Jazz Photo of the Year for his photo of Carla Bley (above) and last year for one of Sonny Rollins. As a body of work, Watson’s portfolio is a valuable and personal record of some key figures in recent jazz which the London jazz community will surely appreciate.

Cover Illustration of Charles Lloyd
Photo (c) John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

John Watson’s website.

Copies of the book are available from www.blurb.com/bookstore

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