BOOK REVIEW: John Fordham – The Knowledge. Jazz

John Fordham – The Knowledge. Jazz
(Quadrille, £10, 160pp. Book review by Chris Parker)

John Fordham, the longest-serving (and arguably the doyen) of the dailies’ jazz writers, calls jazz ‘the contrarian of contemporary music’, but throughout this beginners’ guide (as in his matchless reviews for the Guardian) he somehow contrives to make even its most ostensibly forbidding and esoteric manifestations sound intriguing, even enticing.This skill is at its most beguiling in his brief introduction, where he sums up his lifelong fascination with the music thus: ‘I fell in love with jazz because it sounded just like life, as it’s lived and improvised from moment to moment: imperfect declarations of wonderment or love, fevers of anguish or anger, cool confidence in a sauntering walk, despondency in the purple tones of a slow blues’.

The Knowledge. Jazz is basically a pocket introduction to the subject (others in a forthcoming series will deal with everything from red wine and opera to the periodic table, whisky and stargazing), and is divided, sensibly enough, into the aforementioned introduction (elegant, deeply personal yet succinctly informative), followed by a brisk but admirably comprehensive history, from Buddy Bolden to Robert Glasper, of jazz’s journey from Storyville to the world’s most prestigious concert venues. It then breaks the subject down into subgenres (early jazz, swing, bebop, mainstream, cool, hard bop, free jazz, fusion and postmodern/eclectic), using thumbnail sketches of each style’s main practitioners to draw out the detail characterising each shift in the music. A final chapter, ‘Jazz in the Future’, bravely sets out to extrapolate contemporary trends, a task Fordham honestly admits is ‘a risky game’, given that ‘young players today can now start at any point on the […] music’s compass, and combine any element of it with any other’. He concludes: ‘New angles on music-making, influenced by jazz intonation and improvisation, but also by the world’s many other lines of musical force, are forming what “jazz” – that quintessential, humanly imperfectible work-in-progress – is always becoming.’

Given the inevitable restrictions (word-count, accessibility), this is a considerable work, engagingly presented, attractively packaged (though the odd reversed-out page is hard to read, particularly ‘Jazz in the Melting Pot’, which sets white type on a light grey background) and cogently argued. There are occasional omissions which some might question (Mike and Kate Westbrook, given that Mike Gibbs and Colin Towns both rate mentions; Andy Sheppard, given that Courtney Pine and Jamie Cullum are both namechecked for their revivifying influence on UK jazz audiences and players), but such choices are always going to be controversial in a book of this size. Overall, though, this slim volume is the answer to that age-old question: ‘Is there a painless way to learn the basics of jazz?’

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1 reply »

  1. Amazing how often 'jazz' critics squander the possibility of precision by talking metaphors rather than music. “I fell in love with jazz because it sounded just like life” Not because it sounded like the different bunch of notes and rhythms that it is, born of historical accident in the US? Poetic metaphor is lazy: what music – classical, folk, rock, funk and all the rest – don't express the human condition?

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