Book reviews

Judy Carmichael – ‘great inspirations – 22 years of “Jazz Inspired” on NPR’

Judy Carmichael – great inspirations 22 years of jazz inspired on npr

(C&D Productions, pp480. $25/£21. Book Review by Jon Turney)

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Around the turn of the millennium, pianist Judy Carmichael had the idea for a radio show that would cast new light on the arts by asking practitioners – musicians, but also actors, animators, architects, and writers – about jazz as a creative inspiration. Her new book presents forty-odd of her favourite encounters since her self-produced show began airing on National Public Radio stations in the US in 2000.

They cover a wide range of artists (and one scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson), some mainly known in the US, a few – Glenn Close, Roger Corman – globally renowned. There’s a fair sprinkling of musicians in the mix, including Alan Broadbent, Bela Fleck, Scott Hamilton, Fred Hersch, Arturo O’Farrill and, yes, Marian McPartland, her fellow pianist and predecessor as host of a long-running radio show.

These conversations tend to be more straightforward muso-to-muso chats, and while mostly quite interesting show a slightly higher incidence of extended mutual admiration, which is lovely but less informative.

Wider reflections come from other creative folk. They appear alphabetically, so the Gs, for instance, are Frank Gehry, Jeff Goldblum, Gil Goldstein and Christopher Guest, which gives a fair idea of the mix. It’s an impressive roster and most, prompted knowledgeably and with good humour by Carmichael, have appealing things to say. Gehry’s musings on how to imagine the way people will experience new architecture, for instance, seem to validate Carmichael’s premise that jazz is good to think with:

“When you go into a building that’s strange for the first time, you need some kind of emotional handrail. So I give people that basic thing in some form or another. And then they can play off the beat. Then they can do their own readings and become part of it. And you do the same thing when you play jazz. You give them a tune that’s recognizable and improvise from that.”

There aren’t a vast number of moments like that, but they are worth waiting for. Her subjects reflect on improvisation as the key attribute of jazz, as it may be of stand-up comedy, and on the importance of listening, crucial for ensemble acting. Some have made art that aspires to emulate jazz riffs-and-variations, as E.L. Doctorow did in his novel City of God. Others have interesting formative moments to relate, as when we learn that Billy Joel once had lessons with Lennie Tristano. And all evince a great love for jazz in many forms, though most often for Bill Evans, representing a particular artistic ideal – he could consistently create things that were improvised on the spot but sounded perfectly formed.

Altogether a very agreeable collection, to dip into perhaps rather than read through in one go. I wouldn’t say any great thesis emerges except Carmichael’s happily ingenuous urging that jazz is really cool and that we can tell that because all these really cool people find it life-enhancing. Can’t argue with that.

Judy Carmichael. Publicity photo supplied

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol.  Twitter:

JUDY CARMICHAEL has two UK dates in early 2023:

  • January 13 Watermans Performing Arts Centre, Brentford – BOOKINGS
  • January 14 Chichester Festival Theatre, Minerva Theatre

LINKS: Jazz Inspired website

great inspirations at Amazon

“I’m crazy about England!” LJN feature from 2013.

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