Whew. A non-academic book about jazz that references Rimbaud, Schopenhauer, Brahms, Proust, Faure...Larry Kart, author of Jazz in Search of Itself is not interested in dumbing down. I like that. I also like the interviews, the history he lays down and the scope of the music he talks about. And yet...
The philosophical foundation of the book is that jazz is a medium for storytelling and it must be the story of the player-nothing second hand (revivalist) allowed. Kart believes that the capacity of jazz to deliver music completely reflective of its practitioner is what marks it as unique and is the touchstone for assessing the player's contribution. Fair enough. But he takes it a step further.
"We love Ben Webster and Don Byas, Buck Clayton and Bobby Hackett, not just because their music was beautiful in the abstract sense, but also because it told their [his emphasis] stories, revealing something essential about the kind of men they were."
"From the time he made his first recordings...Stan Getz has been writing an autobiography in sound...And the path traced by this sonic quest may be the best evidence we have of who Stan Getz was and is."
His idee fixe simmering in the background makes Kart overreach in his analyses. He wants to both quantify and personify the playing and the jackets he tries to put on musicians fit too tightly.
Yes, Sonny Rollins often provides his own commentary in a meta way, but can you say "No statement is allowed to rest unqualified by [Rollins] for more than a few measures..."?
Were Hank Mobley's decisions "always ad hoc.. "? Will Mobley truly "not sum up his harmonic, rhythmic and timbral virtues and allow any one element to dominate for long"?
Perhaps Tina Brooks did have an "airy, keening, often speechlike approach to the horn," but is it true that it "instantly identified Brooks as one of those musicians for whom feeling and sound were one."[Are there musicians for whom it is separate?] And yes, perhaps his playing was sometimes "melancholic," but it's hard for me to buy that it "seems to have predicted that [his] time with us would be brief."
Is there a linkage between the "emotional language" and the person using or creating it? Well, yes, but in the same general sense that you are what you eat. But, to the degree that an improvised performance reflects life, it must reflect changing moods and circumstances. There's something self-contradictory about thinking that the music is the man and then trying to capture it in freeze frame-like characterizations. I can find ample playing by Rollins that is simply straightforward, plenty of Mobley solos with something other than ad hoc decisions and moments in Tina Brooks' playing that demonstrate a carefree joie de vivre.
This may represent an inherent limitation of criticism. You can describe the playing, you can quote and give your impressions of the player, but to overdraw comparisons between the player and the playing is, in the end, reductionist.
All of this said, mark me down as an admirer of Larry Kart. Unlike many jazz writers, he listens hard, takes risks and when he hits the mark, it's great stuff. I just think he wants to be a little too much of a myth-maker.