The Manual Of A Jazz Fan
Subtitled, 'Essays On Modern Jazz', you may expect these pieces to be 'academic '. However, they are anything but. And that's refreshing. They don't try to analyse what Cecil Taylor or John Coltrane do when they take up their respective instruments. There is no attempt to offer in-depth contextualisation or sociological perspectives on the music. Val Wilmer can do that. What Tomens gives us is a fan's guide to how he 'found' jazz and what it feel like to listen to and, above all, enjoy it. And he writes in an intimate and enjoyable way.
Sometimes it feels like being taken into the den of a jazz fan and shown all their dusty favourites, the legends and the lesser feted. One minute he's telling you about Charlie Parker on Dial and what it's like to be a Jazz Completist, all those boxed sets and so little time. The next he's off at a tangent and reviving the brief career of the almost - forgotten Herbie Nichols. Don Ellis gets a mention too. It is full of the enthusiasm of the converted but doesn't set out, not overtly anyway, to convert anyone else. Maybe that will happen in the process of delving into this book. I must admit it made me want to go back and dig out my various Mingus albums because I know they're there to be enjoyed and I haven't listened to them in a while. You can't listen to everything all the time can you ? Right now though, I have those Dial sessions on the player.
The way he introduces his own baptism into jazz intrigued me because it's the way I got there myself, only he did it in the 80s with the MJQ and tentative forays into Rays Jazz and Mole mixed with nights at The Wag club. I did it a decade earlier and came in through the jazz-rock door via Soft Machine. Who cares how you arrive, anyway, but once started you can never shake this music off. It has an archaeology of its own and it's addictive. He conveys that experience throughout.
I also like the way he expresses astonishment that anyone could not love Bird's 1946 sessions which produced perfect little nuggets like 'Yardbird Suite', 'Ornithology' and 'A Night In Tunisia'. I know exactly what he means. At 3 or 4 minutes long they are jazz miniatures, tantalising tasters with tunes that stay in your head. Or is that because when jazz gets to you it means you 're-tune your ears', as he suggests, and you remain on that wavelength for good. You are a fan and hear what those 'outside' can 't. I know people who think stuff like Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio or Miles'around the time of Kind of Blue is tuneless and formless.
One of my favourite essays is 'Eric Dolphy - On The Good Foot'. In this he enthuses about three of my favourite Dolphy recordings, Live At The Five Spot, Outward Bound and Out To Lunch. Dolphy was unique and special, not just a trickster with three instruments, and one of them a weird one at that. Tomens manages to locate and communicate some of this 'specialness' that was often unrecognised, unrewarded or misunderstood in his short life. Miles Davis couldn't see it, though thankfully Coltrane could. Dolphy left the States for Europe where he hoped to find more work. Of course, he died there and Out To Lunch became his big farewell, a musician at the peak of his talents, leaving fans to wonder at what marvels he might have produced to top it. There are no boxed sets with Dolphy's name on.
Another reason I like this book is because Tomens has a decent word for Philip Larkin, the would-be hammer of all things modern in jazz. Actually, the old curmudgeon had a few kind words to say himself on the subject of Eric Dolphy. Look up his piece, 'A Loss To Jazz', where he lends a sympathetic ear to the man who many considered a purveyor of 'anti-jazz'. So why should Larkin get a favourable mention here? Well, because he wrote honestly and subjectively about jazz. He was a fan too who communicated his loves and hates with warmth and venom as each demanded. He was bitten by the bug, albeit of an earlier era than the subjects of this book. That links him and Tomens; they are both opinionated, passionate and enthusiastic. They are also enjoyable to read, whether or not you agree with everything they say.
I don't know if anyone who read Larkin ever bought, or avoided, the albums he wrote about. Similarly, I don't know if anyone who hasn't some interest in jazz will be swayed by this writing. I would like to think that somebody who has been meaning to listen to Albert Ayler but hasn't got around to it yet will be given that final push by the article on him. Whatever, I would recommend it completely as an absorbing, readable addition to any jazz-lover's collection.
© Paul Donnelly 2002
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