Die-hard critic reflects on jazz's era of `refinement'

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Rhythm-a-Ning -- Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the '80s, by Gary Giddins. New York: Oxford University Press. 320 pp. $17.95. Gary Giddins, jazz critic of The Village Voice and author of ``Riding on a Blue Note'' (Oxford University Press, 1981), has come up with a second stimulating and engrossing book of essays on jazz. In ``Rhythm-a-Ning'' (borrowed from a song title by Thelonious Monk), he focuses on jazz of the '80s, painting a pretty clear picture of what is going on with the music, and why. He points out, accurately I believe, that this is not a time of ground-breaking innovation in jazz -- instead, it's a time of refine ment and eclecticism, in which up-and-coming jazz musicians are feeding off tradition, refining and redefining it. Jazz composition has come to the fore in the '80s, and the train-wreck free bag and hour-long narcissistic improvised solos of the '60s are being traded in for a generally more structured approach.

To make his point, Giddins has put together a series of record reviews, analyses of live performances, and histories of musicians who are either making strong statements in jazz now, or who have contributed to the wealth of musical inspiration on which today's younger players are drawing. He covers a lot of ground, and the bag of musicians he writes about is just as mixed as today's jazz. To name just a few: Sonny Rollins, Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Cyrille, Miles Davis, Arthur Blythe, Alex Schlippenbach, Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Birele Lagrene, Wynton Marsalis, Illinois Jacquet, Carmen McRae, the World Saxophone Quartet, and even Frank Sinatra.

This is no layman's book, and it's not a jazz primer. It demands plenty of the reader, but anyone with a knowledge of jazz will appreciate Giddins's insightful observations, whether or not they agree with him. His prose is intelligent, probing, and often hilarious. He spares no one (there's a six-page chapter, ``Chilled Classics and the Real Thing,'' that mercilessly trashes Linda Ronstadt's ``What's New'' album), but he also gives plenty of credit where it's due, without being soppy about it, in war m homages to talents as diverse as modernist David Murray and veteran Illinois Jacquet.

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It took me a while to warm up to the concept of the previously-published-record-review-in-book-form (the ones in ``Rhythm-a-Ning'' ran in The Village Voice from 1978 to 1984), but as I continued to read, I found myself intrigued on several levels. First of all, not only was my curiosity aroused about the records I haven't heard, but I felt inclined to reexamine the ones I have heard, whether or not I tended to concur with Giddins's assessment of them. I can only attribute this to his descriptive a nd analytic charisma. In several instances it was enlightening to see how quickly Giddins's reviews have become dated as the artists in question have matured and changed.

Giddins establishes himself as a die-hard champion of jazz with the following provocative bits: ``The Pulitzer Committee has never recognized a jazz composer (the jurors who voted unanimously to award Ellington, in 1965, were overruled by the Advisory Committee)''; ``Jazz orchestras can and should be maintained in the same houses and by the same boards of directors that conserve philharmonic orchestras . . . ''; ``Woody Herman, who . . . is the youngest of the Swing Era pioneers and the last still commi tted to the road, taped a TV ad for dentures to help finance his orchestra for another year.''

My main criticism for ``Rhythm-a-Ning''? too many typographical errors -- far too many. Shame on Oxford!

Amy Duncan is the Monitor's jazz critic.

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