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The Jazz Standards: a Guide to the Repertoire, By Ted Gioia. Oxford, £25

 

Apart from his elegant prose style, the first thing you notice about Ted Gioia's approach to his subject is that the music clearly gives him no end of pleasure. That might seem an obvious point, except that anyone familiar with jazz criticism will know that the Californian is actually something of a rarity. Many of his peers tend to be either stamp collectors or commissars. The former are hoarders of arcane detail; the latter more interested in maintaining the purity of the art form by dispatching imaginary enemies.

As long ago as the 1980s, when he published that slim, quizzical volume, The Imperfect Art, Gioia stood out as an observer who, as a working pianist himself, possessed a rare insider's authority. A bold attempt to summarise the core repertoire, The Jazz Standards is full of characteristic touches. The witty anecdotes and terse analysis shed light on more than 250 songs, beginning with "After You've Gone" and ending with "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To". Gioia writes about evergreens with the quiet passion of someone who has laboured as a journeyman armed with a so-called "fake book", one of those samizdat-style guides to the melody and chords of classic songs.

He wears his learning lightly, scattering tantalising fragments of autobiography. Those of us who live in his shadow can be forgiven for groaning when we discover that the teenage Gioia learned to play the chromatic harmonica well enough to hold his own on a bandstand. More groans follow when we discover that he once played the bossa nova classic "Desafinado" with Stan Getz. Gioia has paid his dues.

That the book's source material dries up in the 1960s raises painful questions for a school of music that celebrates "the sound of surprise". Jazz isn't alone in that, of course. How many classical pieces have genuinely earned a place in the repertoire in the past half-century? Lots of soloists are writing original material, but virtually none of their colleagues seem to play them. As Gioia demonstrates so eloquently, jazz has plenty of tradition to feed on. But is the past nourishment enough?

 

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