The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz
Mr. Ratliff’s choice from the late discography of Billie Holiday is bold, necessary, and perfectly well reasoned. Songs for Distingué Lovers is as autumnal career recording for Lady Day, committed to media a mere two years before her death. The obvious challenger to this disc would be Lady in Satin, Holiday’s last formally released recording. But in his well-reasoned way, Mr. Ratliff defends Songs for Distingué Lovers and places Lady In Satin in its appropriate conflicted context,
To me, the cult of eleventh-hour Holiday makes sense only through the more ghoulish instincts of the jazz audience. Don’t misunderstand: there is nothing ethically wrong in liking Lady in Satin, her final studio work. She made it; she released it; she was an artist, and she controlled her image. But if it’s a religious experience, it’s a bomb-blasted cathedral. It’s depressing.
The Miles Davis catalog is very well represented. No less than five entries in the top one hundred and two in the anti-knee jerk list at the end of the book. None are real surprises. Miles Ahead is included (rather than Sketches of Spain ), Get Up With It (Rather than We Want Miles ). Gleefully included is the veiled bootleg released on the Swedish Dragon Label, Miles Davis with John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt—Stockholm 1960, Complete. This release, recorded March 22, 1960, documents a hinge in jazz history where Davis was dynamically continuing his transition from the first great quintet to Kind of Blue to his second great quintet. It would not be a totally painless growth experience. It is also the time that John Coltrane would blast off and begin his equivalent of Der Ring Des Nibelungen. After leaving Davis on this tour, Coltrane would commit "My Favorite Things" to tape for the first time, October 21, 1960.
It is in his essay on the Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1969, where Ratliff explains the importance of Miles Davis,
How ironic, then, that it’s Plugged Nickel —with rabbity shifts in dynamics, the deconstruction of durable old melodies, the tempo shifting, the reharmonizing performed on the fly—that you hear in an overwhelming majority of jazz groups in 2002...
...Davis specialized in making templates and then moving on as soon as they became fixed styles. How we need him to change the rules, when this particular template still dictates to us so imperiously.
Most important to me as a reader of music criticism is that it is thought provoking, well reasoned, and original. Mr. Ratliff accomplishes all in this book with an urbane, gentle style that is easy on the eyes (and psyche). This is the best book on the art of jazz I've found this year.