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December 2003

Gene Lees
Friends Along the Way: A Journey Through Jazz

Gene Lees' eighth collection of profiles does pretty much what the previous seven did: allow disparate figures from the music world to relate their own stories. The form may offer few surprises, but Lees-now that Whitney Balliett seems to have all but retired-reigns as the master of the genre. As attuned to the underrecongnized as he is to A-list artists, this stalwart writer-lyricist has a special affinity for music's indispensable foot soldiers and behind-the-scenes craftspeople. While giving space to such major artists as Ray Brown, arranger Claus Ogermann and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, Lees also focuses attention on such less-trumpeted figures as trombonist Milt Bernhart, pianists Junior Mance, John Bunch and Lou Levy and multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson. Casting a wide net, Lees finds room for jazz radio personality Willis Conover, the classical violinist Yue Deng, and Hollywood composer and orchestrater Hugo Friedhofer.

Weaving in voices of related musicians and acquaintances throughout, Lees draws a complete picture in a compact space, skillfully balancing the personal and the musical. (Read together, his Brown and Thompson profiles provide a sharp-eyed take on the state of the jazz bass over the past half-century.) Lees never lets you forget that he's buddies with most of his subjects, but this familiarity affords him a unique angle of perspective, allowing him to probe into areas that may have been off limits for others. His emotional proximity consistently awards his worthy artists the dignity they deserve.

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