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April 2004

Fred Moten
In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition

Those expecting or desirous of a book dealing solely or mainly with music shouldn't even begin reading In the Break. This is a rigorous, multidisciplinary work that requires at least a basic appreciation for and knowledge of African-American history, politics, theory and doctrine. Fred Moten's book examines and explores black performance, the roots of improvisation and what he considers the special qualities and characteristics of African-American art, literature and music in the 21st century. He takes readers on a journey that encompasses Shakespearean sonnets, homoerotic images, texts from Frederick Douglass, elements of Freudian psychology and the compositions of Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor.

Certainly the most charged and anticipated chapter is Moten's update of Amiri Baraka's essay "The Burton Greene Affair," in which Baraka essentially asserted that white pianist Greene's participation in a session with black players was dubious at best, since jazz was not only an African-American art form but one whose growth and vitality depended on its forging an aesthetic at odds with the one from which Greene emerged. Those who share that viewpoint will find Moten's chapter enlightening, as he goes even deeper into a discussion about blackness and its importance as a musical and philosophical concept. Those who rejected the original essay's viewpoint will find the new, expanded edition even more problematic, especially the extensive analysis and ultimate dismissal of the white "hipster" figure.

In the Break presents Moten's case for a black radical tradition while neither apologizing nor backing away from claims he's smart enough to realize will get him labeled a racist by a sizable segment of the white audience. Anyone who wants to reach that conclusion is entitled to do so, but that's a gross oversimplification of his analysis. Fred Moten's offered a primer on black cultural approaches and history that's equal parts intriguing, stimulating, puzzling and debatable.

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