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The Playboy Guide to Jazz by Neil Tesser

In Neil Tesser’s excellent new book, The Playboy Guide to Jazz, the veteran jazz writer-the jazz voice at Playboy, and a contributor to these pages and elsewhere-takes on a complex task, and pulls it off dashingly. Here we have a user-friendly reference book serving as a handy tour guide for both the jazz novice and the more committed aficionado, structured around Tesser’s of 50 essential CDs covering the history of jazz, as well as supplemental info on relevant other available titles.

But, beyond its value as a consumer guide, the book also doubles as a concise, well-spoken history lesson, in which Tesser lucidly traces the sweeping landscape of jazz’ evolution, from Jelly Roll Morton to John Scofield, covering a myriad of bases in between. To boot, the book is a good contiguous read, from beginning to end.

As jazz critics go, Tesser is more open-minded than most, which makes this volume especially useful and free of hidden agendas. He goes out of his way to debunk myths, and to cast doubt on the kind of accepted wisdoms which he calls “useful lies.”

It’s true that Tesser reveals his own biases-for instance, a general aversion to most of fusion and plugged-in music in general-but, overall, he supplies a refreshingly even-handed overview.

For example, Tesser champions the critical re-inventions and experimentation put forth in various avant garde efforts-however marginal or misunderstood. He writes: “Revisionist commentators and historians would attempt to bury free jazz entirely, characterizing it as a cul-de-sac in the evolution of jazz, and pointing to its failure to win converts among musicians and listeners. But anyone looking at the music of the sixties can find evidence to the contrary.”

Understandably, this view runs contrary of Wynton Marsalis’ more myopic, purist preachments, but the author doesn’t let his reasoning mind get in the way of appreciation for Marsalis’ artistic achievements.

What Tesser has turned out is not only a readable volume, but a valuable new entry to the bulging jazz reference bookshelf. Entered either piecemeal, through the index, or via Tesser’s smooth linear flow of text, The Playboy Guide to Jazz does a great service to the evolving world of music it represents.

Originally Published