Searle begins this work with an entertaining account of his introductory jazz learning experiences in the UK and then states his main purpose in writing this work: to show “brilliant jazz performances….(that) sometimes very obviously, and other times less obviously, allude to a real and specific situation in social or political history that shows how the music can never be divided from its circumstances, and the real world which produced it.” Searle spends the rest of the book chronicling such performances. The book should be read by anyone who believes that jazz is primarily motivated by technical musical mastery; Searle’s work serves as an excellent devil’s advocate’s survey against such a view. He describes many musical performances vividly despite stating that he has little technical understanding of music, and his best passages drove me to re-listen to some of the records he describes.
North American readers will particularly also benefit from his extensive discussion of jazz’s role in apartheid South Africa and, to a lesser extent, as commentary on events in the UK. Searle, however, does not overcome a tautological problem, the book values performances that meet Searle’s clearly stated criteria more than those that don’t. Searle does not directly claim that Coltrane’s “Alabama” or Africa/Brass is better or more valuable than, for example, A Love Supreme, but performances that fit his claim are discussed while performances that stand outside of it are mostly ignored. This also skews his coverage of artists towards those serving the criteria; Archie Shepp is given a good deal of space while Dexter Gordon is mentioned only once in passing. The choice of performances seems also slanted toward Searle’s political views; performances that honor the Cuban revolution are glowingly discussed while the views and music of Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval that are opposed to the Castro government are ignored. However, one cannot fault Searle too much for emphasizing what he stated he would emphasize from the onset, and those jazz lovers who have spent more time on technical aspects of the music may very well benefit from reading this book.