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Jazz and its Discontents by Francis Davis

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James Joyce and William Faulkner get “readers,” not jazz journalists. But Francis Davis has earned the stature implicit in his new book’s subtitle, A Francis Davis Reader. He is a literate and witty essayist who speaks with erudition, honesty and passion on his primary subject of jazz.

Davis’ best-known quote is from the introduction to his first book, In the Moment: “Musicians presuppose that all critics are frustrated musicians. That’s incorrect: the good ones are frustrated novelists.” Or, perhaps, poets. Davis’ powers of poetic metaphor are manifest throughout this collection. For example, on Sonny Rollins: “He played ‘Where Are You?’ at the sound check…chipping away at the melody until nothing was left but a luminous, abstract, imperishable paraphrase….”

Davis’ profiles of musicians celebrate the mystery of their creativity coinciding with their vulnerable humanity. His prose eulogy for Lester Young is as poignant as Mingus’ musical lament, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.”

When he engages in advocacy (Roswell Rudd, Charles Gayle) he is never “strident in his enthusiasms” (his just criticism of Amiri Baraka), but balanced and objective and enormously credible. This book is what a “reader” should be: companionable time spent with someone trustworthy and smart who is full of stories that make you laugh or break your heart.