Jazz in Search of Itself by Larry Kart

Chicago critic Larry Kart’s new book combines history, biography, analysis and musical examination while assessing figures from every period of jazz history. Kart frequently does his best work on overlooked or underrated artists, and his essays on Tina Brooks, Hank Mobley, Arthur Rollini, Herbie Nichols and Evan Parker are most welcome. But even when chronicling innovators whose lives are the subject of numerous volumes like Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, Kart wisely opts for either responding to previously published viewpoints (a first-rate dismissal of James Lincoln Collier’s Louis Armstrong: An American Genius) or covering specific eras and periods (The 10-LP box set Billie Holiday on Verve). This approach spares knowledgeable fans from wading through reams of familiar information and puts the focus squarely on Kart’s views and ideas rather than recycling other writers’ research.

Among the book’s nine chapters, personal favorites include the lengthy (126 of the book’s 342 pages) section titled “Moderns and After,” which includes incisive critiques of Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, plus Oscar Peterson and Wayne Shorter. Kart also includes comparison/joint evaluation essays in this portion, the best of them a point/counterpoint look at Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Blue Mitchell using their albums Caramba!, Slow Drag and Heads Up as a foundation.

The book’s only misstep is the “The Neo-Con Game” chapter. The writing remains just as sharp, intelligent and mostly astute as in the other essays, but the subject matter has been overdone in the jazz press. The most spicy material here is an addendum Kart affixes to his original “The Marsalis Brothers Further On” essay essentially dubbing Wynton Marsalis a contemporary Paul Whiteman.