30-Second Jazz, Edited by Dave Gelly (Ivy Press, ISBN 978-178240-309-8). Book review by Peter Jones.
These days, we are told, you can cook a three-course meal, lose a stone in weight or get a rich, all-over tan in less than half an hour. Now, if this new slimline volume is to be believed, you can learn all about jazz in roughly the same amount of time. 30-Second Jazz contains ‘50 crucial concepts, styles and performers, each explained in half a minute’, i.e. a total of 25 minutes. It makes you wonder why you wasted all those years trying to get your head around tritone substitutions and upper structures and modal interchanges.
The concepts are broken down into sub-sections, each handled by a different writer – The Shape of Jazz (including where people play it, how they learn it and the different kinds of bands), written by Brian Priestley; The Styles of Jazz (i.e. the genres), written by Chris Parker; the instruments involved (Priestley); the vocal aspects (Gelly); some Classic Jazz Albums (Charles Alexander); the importance of Blues (Tony Russell); and – given that the convoluted history of jazz takes enough explaining on its own – a quick look at what’s going on nowadays (Kevin LeGendre).
But that’s not all. Each ‘concept’ is broken down into the main text of a couple of hundred words, plus a sidebar containing a capsule definition (‘3-second riff’), and a slightly expanded one (‘3-minute improvisation’). This is a laudable attempt to break an art-form down into bite-sized pieces that anyone can grasp. At times the strain begins to show: I’m not sure I’d be any the wiser on the subject of bebop, here described as ‘a virtuosic, nervily frenetic, often fiercely joyous sound emphasizing artistic individuality and originality, in the process rendering the music more hospitable to polyrhythms and harmonic adventurousness’.
The book is beautifully designed by Ginny Zeal and handsomely illustrated by Steve Rawlings. It’s not going to replace detailed general introductions like John Fordham’s magisterial Jazz, and it doesn’t begin to tackle theory – it just isn’t that sort of book. However, being explicitly intended for non-aficionados, it could be the perfect coffee-table gift for your Auntie Muriel who’s been told you spend a lot of evenings out, either listening to or playing jazz, but has no clue what you’re really up to … unless by chance she was a fan of Roy Castle or George Chisholm when they were in the Black and White Minstrel Show.