Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Richard V. Duffy - "The Abyss of Jazz"

Richard Duffy is a tenor saxophonist and part-time bigband leader who has recently begun to make a name as a jazz journalist. In this e-book - available through - Duffy professes his love for jazz and offers his insights into what he believes the essence of the music to be.
I confess I found this work to be somewhat difficult to get into at first, for reasons which may tell you as much about me as about the book itself. Duffy's approach is often very "cosmic", and I'm simply not a cosmic kind of fellow. It was only after I belatedly realized that his cosmic musings could be interpreted metaphorically, as a poetic commentary on a poetic music, rather than as a completely objective view, that I stopped fighting the book and began to look forward to reading and enjoying it.
Part of the problem is Duffy's sometimes unorthodox use of language (at least unorthodox to me). The very title of the book, The Abyss of Jazz, strikes me as negative, whereas Duffy is actually using the word "abyss" in a positive sense. I suppose I'm a victim of my religious upbringing, but to me, the word conjures up images of Satan being thrown into the bottomless pit. Duffy does indeed use the word to mean bottomless, but in the sense of never-ending, knowing no bounds. (For the record, my Webster's New Collegiate lists multiple meanings for the word "abyss" - "the bottomless gulf . . . or chaos," but also "intellectual or spiritual profundity"; the latter is what Duffy intends.) Another favorite word is "abode". To me, an "abode" (noun) is a dwelling, a place of residence. For Duffy, "abode" is a verb. I at first took it to mean "abound," though he also uses that word. Rather, by "abode", he seems to mean "abide", past or present tense, in the usual sense of "stay" or "continue", but also "to live within", which relates to the dictionary definition of "abode". It is one of Duffy's talents that after he uses it as a verb a few times, it seems like the natural, proper word.
There are, however, words that are just plain wrong.
(Is there such a word as "infectiside" and, if so, is it indeed a verb?) Some of them are clearly typos which should have been fixed by an alert proofreader.(Billie Holiday's audience bulged "at the seems", for example.) He falleth into Biblical language at times, and uses capital letters and exclamation points to drive a point home. The academic in me would prefer the prose to be less purple, but there is a poetic resonance to much of it that eventually won me over. After all, the main topics of his discourse are inspiration and artistic genius. Can one effectively account for such nebulous concepts in conventional, earthbound phraseology? In this light, all this talk about "cosmic dust" can be accepted as a subjective way to explain the inexplicable.
Duffy's purpose, then, is to celebrate jazz as the most creative form of musical expression, and to revel in the genius of its most praiseworthy architects and executants (to use his words). One of the highlights of his life, a chance to jam with a number of musicians in pre-Katrina New Orleans, is told in loving detail. The book was written before the Hurricane; it's sad to think that experiences such as this may never happen quite this way again. There are occasional historical inaccuracies which pop up in reading the book. For instance, what possible connection could the ODJB (who recorded in 1917) have to reggae (which developed in the late 1960's)? (Unless "reggae" is a typo for "raggy".)
He offers what he considers to be a "universal definition" of jazz. However, as I read it, it could just as easily fit the Grateful Dead, Ali Akbar Khan, and anyone else who uses improvisation as a means to reach a transcendantal state. Perhaps jazz fits his definition, but it is by no means the only musical idiom to do so. In my opinion, so many varied styles of music have come to be accepted as "jazz" that at this late date it has become impossible to define it. I do not consider this to be a bad thing. Nevertheless, his effort to define the indefinable is a valiant one.
He devotes much of the book to the examination in capsule form (about a half-dozen pages per) of the lives and accomplishments of a number of jazz greats, beginning with Louis Armstrong, though most of the book is devoted to his beloved bebop. Indeed, it is in the bop portraits, and in the chapters devoted to the big bands, that he shares his most cogent insights. The chapter devoted to his personal hero, Dexter Gordon, is a joy to read. And since his experiences as a big band leader have obviously brought him a great deal of personal satisfaction, he is able to communicate the joys not only of playing with and leading his own bands, but the joys of listening to his role models (Basie, Herman, Kenton) as well.
The artists chosen for coverage are all highly significant contributors, but there is no one here who emerged in the last 50 years. The most recent artists are Miles and Mulligan. Coltrane is very briefly mentioned, while Ornette Coleman is absent. This is, of course, entirely Duffy's prerogative. But it would seem to me that there have been a great many musicians who have emerged in the past fifty years who could illustrate his concepts of universality, intensity, and improvisational integrity.
I might also have preferred less biographical sketching in favor of a more detailed application of his opening thesis. How exactly do the artists he profiles illustrate his concepts? He comes close to telling us on a number of occasions, but it only whets the appetite for more analysis. Perhaps in his next book, he might dispense with individual artist profiles and sustain a book-length examination of his thesis as an extended think-piece. As if to tempt us in that direction, he includes a chapter entitled "Philosophy of Being a Musician", which explores the concepts of cosmic energy and intellect, and their connection to the creative impulses within a musician and to the "truth" of music. One is free to agree or disagree with his interpretations, but they are worth pondering nonetheless.
Despite its problems, there is a great deal here that is worth reading. At the price of printed and bound books these days, this 159-page e-book is certainly worth $4.95, as well as your time and effort.


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