Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Book review: Highway 61 Revisited by Gene Santoro

I was a little leery of picking this book up - Santoro's first book, Myself When I Am Real, an epic biography of Charles Mingus, was dragged down by amateur psychoanalysis that made Mingus into a pitiable, absurd figure. Thankfully this collection of Santoro's shorter magazine pieces is much more concise and even contains a few gems.

While he doesn't completely succeed in his overarching mission of uniting the diverse threads of American music, the vignettes he paints are telling. An interview with Miles Davis from 1988 is particularly interesting. Santoro details Davis' health problems and also talks to him at length about the need to keep the music moving forward and not repeating yourself. He also pulls a great quote form the normally taciturn Davis: "My idea is the you surround yourself with talented people and make them uncomfortable. Then they gotta come up with some shit." Words to live by.

A story on the folk revival of the 1960's told from the perspective of Dave van Ronk made an interesting juxtaposition to Davis. Where Miles wanted to move forward at all cost, van Ronk wanted to preserve the folk past, and looked with skepticism at the songwriters of the era. Tradition vs. innovation is a theme that ties a lot of these stories together, his thoughts on the Ben Burns Jazz documentary are quite interesting - at one end he applauds the act of exposing people to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, while questioning the "talking head" nature of the interview segments and the lack of coverage of modern jazz and fusion at the other.

This is a worthwhile book to check out - Santoro's ideas are well thought out and for the most part impressive. He avoids the streetcorner philosophizing that bogged down the Mingus book and achieves some astute, pithy criticism.

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