It's all corn on speed

Sound Off (a book of Jazz)
, Stephen Bett
(118pp, Thistledown Press)

So, Stephen Bett has been influenced by 'the counter tradition of Black Mountain, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the New York School (1st and 2nd generations), and how that played out in Canada with the TISH poets, and beyond.'   Who'd've thought there was anything left beyond after that lot?  And, yes, Bett lives in Vancouver.

Question: But, how do these influences manifest themselves?

Answer: In a paring down of language to its barest minimum to convey the sense of his emotional responses to the music of seventy-eight alphabetically presented US and European jazz musicians, and the odd band... of course.

Bett has even thoughtfully split them up into four sections, representing the four sides of a double album. Clever stuff!

The first 'side', subtitled 'open us up', starts with John Abercrombie and continues from there, reeling off a roll-call of largely contemporary jazzers, most you'll have heard of, others not. At first there are a few pieces that could easily have set the tone for the whole collection... i.e. sycophantic brown-nosing (yes, he has sent some of the musicians 'their' poems).  Fortunately, though, by the eighth piece, half way through this first 'side', there's something of a feint negativity starting to appear by the time it's Paul Bley's turn to be minimalised:

   Never been into him

   Even when stroking
   the peacock,
   rolling in

   OK, we get it

   ...& nah

           [from 'Paul Bley']

The peacock and the motian do, of course, refer to Gary and Paul. But, it's Bley, himself, who's the undefined problem for Bett. Still, at least it's honest, even if that then leaves me wondering if there was any real benefit to be had from including it, beyond making clever cryptic references or, simply, just to provide an extra bit of name-dropping. All this is equally true of Lenny Breau, the only other piece on the first 'side' that gives its subject a bit of a kicking.  Though, I suppose two out of fourteen isn't too bad.

'Side' two... (bring it)... Chick Corea gets a slagging... Miles Davis' career erroneously, '...started so very / long ago kind / of blue'... and things being 'tr¸s
nice' and 'tr¸s cool' while all the time being completely trop... and, really, quite a lot of the rest is clichˇ, right down to Jan Garbarek being 'Nordic / icy / glacial', and crass little in-joke references... and then an arse-lick for Keith Jarrett, just to round things off.  I'd been hoping for something better than this... never judge a book by its cover-notes... Oh, God!  Still another two sides to go!

Here goes... 'Side' three... (not zen)... no, definitely not zen, but, with it, a limerick... yes, a limerick! How un-zen can this guy get?

   There was a young jazzer from Norge
   Who stood still at the end of a gorge
   But when he hit a hi C
   He sound (sic) a bit like a flea
   Nailing notes in an empty old forge

              [from 'Lage Lund Quartet']

Classic!  (Not!)  And to think Bett has the gall to call John McLaughlin '...just another / New Agey? / over the hilly?', while any jazzers under a certain age are referred to in the patronising tones of someone more used to pipe and slippers at the fireside. What's he on? I want some.

The final 'side', (live alone) only brings me the pleasure of knowing it's the last.  This is the place where 'Funk meets almost at flamenco / meets wah wah pop / a strange, but neck- / gripping hybrid'.  It is the place for 'Seriously whimsical / composition'. This is the place where the term 'Nordic' can be so confusing for a Canadian struggling to locate Sweden. This is the place where, at least, Bett got Trevor Watts right...

   Marvellous. Frickin'
   amazing. Joyful.
   Mesmerising & full
   to the last drop.

               [from 'Trevor Watts']

So, finally, having survived all four sides of what has so often seemed genuinely like 'it's all corn / on speed', it's time to sit back, relieved, and ponder on why I've just received it for review now, half way through 2015, although it was published way back in 2013. Actually, now I think about it, it doesn't matter, because, whatever the reason, it's good news as it means that you should be able to pick up a copy in your local remainders book shop by now. Or my copy from Barnardo's tomorrow. That's always assuming you'd be willing to give it shelf-space.

     © John Mingay 2015