Experiencing Big Band Jazz: A Listener’s Companion by Jeff Sultanof

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Rowman and Littlefield $38
In a series of nearly two dozen books on Experiencing different kinds of music, whether Beethoven or Bowie, this volume clearly has the right author for the job. Sultanof is an experienced composer-arranger who has also edited numerous big-band scores for the educational market. His impressive work here comes over as somewhere between a reference guide and a textbook for the musically unlettered but discerning fan, and incorporates the best of both those worlds.

His wide-ranging taste enables him to cover the music chronologically from James Reese Europe to Kenny Wheeler and Kamasi Washington, in a manner not dissimilar from this periodical's occasional series Across The Tracks. For no fewer than 158 recordings, he gives background information and a quick guide to what the listener is actually hearing, with comments (and timings) that might help one hear better. The selection of artists and individual tracks is for the most part obvious, though Sultanof also makes some quirky choices.

Ellington gets 15 listings, including a couple of surprises, while a few things I'd consider essential by other artists are relegated to the Further Listening section. Inevitably, some of the descriptions are more detailed than others, but this usually reflects the amount of intrinsic interest in the actual chart, whereas the performances (which are all referenced to their availability on the internet) are uniformly excellent. The book has a rather bread-and-butter approach to presentation, with no pictures and slightly unhelpful layout, but this barely detracts from the mass of hard information and stimulating insights.

– Brian Priestley