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Larry Kart: Jazz’s Intrepid Critical Searcher

Reflections on one of the music's leading critics.

Larry KartAround this joint we are big fans of the jazz writer Larry Kart and his book, Jazz in Search of Itself. As I’ve noted in our store section, Kart, who worked at Downbeat and was a longtime reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, “is not just a good critic–he’s a very good writer, whether he’s discussing Wynton Marsalis and the so-called ‘neocon’ musicians, Lennie Tristano, American popular song, or the relationship of jazz to Jack Kerouac’s literary endeavors. A high intelligence is at work here, combined with the sense of some time spent in the street, reflecting on life and art. Reading his essays makes you hear more, too, as he lights upon details of music that more casual listeners might miss, and renders them with a lean, precise, poetic prose–eschewing the sort of vague flimflam that lesser scribes tend to fall back on. Those in search of jazz would be hard-pressed to find a better guide than Mr. Kart.”

To elaborate a bit on the above, it might be best simply to quote a brief description from one of the book’s chapters, a review of tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley’s Blue Note album Poppin’:

On the title track, Mobley’s second eight-bar exchange with (Philly Joe) Jones is one of the tenorman’s perfect microcosms, an example of how prodigal his inventiveness could be. A remarkable series of ideas, mostly rhythmic ones, are produced (one almost might say squandered) in approximately nine seconds. Both the relation of his accented notes to the beat and the overall pattern they form are dazzlingly oblique, and the final, whiplike descent is typically paradoxical, the tone becoming softer and more dusty as the rhythmic content increases in urgency. In effect we are hearing a soloist and a rhythm player exchange roles, as Mobley turns his tenor saxophone into a drum.

Jazz in Search of Itself is strewn with hundreds of similar passages–finely-wrought examinations that leave one with the sense that Kart possesses not just intellectual rigor and honesty, but also a genuine pleasure in the presence of aesthetic success. He follows the above with an analysis of a Mobley solo that provides a key to the saxophonist’s musical personality:

Mobley’s solo is a single, sweeping gesture, with each chorus linked surely to the next as though, with his final goal in view, he can proceed toward it in large, steady strides. And yet even here, as Mobley moves into a realm of freedom any musician would envy, one can feel the pressure of fate at his heels, the pathos of solved problems, and the force that compels him to abandon this newly cleared ground.

Here’s Kart on pianist Earl Hines:

…one of the secrets of Hines’s style was his ability to infuse entire solos with the break feeling. In a typical chorus he would outline the beat with oblique, stabbing left-hand figures and then place against them a series of swirling right-hand variations, creating a unique rhythmic counterpoint that allowed him to expand or compress the listener’s sense of the passage of time at will and with startling suddenness.

Alongside insightful tributes to artists such as Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Roscoe Mitchell (in one review Kart points out the similarities between certain Mitchell compositions and 14th/15th century music), Kart’s also willing to tackle a sacred-jazz-cow such as Bill Evans–arguing that Evans’ post-Scott La Faro music devolved into a sort of pastoral response to both developments in modern jazz and the pianist’s own internal aesthetic conflicts. (Kart reports elsewhere that this piece earned him threats of violence…hell hath no fury like a Bill Evans fan scorned, evidently. Who knew?) The credibility of his critique–which, as always, is searching and detailed–is underpinned by a distinct fairness. One never gets the feeling that Kart is sitting down with an agenda in mind; rather, he’s found himself less moved by Evans’ work than others have, and he’s decided to follow his listening impulses to well-developed conclusions, and to explain them to us in turn.

It’s also interesting to read some of the pieces Kart’s assembled in chronological sequence–to witness, for example, his steadily-growing skepticism towards the works and aesthetic goals of Wynton Marsalis as the 1980s progress. (He leads off that section with a prescient 1969 essay that already takes note of how the growing weight of jazz history is starting to influence young players in less-than-creative ways.) It’s very difficult these days to find cool, levelheaded takes on Marsalis, even as his star has seemed to be on the wane, but again, Kart approaches matters at hand with intellectual fairness–a fairness that makes the conclusions he reaches all the more devastating and/or rewarding.

The past 40 years have been an interesting and tumultuous time for jazz, and Jazz in Search of Itself is the best compendium I’ve found for reflections on where the music’s been and where it might be going–or not. Although he reportedly has no plans for a new book, Larry posts frequently at the Organissimo jazz discussion forum, with all of the penetrating insight and sharp writing that one finds in his book. Since he doesn’t maintain a blog or website, I’ve toyed with the idea of adding his Organissimo profile (which allows a reader to look at all of the profiled member’s posts) to our links page. A couple of weeks ago, esteemed jazz writer and Rifftides blogger Doug Ramsey beat me to it; I’m now following suit and putting Larry’s profile-page on the Night Lights blogroll. (You can read his posts by clicking on the “Options” tab.)

Ultimately there’s a kind of brilliant and empathetic musicality to Kart’s writing that serves his subjects well. In one piece he quotes something that tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin likes to say on the bandstand: “This music comes from people who have decided to feel good in spite of–meaning ‘in spite of conditions.’” After reading Jazz in Search of Itself one feels, more intensely than ever, that what jazz musicians play is significant–and that what a soulful, talented, and profoundly thoughtful writer has to say about this music not only brings out its significance even more, but is significant itself as well. Art and humanity, and all the ways in which they are bound together, do indeed have meaning–in spite of conditions.

A la Kart: Not long ago I also happened across a July 2005 post by Nate Dorward linking to a Chicago Public Radio interview with Larry (scroll down to July 7). The “interview” with Wayne Shorter that Larry refers to, by the way, has been posted over at Organissimo.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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