For a lot of people, music is kind of a religion. If you’re into Vinyl, every other format is doomed. I f you’re into High Resolution, MP3 is the devil. You love Alternative Rock? Mainstream is forbidden.
Ben Ratliff is certainly not one of this kind. He’s been a principal jazz critic of the New York Times for the past 20 years, but he is equally comfortable with other genres like pop, hip-hop, punk, metal, classical or world music. This makes him and his book outstanding. If you’re not into reading about music, Ratliff’s playlists at the end of every chapter alone is worth this book!
But he’s not only at home in different genres, he also equally values analog and digital formats. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages. While in mostly recent days, collecting music in sometimes even a librarian’s rigour had influence in how we listened and reacted to music, the access to virtually every song ever recorded by streaming services nowadays does also has its influences.
What Ratliff proposes is this: Don’t mind about genres or formats, listen to the music for its own sake. In his book, he explains how to listen across genres by applying different filters, not those of genre, but something deeper, a set of qualities. Each of those filters fills its own chapter, with its own playlist, and opens new worlds how to experience music. Some of the twenty filters are: Repetition, Slowness, Speed, Transmission, Quiet/Silence/Intimacy, Virtuosity, Sadness, Audio Space, Density, Improvisation, Closeness, Loudness or Discrepancy.
The author impresses with his musical intelligence and his brode knowledge. His writing is, although sometimes theoretical and maybe even didactic, always entertaining. But, most of all, Ratliff’s love for all kind of music is contagious and makes you want to listen to all the songs he lists. Which is, thanks to Spotify & Co, not a problem anymore!
Ben Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic for The New York Times since 1996. He has written three books: The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music (2008); Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (2007, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award); and Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings (2002). He lives with his wife and two sons in the Bronx.