From hear to eternity

Critic Ben Ratliff plays DJ for TONY.

TALKING NOTES Ratliff listens to music with jazz composers.

TALKING NOTES Ratliff listens to music with jazz composers. Photograph: Kate Fox Reynolds

Talking about music, the joke goes, is like dancing to architecture. But New York Times critic Ben Ratliff appears to relish the challenge. Part of his job, right? Still, in his latest book, the author accomplishes something far more complex and compelling than a standard collection of reviews. Between 2004 and 2007, he asked 15 jazz musicians to select four or five pieces of other people’s work—not necessarily jazz—that best embody the qualities of sound they respond to. Then he’d meet them, usually at their homes, to spend a few hours listening to and talking about what they played. The resulting profiles are now collected in The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music.

It’s a small treasure. Ratliff takes his curious, catholic ear to 15 artists and tangos with them on their own physical and psychic turf. What he comes away with are three-dimensional portraits of artists: Sonny Rollins, the “greatest living improvisor,” emerges as a retiring guru—his “tendency towards self-criticism appears paralyzing: If he can’t trust others, and he can’t trust himself, then what?” Pat Metheny possesses an analytical mind with a sense of irony; he sneaks in a sly Spinal Tap allusion that even Ratliff misses at first. Branford Marsalis is a manic connoisseur of authenticity who lies on the floor to let Wagner wash over him.

“I get really tired of the standard journalism hooks when you’re dealing with music,” Ratliff tells TONY. “A new record is cultural news, but it’s just so depressing to lay it out there the way publicists are hoping you will.” He is speaking in his own rambling apartment in Washington Heights, where I’ve come to flip the script and ask him to play DJ for a change. Ratliff happily obliges, starting with Maysa Matarazzo, the Brazilian siren, “a train wreck of a person with a very huge personality and voice.” Matarazzo sings “Barquinho,” the title track from her 1964 album. It’s a straightforward bossa nova standard—until her powerful, swaggering voice comes tripping in. Ratliff, 6'2" with an imposing frame and shaved head, slouches in his chair, covers his eyes and exhales. “She’s just pouring it on. Maybe she’s drunk. She sounds almost like somebody whacked her on the head. But she gets everything right. Staying way behind the beat and then rushing and really hitting the last syllable on each line. Spitting it out. So I love that.”

“Maysa,” he continues, “is just killing.” What Ratliff responds to, he says, is the combination of technical skill and the willingness to get ugly. He mentions this quality again with his second pick—jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan also “is out to kill.” Morgan’s “Triple Track,” from Expoobident, is classic early-’60s hard bop: straightforward theme, nicely harmonized, with a Latin parenthetical before a bluesy turnaround. To Ratliff, “this sounds like popular music. Back in this time, jazz could always borrow from popular music, dip into it, come back out and have no problem with that flexibility. Now you can’t do that.” What impresses him is how the song, which clocks in at under five minutes, is self-contained yet manages to retain the distinct voices of each soloist.

Ratliff, 40, was born in NYC and raised in London and Rockland County. In high school, he’d take the bus into Manhattan to see Heart Attack and Urban Waste at CBGB. He got the bulk of his early musical education at Columbia, especially at the university’s radio station WKCR, where he volunteered. It was there, he says, that he learned the most about music in the least amount of time. That initial thrill of discovery hasn’t left him, and he’s continued to hone his gift for describing music in surprising yet tactile ways.

Ratliff’s third selection is an alternate take of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” from The Genius of Modern Jazz. Monk’s exuberant standard is cocky and cockeyed, built on a chord sequence that shifts by half notes, inviting endless opportunities for improvisation—1940s funk. “It’s his own language and it has lots of intonations, lots of strange rules, lots of exceptions to the rules. His rhythm is astounding and it’s not precise by any formal definition,” says Ratliff. “Songs that are less than three minutes and have that much information in them—you’ve got to respect them.” (Surprising case in point: the Smiths’ “William, It Was Really Nothing,” which Ratliff loved in high school but appeared a little embarrassed to play for me. “I was ready for it and not old enough to understand possibly how pretentious it was.”)

To conclude our two-hour listening session, Ratliff plays a sprawling, sparse 18-minute composition by multireedist Jimmy Giuffre. “The Western Suite” features Jim Hall on guitar and Bob Brookmeyer (whom Ratliff profiles in The Jazz Ear) on trombone. “What I love about this is that the melodies are just killing”—there’s that word again. “This is one of those pieces that breaks down in parts, and they take turns coming in to build something so you can see how it works.” It’s a fitting thought to end on: showing how a piece of music works logically—and conveying how it feels. This is exactly what, at its best, Ratliff’s writing does.

Songs from this story:

About the playlist

Says Ben Ratliff:

Maysa Matarazzo’s “Barquinho”
“She sounds like somebody whacked her on the head.”

Lee Morgan’s “Triple Track”
“He is out to kill.”

Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”
His rhythm is astounding.”

The Jimmy Giuffre 3’s “The Train and the River”
“This is one of those pieces that breaks down in parts.… You can see how it works.”

The Jazz Ear (Times Books, $25) is out now. Ratliff reads Nov 18 at 192 Books.

Buy The Jazz Ear now on