The Jazz Ear Conversations over Music

Ben Ratliff

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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Jazz is conducted almost wordlessly: John Coltrane rarely told his quartet what to do, and Miles Davis famously gave his group only the barest instructions before recording his masterpiece "Kind of Blue." Musicians are often loath to discuss their craft for fear of destroying its improvisational essence, rendering jazz among the most ephemeral and least transparent of the performing arts.

In The Jazz Ear, the acclaimed music critic Ben Ratliff sits down with jazz greats to discuss recordings by the musicians who most influenced them. He coaxes out a profound understanding of the men and women themselves, the context of their work, and how jazz—from horn blare to drum riff—is created conceptually. Expanding on his popular interviews for The New York Times, Ratliff speaks with Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Branford Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman, and others about the subtle variations in generation, training, and attitude that define their music. Playful and insightful, The Jazz Ear is a revelatory exploration of a unique way of making and hearing music.


Praise for The Jazz Ear

"In this fascinating collection of interviews, New York Times music critic Ratliff engages 15 of jazz's biggest names (Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter) to listen to and comment on the music that has shaped and inspired them."—The Boston Globe

"There's a country music song, 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken?' of which I never tire, and it jumped to mind as I was reading an advance copy of Ben Ratliff's characteristically illuminating new book, The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music . . . He not only has a deep, far-ranging knowledge of jazz, but like Count Basie comping his band, Ratliff leaves breathing and feeling space for the musician with whom he's talking . . . In his introduction to The Jazz Ear, Ratliff explains what he learned by listening to musicians as they were listening to other players: 'What are the things they notice? What are their criteria for excellence? What makes them react involuntarily? The answers indicate what a musician values in music, which comes to connect what a musician believes music is for in the first place. And that is the big thing, the big question, from which all small questions descend.' That's why The Jazz Ear will be a permanent part of learning how to listen inside the musicians playing . . . Clearly, jazz has also been at the center of the unbroken circle of Ben Ratliff's life all these years—and we're all fortunate that The New York Times recognizes his value."—Nat Hentoff, Jazz Times

"I've pored over Ratliff's reviews and previous books: his Times Essential Library: Jazz proves its title is no hyperbole, and his Coltrane: The Story of a Sound defies jazz-bio convention in favor of heady analyses. It's a rare trick to be writerly and accessible at once, but Ratliff pulls it off: He assumes intelligence of his reader but not knowledge, defining concepts and cross-pollinations and allowing his insights to snowball. He carries the stateliness of historic Times critics like Robert Palmer, but lets his own predilections—he knows a lot about avant-garde heavy metal for a jazz aficionado—and his generation seep through, casting him off into uncharted critical waters. Here's to the future—on record and in print."—Evan Haga, Jazz Times

"What's it like to listen to a Count Basie record sitting next to Hank Jones? Or to hear what Sonny Rollins has to say about Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young? The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, the latest offering from the fine New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff, considers those and many other tantalizing questions—questions that often have surprising answers . . . Ratliff asked 15 jazz musicians—from elder titans like Sonny Rollins and Hank Jones to new generation stars like Maria Schneider and Joshua Redman—to pick four or five pieces of music to listen to with him. Their selections include many classic jazz recordings of course, but also an eclectic array of pieces of country, classical, pop and other musical genres. Ornette Coleman's first choice, for example, is a 1915 recording of Sabbath services in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue by cantor Josef Rosenblatt . . . The musicians' choices and their comments on the music are often revealing, and so are the author's insights about his subjects . . . The book's other subjects are Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny, Andrew Hill, Bebo Valdés, Dianne Reeves, Roy Haynes, Paul Motian, Branford Marsalis and Guillermo Klein. The Jazz Ear, which also includes a listening guide for the featured musicians, is highly recommended."—Jersey Jazz

"The Jazz Ear is an enjoyable collection of Ben Ratliff's 'Listening With' interviews for The New York Times . . . I'll surely be coming back to this one."—John Litweiler, Jazz Notes

"With his probing, empathetic questions and wide-ranging musical knowledge, Ben Ratliff elicits insightful, profound, and revealing remarks from some of the most important musicians of our time. These discussions are important for what these musicians have to say about their own artistic lives as well as for their enlightening re-evaluations of their musical heritage."—Richard Brody, author of Everything Is Cinema

"Ben Ratliff is the rare critic who can hold his own in conversation with musicians and incite them to reveal how they think and work. Whether it's Wayne Shorter extolling Vaughan Williams symphonies, Dianne Reeves listening rapt to Shirley Horn, or Branford Marsalis delving into Wagner, this luminous book has revelations on almost every page."—Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise

"Music lovers dig lists as much as anyone, maybe more. New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff takes the form to new heights in The Jazz Ear, a series of conversations with living legends. Here's the twist: Instead of having them rattle off their off their Top 10 favorites, he asks artists like Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Hank Jones to select tunes that serve as the undercurrents for their own work. He then sits down with each one to listen to the music together and talk. The results are as bracing as John Coltrane's recordings at the Village Vanguard. Along with the conversation, we get mini-bios that add context to the comments. And at the end, Ratliff provides recommended recordings of each artist . . . Like a lot of the best jazz, The Jazz Ear is challenging, too. If you're not a trained musician, you won't be able to keep up with every word. But don't let that scare you off; there's enough accessible material for the everyday listener. And who can say they understand everything in every Miles Davis record? The best way to absorb the book is to read it, download a few of the tunes discussed, then go back to the book and listen along with your own jazz ear, the most important one there is."—Roland Wilkerson, The Charlotte Observer

"For his new The Jazz Ear: Conversations over Music, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff has adapted his 'Listening With' series from the paper, revising and rewriting, sometimes expanding the articles to two or three times their original length, 'with more talking but also more context,' he tells me from LA, on the road working the book. The idea behind those pieces was to get away from the standard 'news peg' profile based on an artist's latest release. Instead, Ratliff asked musicians to get together some recordings—not their desert-island discs, not their top five, just music they'd be interested in talking about. He asked them to clear an afternoon—three or four hours. The musicians are often wildly impressionistic, in a way that most jazz critics would avoid. 'I really really wanted that,' he says. 'One reason was to redress the constant complaint from musicians that all jazz critics do is reduce reduce reduce and end up misinterpreting and spreading all kinds of wrong information about music. I wanted to get musician talk in there that isn't play-by-play clinical analysis but more based on emotion and gesture and feeling.' This was provoked by something Ratliff had noticed long before he started writing the pieces for this book. 'I was amazed at how musicians reacted to certain things in music as it was moving along. And by those physical reactions, even by their body language, I knew more about who they were as musicians.' There are surprises. Wayne Shorter wants to listen only to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Branford Marsalis's choices veer between seemingly contradictory obsessions, 'slow art songs and songs that make you move,' and he makes the Wagner-deficient Ratliff listen to Götterdammerüng for the 'Fate' motif, which becomes a four-note figure in Marsalis's piece Fate. And emotion itself provides context. Trombonist and composer Bob Brookmeyer recalls his unhappy childhood, and hearing the 'smooth, rhythmic 4/4' of the Basie band as an 11-year-old in a Kansas City theater: 'It was the first time I felt good in my life.' 'Stretching the conversations out for a while made it possible to drive toward this final idea of what music is for,' says Ratliff. 'It got down to really basic and important stuff. That was more than I really could have hoped for, but it happened consistently.' Ratliff is also a passionate and incisive writer about music other than jazz, especially heavy metal—Metallica, Mastodon, and Slayer are favorites. Given his feelings about the social function of music, does he see anyone at Mastodon shows who might like jazz? 'I think more and more about the connection between metal and jazz. In metal you have a virtuosic art that has traditionally been open to working-class musicians. You also have an audience where half of them believe there's a certain way to play metal and that's the way it has to be! And the other half of the audience is like: Show me the music of the future, man! It's just like jazz!'"—Jon Garelick, The Phoenix (Boston)

"In the jazz world, the ability to hear, conceptualize, compose or improvise with idiosyncrasy and sophistication requires big ears. Ben Ratliff is one of America's best and biggest-eared music journalists. For instance, in his excellent Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, a critique of John Coltrane's algebraic and mythical musical prowess, Mr. Ratliff combines jazz history, cultural analysis and music theory into an elegant narrative. With The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, Mr. Ratliff has collected pieces from his New York Times series, 'Listening With,' refashioning the conversations into 15 contiguous chapters that illustrate the importance of both classical and pop music to modern jazz composition and improvisation. More important, Mr. Ratliff's questions often steer his responders from music theory to emotional response to sentimental remembrance, teaching readers how to open their ears and listen in new ways . . . Mr. Ratliff quells his voice throughout, amplifying it only to contextualize a musical reference or to briefly critique an artist's career. His quiet presence lets readers 'listen' without interference when artists such as Branford Marsalis (riffing excitedly on Igor Stravinsky's use of jazz progressions) or Pat Metheny (enumerating the delights evoked by Glenn Gould's expert touch) begin discussing how the riches of classical music inspire him to create on his instrument the kinds of melodic phrases 'that would be believable if somebody were singing them.' Mr. Ratliff's taste for eclectic, dynamic forms of jazz is illustrated in the array of interviewees, a group chosen for both their musical virtues and enjoyable personalities. The set lists overlap and intersect, revealing connections and impressions like interwoven family genealogies: Charlie Parker, for example, exerts an avuncular or brotherly influence on Mr. Coleman, Andrew Hill, Sonny Rollins, Hank Jones. Subsequently, these musicians and others such as Mr. Shorter, Bob Brookmeyer and Paul Motian, become elder kin to Guillermo Klein, a young, rising composer-arranger, merging bebop with Argentine musical forms, Maria Schneider, the Brookmeyer-trained composer-conductor, and Joshua Redman, the prodigious saxophonist. For music enthusiasts wishing for bigger, better ears, Mr. Ratliff's interviews trace crossing pathways to new ways of listening to and enjoying jazz."—Walton Muyumba, The Dallas Morning News

"Ratliff is a New York Times critic whose previous book was Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. The Jazz Ear presents Ratliff's interviews with most of the greatest current jazz figures: Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Maria Schneider, even Branford Marsalis. He likes to do something obvious with them—listen to music. The results are splendid."—Jeff Simon, Buffalo News

"Anyone who's interviewed many musicians will have noticed a curious phenomenon: Playing one's music well does not necessarily go hand in hand with the ability to talk about it. Talking about others' music, though—especially the music that has inspired them—is another matter . . . Luminaries ranging from Pat Metheny to Hank Jones, drawn out by Ratliff's sympathetic and seemingly all-knowing ear, give eloquent collective testimony to the wellsprings of the musician's art."—Montreal Gazette

"Many recent jazz books are historical tomes focused on the giants Miles Davis, John Coltrane or both. Ratliff's book stands out by simply casting its net more widely and into the present day. His book consists of 15 chapters, each focusing on a jazz musician conversing, as you would expect, about music that means much to him or her. Ratliff artfully weaves information about each musician and their music into each conversation. The book taps into many jazz constituencies, with Ratliff sitting down with youngbloods such as Joshua Redman and Maria Schneider as well as elder statesmen like Wayne Shorter, Roy Haynes and Sonny Rollins . . . An unpretentious and reader-friendly window into jazz esthetics."—Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen

"In his introduction, New York Times jazz critic Ratliff explains where he got the idea of profiling some of his favorite artists by listening to music with them. One precedent was the ‘blindfold test,' which has been a staple of Down Beat magazine for more than 60 years. The crucial difference is that where that test asks musicians to comment on a recording without being told the identity of the artist, Ratliff asked the artists to choose the recordings they wanted to discuss. Their choices are often revelatory. The legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter limits himself to The Complete Symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams, while vocalist Dianne Reeves opts for country singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter as one of her selections. (She also made lunch for Ratliff and explained that her cooking method is the same as her approach to singing: ‘I work with my ear and try to make it feel right, or I just keep changing it until I like the way it tastes.') Ratliff's own ear, sharp critical chops and scene-setting interaction with his subjects make the artists come alive on the page and make the reader eager to hear the music, both that discussed and that of the artist discussing it. The range of artists profiled extends from giants of jazz, including Sonny Rollins, Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman, to composer Maria Schneider to the new generation of jazz artistry embodied by saxophonist Joshua Redman (who pays tribute to Rollins as a seminal influence). ‘Listening with someone else is an intimate act,' writes Ratliff, ‘because music reveals itself by degrees.' So do these musicians."—Kirkus Reviews

"Admirers of jazz should be deeply thankful for Ratliff . . . Jazz is perhaps the most elusive art form to discuss and critique, and Ratliff's latest book fills a vacuum in the realm of understanding jazz . . . the 15 conversations presented here consist of Ratliff sitting down with such diverse and talented luminaries as Sonny Rollins, Pat Metheny, Paul Motian, and Dianne Reeves. The treasure of these conversations is not just their fluid and intimate manner but their focus on the recordings that had the greatest influence on the artists and their musical paths. Ratliff's insight that one may understand musicians more by discussing the music that moves them rather than the music they have created results in a unique rendering of some of the major jazz artists of our time. An added bonus is the recommended-listening section, in which Ratliff shares his list of his subjects' seminal recordings. Highly recommended."—Peter Thornell, Hingham Public Library, Massachusetts, Library Journal

"Ratliff, the jazz critic for the New York Times, spent just over two years interviewing jazz greats for a recurring feature at the paper: rather than ask musicians like Pat Metheny or Dianne Reeves to name their favorite records, Ratliff sat with them as they listened to songs and picked out the qualities they found most artistically compelling. The approach brings some surprises, as his subjects pick everything from Ukrainian cantorial music to Ralph Vaughan Williams to the Fifth Dimension, but each chapter brings provocative insights and will have readers scurrying to track down various records. (Ratliff also provides a listening guide for each of his interviewees.) Though each chapter stands alone, connections are made from one interview to the next; Metheny and Joshua Redman, for example, both select songs from Sonny Rollins. The interview with Redman also hints at Ratliff's argument in his 2007 Coltrane: The Story of a Sound about jazz as a collaborative medium, while Branford Marsalis speaks candidly about young musicians' failure to understand the melodic legacy they've inherited, then plays a jazz-influenced piece by Stravinsky to make his point. Whether you're a seasoned listener or just discovering the form, Ratliff is a wonderful guide."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Ben Ratliff

  • Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at The New York Times since 1996. The author of Coltrane: The Story of a Sound and The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz, he lives in Manhattan with his wife and two sons.

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    Ben Ratliff


    Ben Ratliff

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