#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews ANALYSIS OF JAZZ: A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH by Laurent Cugny

The history of jazz is littered with books, both scholarly and otherwise, that have tried, and so often failed, to provide a comprehensive analysis of the music, to explain to both the layman and the musician what it is. Its forms, styles and sounds have proven so diverse as to defy that so keenly sought analysis. I well remember the sleeve note on a now long deleted LP, which remarked: ‘Ask ten jazz critics what jazz is and you’ll get eleven answers – one of them changed his mind at the last minute.’ Too true. Yet, here is another analyst, Laurent Cugny – composer, historian, musicologist and professor at the Sorbonne, Paris – not just dipping his toe in these troubled waters, but leaping right in. Cugny wrote the book ten years ago, but it’s taken that long to get it translated into English. The wait, however, has been worth it.

The problem, says Cugny, is that analysts have divided music into two traditions: the written ‘art’ tradition and the oral one. Jazz, however, is neither and both, and that has been the stumbling block: its ‘life’ is not just on the written page, which provides an inalterable basis for analysis; nor is it just handed down orally, which gives an ethnological, interpretational basis for analysis. Sometimes it’s written, sometimes it’s just made up on the spot, but for the majority of its listeners, it is consumed via recordings. And these must be the starting point for analysis. This allows the musicologist to find an approach that will cover all forms, styles and sounds of jazz.

You will have gathered by now that this book is not light reading for the 0710 to Waterloo, but if you persevere, even if you’re not a musician, there is much to fascinate and, dare I say it, educate the most knowledgeable of jazz lovers. The book comes in three parts: a definition of the music, based on much more than just the sound, but taking into account its history, evolution, sociological context and the like. Part two examines what parameters should be applied to the analysis; and the third to the problems that arise along the way. Part one raises some interesting issues: one such is the ‘text of reference’, by which Cugny means the definitive recording of a particular jazz piece (the equivalent of the classical music score). We often assume, for example, that the first recording, even if not by the composer, must be that ‘reference’ – but what judgment do we make in, say, the case of Thelonius Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’? It was first recorded by Cootie Williams in 1944, and not by Monk himself until three years later … so what is the text of reference: a written score (if that exists), an on-the-spot arrangement, the actual act of playing? And by whom?

The second part deals with the musical performance per se: harmony, rhythm, form, sound and melody – matters on which so many previous attempts to analyse jazz have foundered. What Cugny sets out to do here is conjoin the early elements of jazz harmony – what he calls tonality and blues – with much later developments, from the 1950s onwards: modality and non-functionality. Modality describes the change from a system, based purely on chords and chord progressions, to the more ‘a-tonal’ approach of what was then termed ‘modern jazz’, then to the non-functionality of what’s often called ‘free jazz’. ‘Blues’ covers more than just the classic twelve-bar format: it embraces what Cugny calls ‘affect’: the way that a jazz singer can embody the blues spirit even when singing non-blues songs. If you’re not a musician, or at least aware of some of the basics of music, you will find this part a challenge, though one that will repay your efforts.

In the final part of the book, Cugny looks at how, using what’s set out in the first two parts, we should analyse a jazz piece. Again, there are some fundamental assumptions challenged here, not least that the analysis of improvisation is a secondary activity to the analysis of composed music. In particular, he highlights the tendency to transcribe improvisations – which effectively turns them into ‘composed’ pieces – as a means of analysis. Cugny points out that a transcription is a tool but must not be confused with the jazz piece itself: the recording is the work, not what we draw from it. 

I have tried to give you a tour d’horizon of what, by any standards, is both a scholarly work, but also one of fundamental importance to anyone who aspires to think about and analyse a jazz record, rather than just sitting and listening to it. How often in the past might we have read an analysis, only to cast it aside with the words ‘I think that’s rubbish’. You may find Laurent Cugny’s book hard going, but then so is War and Peace, and I doubt you would describe that as ‘rubbish’, even if put down unfinished. Analysis of Jazz is a perceptive and ground-breaking book.

Reviewed by Max Easterman 


Written by Laurent Cugny

Translated by Bérengère Mauduit

Published by University Press of Mississippi (2019)

This is a shortened version of a review that first appeared in VJM (Vintage Jazz Mart) magazine.

Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university  lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: January 2020


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