Book Review: Jazz
By Erik Nielsen
“…the careful listener can hear the music, every time a jazz man shudders or this man’s shutter blinks.” Halfway through Arthur Elgort’s new book Jazz, we are hit with a poem from Frank X. Walker titled “Developer, Stop Bath, Fixer & Sweat”. The lines quoted perfectly encompass what Elgort’s work represents. If you keep your eyes open, you can see the music happening, all the time.
Arthur Elgort is a jazz musician and there is a natural, unspoken kinship between him and his subjects, like the musicians who share the stage. Elgort is part of the present moment and understands the tonal landscape of the genre. His pictures cover the cool, hip, poetic, spiritual, calm and violent. The free-falling and the be-pop. There are moments of pure joy and quiet solitude. All captured in gorgeous black and white.
Elgort incorporates the legends but also the fresh new faces of jazz. The ones who take the old verbiage of swing and have infused it with something new. It could be the bare hands of Max Roach, aged by the years of smashing cymbals and snare or the cool hum of the handsome Dexter Gordon. The photographs are hard to pin down to a particular genre and that is the nature of jazz. One note away from flying off the rails and eviscerating all expectations.
The improvisational nature of jazz is matched by Elgort’s choice of setting and composition. His subjects are not shot in studio but in the street, sitting in a chair, on their sofa, in the middle of a stairway or riffing on a solo, almost always bathed in lush natural light. Like the spiritual séances of Coltrane’s Love Supreme, the musicians are in the middle of life where the spark of chance and music can happen. The ethereal quality of the photos is because Elgort has his mouth on the eye piece and his shutter flashes with the quickness in which jazz musicians play. Both mediums are the art of now.
What makes the book so fascinating is, like all great jazz musicians who share a stage, Elgort can reach back into his memory, his images and bounce them off one another. What begins to unfurl in Jazz is a dance of recollection. Where there is conflict, there is harmony. Positioning images from years apart side by side as if they were taken the same day and given the same instruction. Jazz improvisations follow this notion as it’s musicians are inexplicably linked by the present moment. But we know Elgort and if you know jazz, the same song is never played twice.