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Geoff Dyer Interview

GEOFF DYER INTERVIEW: Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

What is it about jazz that attracts you more than other musics?

It doesn’t. Far from it. I am barely interested in jazz at all now, with the exception of Keith Jarrett*, the Necks and Nils Petter Molvaer and a few other ECM-type goings on on the fringes of jazz. Jazzy jazz just bores the pants off me. But I guess, to elaborate, I could say that what used to attract me to jazz more than other musics and that would be unpredictability(though now a lot of it seems thoroughly predictable) intensity, rhythmic intricacy, the honk, the cry, the swing. And I could say what it shares with other musics that still interest me – Indian classical, for example - and that, I think, would be improvisation.

I thought your book But Beautiful implied a new interface between words and music. Do you think that interface could develop?

Yes, obviously there are all sorts of new possibilities for the combination of words and music now. Going back to when But Beautiful was published (1991), at the very least a CD with a couple of tracks by each of the musicians could have been included. But it was published with zero enthusiasm - no, less than zero - on the part of the publisher so even that was beyond them.

Why can't they make movies about music ? What is the crucial missing ingredient in " Bird " or " Round Midnight " ? How do they manage to miss the point so completely ?

Isn't it funny, that? You're completely right, I agree absolutely, but I don’t know why it is. The actors? It can’t be, because even in quite crappy Hollywood films the acting is usually amazing. Maybe it’s something about the difficulty of combining a sense of genius with an authentic depiction of the mundane circumstances in which that genius found expression. For that you need the most incredible intimacy. I guess, to make a broader point, if there is enough available footage, documentaries are almost always better and there have, as you know, been a number of great jazz documentaries, especially ones about Pepper and Monk – both of which have genius and mundanity (is there such a word) in abundance, and both of which are extraordinarily intimate.

I don't suppose you can listen to music as you write, but is there some sort of cross-fertilization ?

I've recently been writing a novel, half of which is set in Varanasi and I found it very helpful to have an electronic tampura going, a non-distracting drone. When I was writing the jazz book of course I had the music I was writing about playing the whole time. Plus, I would walk around New York with my Walkman on, listening to whoever it was I was writing about – and with the music completely within my head like that a very helpful kind of synesthesia went on: stuff I'd see would instantly get apprehended in terms of the music – and vice-versa. Someone pointed out that maybe there was a link between the chapterless approach of the last book, the one on photography, The Ongoing Moment, and the single, hour-long single-track CDs of the Necks. But really, as you guessed, I favour no music, desk facing the wall, head down approach to writing.

Its always good to hear about a writer's favourite records, but which live performances smoulder most vividly in your memory ?

There are so many. Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra at the Village Vanguard, Christmas 1989 – the band was so big they took up practically half the club. The Art Ensemble of Chicago at Fairfield Hall some time in the mid- to late 80s. Dudu Pukwana at the Plough in Stockwell , probably about the same time. Don Cherry with the Multi-Kulti band in New York, also in the late 80s. The Jarrett trio at the RFH in 2000 when they didn’t play standards (parts of which ended up on the Inside Out album). Nils Petter Molvaer at the Marquee in 2002 (parts of it are on the Streamer album). And the gigs by the Necks during their last two tours, at the Vortex, in May of this year and November last year.

The Desert Island one, but different. Which jazzman, alive or dead, would you most like to be shipwrecked with , and what CDs would float in on the tide for you both to discuss ?

Don Cherry I guess, because he would be able to make amazing music with whatever came to hand: cocoanut shells, bits of driftwood. I think one track would have to be Miles Davis’s ‘He Loved Him Madly’ on the grounds that, if all else was lost, this contains most – both in terms of what comes before and what will come after. I especially love the Bill Laswell re-mix, on Panthalassa, but wish he’d remixed it a bit differently and edited out the flute. And a sort of compilation CD of the ‘original’ Jarrett tracks from all those trio albums. They are endlessly fascinating, the best trio recordings ever (though the standards themselves leave me completely cold)

How do you think your jazz sensibility has affected the way you live ?

I suppose it would be the freedom from commercial imperatives – that the important thing is making the work , not about whether there is an audience for it. This is to take a slightly idealistic view of jazz since, of course, someone like Miles was deeply interested in commercial success – that was part of what lured him into what for me is his greatest period, the electric work in the 1970s, trying to pull in the kind of audiences that the rock groups were playing to. But the paradigmatic jazz figure would still be one mythologized in Round Midnight, you know, this Bud Powell type genius playing for a handful of devotees while the world at large remains more or less ignorant.

* = Featured on

For more check out Geoff Dyer's Wikipedia page.