Harvey Pekar died this week at the age of 70. He will, inevitably, be more widely remembered for his seriously adult American Splendor comics and the movie they inspired than for his jazz criticism. As a writer about music he was—no surprise—eccentric and uneven but at his best wrote with precision and frankness about what he heard in his careful listening. Here is the conclusion of his Austin Chronicle review of the reissue of the Miles Davis Cellar Door Sessions.
Maybe Miles was thinking of himself more as the lead voice of a collectively improvising ensemble than a soloist. He plays in fits and starts, screaming, improvising complex but sloppily executed runs, not making good use of wah-wah effects. His efforts don’t hold together well. The loose group concept might be prime suspect in Davis’ cliché-filled performance, but there’s (Keith) Jarrett, member of the same group, playing so well. Jazz fans tend to think of and evaluate Davis’ fusion recordings as a whole, but actually there’s a wide variation in their quality, and that should be kept in mind when purchasing them.
To read the whole review, go here.
Pekar was infatuated with some of the least tethered free jazz. Writing about his avant garde heroes he sometimes went as far out as they did. Yet, he was capable of an open mind and an even keel, as in this observation from a review of the box set reissue that includes Ghosts, saxophonist Albert Ayler’s 1964 collaboration with Sonny Murray, Don Cherry and Gary Peacock.
Here we have characteristic and mature performances by Ayler. In evidence are his honks, above-the-normal-upper-register screams and squeals, lines played so fast they seem to be a blur of notes and a huge vibrato. His original compositions are also unique, so archaic sounding that they seem modern. The influence of both church and martial music is apparent in them.
Unlike some critics of his avant leanings who categorically rejected music of the so-called West Coast movement, Pekar learned to understand Chet Baker.
When I was exposed to jazz in the mid-Fifties, it was as a fan of robust hard bop, musicians like Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown. The popular West Coast jazz of that time seemed to lack vigor and as a whole was less progressive. Baker was suspect because his trumpet playing was so quiet and introverted; it seemed to lack strength. But after listening to him for years I had to admit that he had a rich melodic imagination, putting his solos together smoothly and swinging gracefully. I grew to like his small, velvety tone, and eventually came to the conclusion that he was an original and admirable performer.
Readers will miss Pekar most of all for the penetrating honesty and sardonic humor of his social observations as a comics writer. They should not overlook his value as a jazz critic. Of the Pekar obituaries I have seen, by far the most comprehensive is the one by William Grimes in The New York Times.