Nate Chinen has written a terrific book about the shape of contemporary jazz, and right now is a terrific time to read it ... Instead of looking for tidy torch-passings or binary clashes between competing schools and styles, his ecumenical ear glides across the entirety of the greater jazz ecosystem, listening for the good stuff ... The book’s arrival ultimately feels so well-timed ... you don’t have to sit around and wonder what it all sounds like. Just reach for that little computer in your pocket and press play ... Each album Chinen has chosen is worth at least one spin on your handy pocket computer ... Playing Changes encourages us to listen to jazz the same way we might try to live life: Start anywhere, go everywhere.
[Chinen's] new book, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, is a loud, clear refutation of the misguided opinion that 'jazz is dead,' preserved in amber like an archeological artifact ... For the most part, Playing Changes acts as something of a selected index of contemporary jazz artists, with many chapters serving double duty as both a feature piece on a specific musician as well as how their work impacts the overall genre ... Chinen's elegant, evocative writing—a mesmerizing staple of this essential book ... demands the reader's time and attention ... Like the best nonfiction, Playing Changes will motivate jazz diehards and neophytes alike to discover what's out there and what's on the horizon.
His criticism and reporting shy away from grand pronouncements yet amply reflect jazz’s present vitality ... The jazz wars subsided largely because both sides realized insufficient spoils. Mr. Chinen ignores that fact, yet makes a persuasive case that this once-elemental schism is now largely beside the point ... Thankfully, Mr. Chinen doesn’t seek to define jazz. He focuses on subtler existential dilemmas ... Jazz fans and critics love to quibble. Yet Mr. Chinen’s choices—his narrative subjects and lists of recommended recordings—are hard to question ... The role of jazz as ritual music with a spiritual function is notably less conspicuous here. Nevertheless, Mr. Chinen appears bent on a kind of enlightenment. His narrative traces a sturdy, finely crafted and open-ended framework for consideration of where jazz is headed, and why—and a treaty to maintain jazz-war disarmament.
Chinen’s book opens big enough, with a volley of plunger-muted trumpets ... One can learn a good deal about a critic by noting his or her favorite words of approbation and disapprobation ... Things not to be, in Playing Changes, are 'formal,' 'insular,' 'boosterish,' 'historicist,' 'buttoned-up' or 'dutifully self-conscious' ... Most of these latter terms are pointed in the direction of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis ... Marsalis’s brand of uptown jazz has long been at war with the downtown version, at least in the music press. Chinen revisits these battles. To a nonparticipant, from a distance, they seem faintly ridiculous ... The best way to read Playing Changes is with YouTube and Spotify fired up on your laptop. Chinen has excellent taste in unruly new sounds and big, bent ears, and you’ll want to make a playlist ... it’s hard not to get lost in the descriptive terminology in Playing Changes. You often feel you are floating free of context ... This book is at its best when grounded; when it mixes fact with more florid expression.
His book, like a great trumpet solo, arrives perfectly timed, just behind the beat, because the past couple of years have suggested that 21st-century jazz could start commanding broader attention ... Chinen includes some material about globalization ... But it doesn’t come until the second-to-last chapter, which feels late for such a crucial theme—I wished it had been integrated earlier and more often, though it’s implicit to much of the content ... My other slight misgiving about Playing Changes is the cool distance of Chinen’s narrative voice. Perhaps due to his newspaper training, he’s not one to make jokes, express strong opinions, try out grand theories, or bring himself into the picture. He’s too elegant a writer for the book to become dry, but (in part, admittedly, because we’ve met in person on a few occasions) I often found myself wondering how the developments Chinen was reporting as a young critic felt in real time and how they affected his perspectives ... Given the range of material he’s working with, though, the book clips along as smoothly and steadily as a drummer on a ride cymbal ... This is a world that desperately called for chronicling right now, and Playing Changes more than meets the occasion, making it one of the essential music books of the young century, so far.
It is not an easy book to evaluate because it is so up-to-the-minute, and Chinen is setting a new standard. His chapter on jazz education, consistent with this stance, is informative and welcome, as is his expansion of his coverage to include an international focus ... Informative reading for anyone open to exploring new horizons in music.
Chinen gets bogged down with repeated references to the awards many of the cited artists have won, but jazz fans will find much to enjoy. Anyone looking to start a jazz collection will be happy to know that each chapter concludes with five recommended recordings. The author has a gift for memorable lines ... [an] illuminating book.