DATE December 23, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Harold McGee speaks about his book "On Food and
Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Harold McGee, is an expert on the chemistry of foods and cooking.
He's just revised his popular 1984 book, "On Food and Cooking: The Science
and Lore of the Kitchen," and there's lots of new information in it. We asked
him for some scientific tips on holiday cooking, starting with the turkey.
Mr. HAROLD McGEE (Food Scientist, Author): In a way, it's a no-win situation
because it's this very large object that takes a while to cook, and it's made
up of two very different kinds of meat, both on the same bird. But those two
different kinds of meat really, to be done well, require different kinds of
cooking. The breast is very delicate and doesn't have a lot of fat, doesn't
have a lot of connective tissue and so, in a way, the less you cook it, the
better. You want to cook it until it's just done and no more. And that's to,
say, 150 degrees or so. The legs, however, are tough meat. They've got lots
of connective tissues, sinews and tendons and things like that. It's fattier
and it just isn't very good unless you cook it to 175 or 180 degrees. And yet
they're both on the same bird and both in the same oven at the same time. How
can you get those two different meats to cook in different ways?
Usually what happens is, of course, that you cook until the leg meat is done,
and that means that the breast meat is overdone. So one thing I've come up
with is to kind of build in a temperature differential into the bird before
you even put it in the oven. So you take the turkey out of the refrigerator
the day that you're going to cook it. And a few hours before it's supposed to
go into the oven, just let it sit on the countertop so that the legs can warm
up but put ice packs on the breast.
So I did this the first time around with, you know, these athletic blue ice
packs which, it turns out, work pretty well, but, you know, then they're
covered with turkey grease and the athlete in the family isn't interested in
using it anymore. So you can just take a plastic bag and crush some ice, fill
the bag with ice and then put it on top of the turkey's breast.
And what that does is it keeps the breast at refrigerator temperature or even
below that while the legs get to warm up to about room temperature. And
that's maybe a 15 or 20 degree differential, and that's about what you're
looking for in the cooking process. So that's a way of helping out with the
different characteristics of the two different kinds of meat.
All that having been said, however, there's no substitute for actually
checking the progress of the cooking as you go because even if you build in
that 20 degree differential, if you leave the turkey in so that the breast
meat just cooks beyond that point, then you end up with a dry breast anyway.
So you just have to check the temperature regularly.
GROSS: Any good science tips about the typical side dishes: potatoes, sweet
Mr. McGEE: Well, sweet potatoes are kind of interesting in that their
sweetness depends a lot on how you cook them. Sweet potatoes develop their
sweetness, in large part, during the course of cooking. They consist mainly
of starch, the way ordinary potatoes do, but unlike ordinary potatoes, they
have very active enzymes that break the starch down into sugars.
And what happens in cooking is that when the temperature rises above, say,
human body temperature, so it gets above 100, the potato cells become damaged
and this enzyme can then start to react kind of randomly and begin to break
the starch in the cells down to sugars. The thing is that those enzymes are
sensitive to temperature. And above about 170, 160, something like that, they
just stop working.
So if you maximize the amount of time that the sweet potato spends between,
say, 100 degrees and 150 or 160, then you'll break more of the starch down
into sugar and you'll end up with a sweeter sweet potato. Put them in the
oven and cook them slowly over the course of an hour or two. Then they
develop a much greater sweetness.
GROSS: Is there any new information you learned during your research about
Mr. McGEE: People of all kinds have reported that they feel cravings for
chocolate and suffer withdrawal symptoms if they can't have it. And so some
very good experiments have been done to try to determine whether there's
something in chocolate that does have a kind of druglike effect. And
chocolate is very complicated stuff. There are thousands of different
chemical compounds in there, including some that do seem to be very closely
related, for example, to the active compound in marijuana, THC.
So it was a very good question: What is the addictive capacity of chocolate?
So some experiments were done that basically gave people either chocolate or
something that seemed to be chocolate but, in fact, was a placebo, was an
imitation product. And then also people were given the active portions of
chocolate but without the chance to taste it. So they were given capsules
with chocolate inside. And they ate the capsules, didn't get any of the
sensory satisfaction of chocolate but were actually getting chocolate into
And what the scientists found was that the sensation of satisfaction and, you
know, relieving of the craving and so on only came from the sensory experience
of the chocolate itself, that the chemicals themselves didn't seem to have a
direct effect on the body one way or the other. It was the experience of
eating that made the difference. And so it seems to be that what's addictive
about chocolate is not any particular chemical, it's chocolate, it's the
eating of this wonderfully complicated, rich food.
GROSS: That tastes good.
Mr. McGEE: Yeah.
GROSS: This goes back to Christmas. A lot of people will be baking for
Christmas. Tell us something about pies that we don't know.
Mr. McGEE: OK. The trick to making pies--you know, typical American pies--is
that you have a filling that's very moist and made typically from fruit and
then a crust that you want to be dry and crisp. And, again, it's getting back
to the paradox of cooking the turkey. You've got both of these materials in
the same dish in the same oven at the same time, and you want the moist
interior to stay moist and you want the crust to get crusty.
So what you have to do is kind of massage the cooking techniques to make that
outcome more likely. Otherwise, what'll happen is that the moisture of the
filling will get into the crust and keep it soggy and prevent it from ever
There are various things that are important to that end. One of them is to
minimize the amount of moisture in the dough with which you make the crust and
to keep the fat content of the crust good and high because that does a couple
of things. It helps dry out and crisp the crust very quickly, and it helps
repel the moisture that's going to come from the filling. And then the other
thing is to precook the filling, to preconcentrate it and drive off much of
its moisture so that there isn't a lot of excess to penetrate into the crust
and make it soggy.
GROSS: Do you like to have a special meal on Christmas? And if so, what do
you like to prepare or eat?
Mr. McGEE: I like to prepare something other than turkey on Christmas...
Mr. McGEE: ...because Thanksgiving was only a month ago and we've probably
been still eating it for a couple of weeks thereafter.
So we usually make beef and often with Yorkshire pudding because that's pretty
much the only time of year that we'll go to that kind of trouble. And, yeah,
that's pretty much the tradition.
GROSS: And have you been preparing that any differently since researching
your new book?
Mr. McGEE: Well, I'm always trying different things. I would say, in fact,
you know, in general, that I'm not that great a cook. And the reason for that
is that I'm not really interested in finding a particular recipe that gives me
the perfect prime rib, for example, and then simply reduplicating that every
time I make the prime rib. I want to try different things to see what
happens. And sometimes that means that it doesn't turn out so well.
Something that I learned from a colleague of mine in England, Heston
Blumenthal, is that if you--it's very helpful, for example, to cook a very
large piece of meat like a prime rib very slowly because that gives you a much
bigger window of time during which the meat is cooked through to the doneness
that you want but not overdone. And it also means that the meat is cooked
more evenly throughout.
The problem with cooking meat at a relatively low oven temperature is that the
outside doesn't get as nice and brown as it would in a nice hot oven. And
what Heston showed me is that you can actually take a torch and just very
lightly torch the meat at the very beginning of the process. In fact, you
don't even have to really see an effect from that torch. You just kind of
pre-warm the surface. And then when you put that pretreated roast into the
oven and cook it at a low temperature so that the interior comes out moist and
succulent, the outside does end up developing the kind of flavor that you
would get in a higher-temperature roasting.
GROSS: So what do you use? Like, a blowtorch or something? What kind of
Mr. McGEE: Well, these days you can get these nice, cute, little creme brulee
torches. The problem with using one of those on a roast rather than creme
brulee is that a roast has a huge surface area, and so it's a very slow and
tedious process. So, yeah, I go to the hardware store and get a regular old
blowtorch and--actually a heat gun works really well, too, you know, the kind
of thing that you use for peeling paint off a wall. That does a good job as
well. I've also tried a hair dryer. It doesn't get hot enough.
GROSS: Is there a certain food or food preparation technique that you are
investigating now and very caught up in?
Mr. McGEE: No. I'm taking a break, to be honest with you. I am looking
forward to--my daughter loves chocolate. And ganache, you know, the filling
for truffles, is something that she and I are very interested in perfecting
this year. And so we're going to be spending a lot of time over the holidays
perfecting and eating a lot of ganache.
GROSS: Is there anything particular you like to eat on New Year's Day, you
know, out of a superstition that it will bring you good luck or that this is
the way you traditionally start off the new year?
Mr. McGEE: Well, I love caviar. And caviar is something that it's hard to
feel either good or affluent enough to eat these days. You know, the sturgeon
are endangered in Central Europe and it's very expensive. So what I like to
do on New Year's Day is get all kinds of different fish eggs, maybe some
farmed caviar from California, but then also, you know, the kinds of salmon
eggs that you see in the sushi restaurants and sea urchin and tobiko, the nice
crunchy little eggs that you, again, find in Japanese restaurants, and just
lots and lots of different kinds of eggs. And, you know, starting out the
year with this object from the animal world out of which life springs and out
of which life begins just seems like the right way to start the year.
GROSS: That's really lovely. I'll probably take the more pedestrian route of
Harold McGee, happy holidays and thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. McGEE: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Harold McGee has written a new revised and updated edition of his book
"On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen." We'll hear more
from him after the holidays.
(Soundbite of song)
"Mr. RICHARD SIMMONS": Ha, ha! Put on your seat belts, everybody! Put on
your food belts!
Backup Singers: Ding, dong, bonbon. Ding, ding...
"Mr. SIMMONS": Oh, no! It's not that time of year again! No, it can't be!
It can't be! Tell me, pinch me, tell me it's not here!
Unidentified Man: (Singing) It's the most fattening time of the year. With
that pumpkin pie filling and everyone swilling down eggnog and beer, it's the
most fattening time of the year.
It's the lip-smackingest season of all. While you're shopping, you're
cheating, impulsively eating that junk at the mall. It's the heav--heaviest
season of all.
There'll be turkeys for basting and stuffing for tasting...
GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews two CDs of Christmas music. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Two new Christmas CDs from "The O.C." and Dwight Twilly
TERRY GROSS, host:
Rock critic Ken Tucker has come across two new collections of holiday music
worth a listen while there's still time to get into the spirit. They come
from unlikely sources: a popular TV show and a '70s act that hasn't been
heard from at all lately. Here's his review of "Have a Very Merry
Christmukah" from "The O.C." and "Have a Twilly Christmas" by Dwight Twilly.
This is the band Rooney from "The O.C." album.
(Soundbite of "Merry Christmas Everybody")
ROONEY: (Singing) Are you hanging up the stocking on a wall? It's the time
that every center has a ball. Does he ride a red-nosed reindeer? Does a `ton
up' on the sleigh? Do the fairies keep him sober for a day? So here it is,
KEN TUCKER reporting:
It's been a few years since I did a holiday music roundup, and in that time, a
new holiday has been invented, Christmukah, the clever hybrid celebration
invented by a TV character. Adam Brody's Seth Cohen came up with the idea
after years of living with his Jewish father and WASP mother.
And I'll pause here and justify my fondness for "The O.C." Like "Buffy the
Vampire Slayer," it's a show starring young people that has that nice pop
culture paradox, profound superficiality, for the right kind of adult, by
which I mean you. How can you resist, for example, this gorgeously mopey
Christmas song by The Raveonettes called, in fact, "The Christmas Song."
(Soundbite of "The Christmas Song")
THE RAVEONETTES: (Singing) All the lights are coming on now. How I wish that
it would snow now. I don't feel like going home now. I wish that I could
stay. All the trees are on the sway now, and it's cold now. I don't feel
like going home now. I wish that I could stay. But I wish that...
TUCKER: "Have a Very Merry Christmukah" gathers songs new and only slightly
old by acts ranging from Low to the Eels. It's an utterly commercial
enterprise, of course, designed to promote "The O.C.'s" holiday episode whose
highlight is the wearing of little red and green knitted yarmulkes. But the
CD gets at all the inescapable melancholy that can surround any holiday when
you listen to the band called Low and their song "Just Like Christmas."
(Soundbite of "Just Like Christmas")
LOW: (Singing) On our way from Stockholm, it started to snow. And you said
it was like Christmas, but you were wrong. It wasn't like Christmas at all.
TUCKER: All good rock 'n' roll holiday songs do two things simultaneously:
goof on the sentimentality and/or commercialism of the event and really
appreciate the genuine emotions that surface during these celebrations.
Sometimes "The O.C" compilation is too cool for the room and yields empty junk
like The Long Winters' "Christmas With You Is The Best." Don't you just hate
irony with your eggnog?
(Soundbite of "Christmas With You Is The Best")
THE LONG WINTERS: (Singing) We both hate the holidays. Our parents act
crazy, and the mall is insane. Let's skip it all and have a non-traditional,
non-denominational celebration. Christmas with you is the best. We'll have
no turkey or guests. Sleep in late, but before we get dressed, I want to give
you a present.
TUCKER: At the other extreme is a virtually homemade disc like Dwight
Twilly's "Have a Twilly Christmas" EP; six songs, most of them expert
exercises in genre: rockabilly, folk and the area at which he excels,
chrome-bright pop rock.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. DWIGHT TWILLY: (Singing) Christmas night, snow is on the ground, reindeer
in the air and Santa's came around. Woke up this morning, what did I see? My
sweet baby standing by the holly tree. Christmas night. Christmas night.
Christmas night, stockings are full. Her relatives are gone, and I'm all
alone with you. Christmas lights, fireside scene. I got an idea, and it
isn't caroling. Christmas night. Christmas night. Santa was never so good
to me. Christmas night...
TUCKER: Dwight Twilly has a brief fling at stardom in the '70s with his
semihit single "I'm On Fire." But like so many smart power pop acts of that
era, he didn't get enough follow-up airplay outside of LA and his home state
of Oklahoma. I don't know what he's been doing since dropping off my radar in
the '80s, and this disc just appeared out of nowhere like a certain star in
the sky that wise men and women would do well to track down.
Twilly knows that Christmas involves a lot of well-organized partying, which
is what the rigor of his musicianship expresses so well. That, and the fact
that it's not really Christmas unless it also includes a visit from some
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. TWILLY: (Singing) We're having Christmas with the martians, and the music
GROSS: Ken Tucker is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed "Have a
Very Merry Christmukah" from "The O.C." and "Have a Twilly Christmas" by
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. TWILLY: (Singing) ...and sucked them up into a sack. We're having
Christmas with the martians. We've got a holiday attack.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews recent box sets which
could make for good Christmas gifts. And we'll remember the investigative
reporter Jack Newfield. He broke many stories about political corruption and
organized crime in New York. He died Monday at the age of 66.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Best jazz box sets and books of the year
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We asked our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, to tell us about some of the box
sets that came out this year. You still have some time to consider them as
holiday gifts, and you have plenty of time if you want to add them to your
Kevin, happy holidays. You've said there are a lot of really good jazz box
sets this year. More than you can remember?
KEVIN WHITEHEAD (FRESH AIR Jazz Critic): Yeah, it's really true. There's
just so many of them and, you know, a lot more than we'll be able to discuss
today. And there's something for every budget so, you know, hang in there if
we start with the more expensive ones.
I guess the first one I'd mention, which I reviewed on the show a few shows
ago, is the Albert Ayler box on Revenant. That's what every free-jazz fan
will be writing to Santa for this year.
Blue Note has a compact four-CD retrospective of organist Jimmy Smith, who
really set the standard for jazz organ playing in the 1950s and '60s. He's
been so imitated, it's kind of hard to hear him for himself at this point, but
it's still really a thrill when he pulls out the stops and makes that big
electric console dance.
GROSS: You want to play something from it for us?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah. Why don't we listen to a little of his version of
Thelonious Monk's "Hackensack" from 1958?
(Soundbite of "Hackensack")
GROSS: That sounds really good, although it's always so surprising to me to
hear somebody as verbose as Jimmy Smith playing something as spare as
Thelonious Monk's work. But how about another box set?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, all right. Well, this season there's another of Columbia's
lavish Miles Davis boxes. "Seven Steps To Heaven,"--which is on seven CDs,
naturally enough--is like the first reel of one of those "Seven Samurai"
knockoffs where the boss assembles the classic squad one by one. In this case
the classic squad would be Miles' mid-'60s quintet with Herbie Hancock and
Tony Williams. The set begins early in 1963 when Ron Carter joins on bass,
and it ends a year and a half later, just after Wayne Shorter comes in on
tenor saxophone. It's mostly live versions of Miles' favorites that he
recorded over and over in that period. But his lip is in great shape, as it
wasn't always. There's a terrific Tokyo concert with Sam Rivers on tenor who
plays like he'd never get this chance again, which he didn't. But it's no
match for the recordings just ahead, when Shorter really settles into the
GROSS: What do you think is the best of the boxes this year?
WHITEHEAD: I think the big box in every sense for me is "The Complete
Prestige Recordings of Dexter Gordon." That's on 11 CDs, and mostly recorded
between 1969 and '73.
GROSS: Isn't that period sometimes described as a low point for mainstream
jazz? And isn't Dexter Gordon often given as an example of a neglected master
of the period?
WHITEHEAD: Oh, yeah, that old story, that Dexter moved to Europe because The
Beatles had wiped jazz out, and he stayed in exile until he was rediscovered
in 1976. It's a good story, except the facts kind of get in the way. Gordon
moved to Europe before The Beatles hit over here, and between then and his
nominal homecoming, he recorded something like 50 albums. Many of them were
recorded back in the States when he'd come over to visit, including a lot of
the stuff in this box. Some of it was taped in front of audiences who don't
seem to notice that they don't like mainstream jazz anymore because they seem
to be having a really good time.
You know, the style fit him, and maybe that's part of the reason that he
sounds so satisfied here. He was a big, swaggering guy with a big, swaggering
sound. He had a knack for being able to talk to people from all walks of
life, and his music kind of works the same way. He put these really
complicated bebop licks side by side with jokey quotes from familiar tunes
that anybody could laugh at.
Shall we listen to a little?
WHITEHEAD: I want to play you a snippet of Dexter Gordon at the Montreux
Festival in 1970. This is from "Blue Monk," another Monk tune where he dips
into a then-recent pop song which I'll challenge you to identify, Terry. But
whether you identify it or not, check out how he takes the tune's opening
phrase and works it into his improvisation.
(Soundbite of "Blue Monk")
GROSS: OK, I think I lose this round. At first I thought he was improvising
on Moody's "Mood For Love" or "I'm in the Mood for Love", and then I thought,
nah. And then it started to sound like "St. Louis Blues," which I can't even
imagine him playing. So I think I lose this round, Kevin. What was it?
WHITEHEAD: It was Georgie Fame's "The Ballad Of Bonnie and Clyde" from 1967.
GROSS: Oh, come on.
WHITEHEAD: I was sure you were going to get that.
GROSS: I was supposed to know that? These questions are too tough.
WHITEHEAD: Well, I got it.
GROSS: Oh, all right. (Laughs) Is that from the soundtrack?
WHITEHEAD: From the soundtrack of the movie "Bonnie and Clyde"?
GROSS: Of the movie?
WHITEHEAD: But it was certainly a tie-in to the popularity...
WHITEHEAD: ...of the film. That was a kind of a trend in the '60s where
you'd take a--Burt Bacharach used to write these songs like "The Man Who Shot
Liberty Valance" that didn't come from the movie but were clearly tied in to
the release of the film.
GROSS: They're called exploitation songs.
WHITEHEAD: Good to know.
GROSS: Yes. Yeah.
WHITEHEAD: And rightly so. You know, Dexter Gordon sort of invented the
bebop tenor sax in the 1940s, and he helped popularize that brash and greasy
saxophone sound. He also had this playful sense of competition, and in the
Prestige box, he dukes it out with fellow tenors like his original sparring
partner, Wardell Gray--that's from a track from 1950--plus James Moody, Gene
Ammons and the great Texas tenor Booker Ervin. There are so many good players
in this box, and the pianists alone include Jaki Byard, Barry Harris, Bobby
Timmons, oh, and Hampton Hawes, who mostly plays electric piano, to remind us
that jazz did have its downside in the 1970s.
GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR jazz critic Kevin Whitehead. We'll hear more
good music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR jazz critic Kevin Whitehead. We're talking
about recent CD box sets that can make good holiday gifts.
Let's move on to some bargains.
WHITEHEAD: OK. To my mind, if you're going to give music for the holidays,
there should be at least a two-CD minimum; otherwise you come across looking a
little bit like a cheapskate. So let me recommend the great concert of
Charles Mingus from Paris in 1964. That's on two CDs. It comes from a
difficult tour which is widely documented on other CDs, but this one kind of
stands out. The trumpeter got sick and had dropped off the tour, and the reed
player, Eric Dolphy, had announced he'd be leaving the band when it was over
to remain in Europe, although no one had an inkling that Dolphy would die of
complications of diabetes about 10 weeks later.
But despite all the troubles, Dolphy and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan
really blend well to cover for the missing trumpet, and pianist Kaki Byard
could play in any style and usually did in the course of a concert. And
Mingus on bass and Dannie Richmond on drums played all sorts of fancy games
with the time, so they kind of anchored the band's engaging looseness in a
Should we listen to a little of their pre-postmodern medley of Charlie Parker
themes? The band has a nice way of kind of stepping out of and back into
swing time on this number.
GROSS: That sounds great.
(Soundbite of performance by Charles Mingus and band)
GROSS: I don't know what to say after hearing that except that I really love
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, I share your enthusiasm there. And Jaki Byard's
accompaniment there on piano is really wonderful to listen to.
GROSS: That sounds like a good bargain. How about another bargain?
WHITEHEAD: OK. There's also this nice series of two-disc CD and DVD
combinations that RCA put out this year devoted to Duke Ellington and Fats
Waller and Artie Shaw and a couple of others. You get to hear their music and
then watch their body language in these old soundies and movie clips on the
I want to single out one volume featuring the father of the tenor saxophone,
so-called, Coleman Hawkins, whose hundredth birthday was last month. It's a
good sampler. It starts in 1929 and ends in 1956. And it really lets you
hear how his tone ripened over time. And of course it includes his early
classics recorded for RCA, "One Hour" and "Body and Soul."
(Soundbite of "Body and Soul")
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, I think Hawk's "Body and Soul" belongs in every home, so
this could be your chance to get it for somebody, and something good to listen
to while you're looking at the tree.
GROSS: So how's the DVD with this? How are the DVDs in the series?
WHITEHEAD: The DVDs are great. There's really a lot of interesting stuff in
there. There's a hilarious segment in the Artie Shaw CD about how a swing
tune is constructed just, you know, yeah, like I say, hilarious. The problem
with the DVDs is that the documentation is really sketchy. The dates are
vague, and there's barely any personnel listings. For instance, the Hawkins
DVD has a 1958 TV clip where he squares off against his great rival Lester
Young on tenor and the band includes Charlie Shavers on trumpet and Pee Wee
Russell on clarinet and Willie `Lion' Smith on piano, but the booklet doesn't
mention any of that. I mean, you know, why keep it a secret?
GROSS: Yeah, I have the same kind of frustration with some CD booklets that
don't tell you enough about when it was recorded and who's on a session.
Well, Kevin, do you have any surprises for us?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah. Check out this golden oldie.
(Soundbite of "Kenneth Patchen-Reads with Jazz in Canada")
Mr. KENNETH PATCHEN (Poet): The lonesome boy blew. Oh, nobody's a long
time. Nowhere's a big pocket to put little pieces of nice things that have
never really happened to anyone except those people who were lucky enough not
to get born. Oh, lonesome's a bad place to crowded into with only yourself,
riding back and forth on a blind white horse along an empty road...
GROSS: So, Kevin, who is that?
WHITEHEAD: That's the poet Kenneth Patchen from the CD "Kenneth Patchen-Reads
with Jazz in Canada," recorded in 1959 with the Vancouver beatnik Al Neil's
combo. That's an old Folkways recording that's back out on the little Chicago
label Locust Music. Oddly enough, there are two CDs this season documenting
the beatnik-era craze for live jazz and poetry, and together they'd make a
nice gift for the literary or literate jazz fan. The other...
GROSS: So this is like a put-it-together-yourself box.
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, show a little initiative, you know. I mean, get out that
rubber band. The other CD that goes with it so well is "Jazz from the Cellar"
with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth reading in front of improvising
musicians in San Francisco.
GROSS: Oh, that sounds great. Now you're teaching English now, Kevin, so
what's your professional opinion of these poetry jazz records?
WHITEHEAD: Oh, how to be tactful. Well, you sense the poets' elation at
connecting with another vibrant contemporary art form, certainly. And Rexroth
really gets into lashing out at mass culture standard-bearers like Time
magazine. But the topical references can sound a little date, as topical
references often do. Well, let's hear some of that Rexroth and make the
(Soundbite of "Jazz from the Cellar")
Mr. KENNETH REXROTH: You killed him, benign lady on the postage stamp. He
was found dead at a liberal weekly luncheon. He was found dead on the
cutting-room floor. He was found dead at a Time policy conference. The
editor killed him with a telegram to the pope. Mademoiselle strangled him
with a padded brassiere. Old Possum strangled him with a tea ball. After the
wolves were done, the vaticides crawled off with his bowels to their
classrooms and quarterlies.
GROSS: Kevin, listening to that, I have to confess I was laughing.
WHITEHEAD: Yeah. Yeah, well, you know, it's funny. I mean, it's like
scathing in a quaint way. You know, `Stick it to those readers of
Mademoiselle.' You know, come on. But you do get a sense that poetry really
mattered then, maybe more than it does now.
GROSS: Well, while we're talking about poetry and jazz, are there any jazz
books that you've enjoyed this season?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, two really stand out for me. One is a new collection of
reviews and essays by the critic Larry Kart called "Jazz in Search of Itself."
As with all such collections of occasional pieces, some of it is too ephemeral
to matter, but he really writes enviably well and he's really discerning on a
wide variety of topics. He gives you everything from a close reading of Hoagy
Carmichael's song "Lazybones" to a really good account of how composer and
pianist Herbie Nichols would manipulate chords in such a way you could never
quite be sure where he was headed. And Kart is also really good at
pinpointing the shortcomings of those jazz greats who might leave you or me a
little cold, like Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson.
Shall I read a little bit of a concert review of Oscar Peterson in 1982 that
Larry Kart wrote?
GROSS: Yeah, I'd like to hear it.
WHITEHEAD: (Reading) `When Peterson shifts into high gear, which is where he
likes to be, I hear little more than a series of hammered-out riffs, the kind
of brief, streamlined phrases that were so rhythmically intoxicating in the
hands of the 1930s Basie band or guitarist Charlie Christian. But riffs
are seldom interesting themselves. Instead, they are the musical equivalent
of iron filings, meaningful only when they are shaped into larger designs by
the magnetic force of swing. Yet you won't find much design in Peterson's
music. Gobbling up the tune, the keyboard and the listener's ear and nerves,
his riffs come at you like a pool of piranhas, an assault so compulsive that
your only choices are escape or surrender.'
You know, Terry, I pride myself on my good figures of speech, but that iron
filings line is really good.
GROSS: Yeah, that's very good. Is there another book you'd like to
WHITEHEAD: There is, and one I confess I'm just beginning to make headway
in, which is musician and Cuban music authority Ned Sublette's "Cuba and
Its Music: From Its First Drums to the Mambo." This is a whopping
600-page tome that begins in Spain in 760 BC. I spent a lot of time paging
through it, and it's full of fascinating stuff that really changes the way you
look at music in the New World. He writes about how the slaves who came to
North America and to Cuba originated in different parts of West Africa, which
helps explain the huge differences between Cuban and North American music.
Ned Sublette always digs a little bit deeper than other scholars tend to,
looking for profound connections and telling details that alter the big
picture. It's really good.
GROSS: Well, that sounds great. Kevin, happy holidays.
WHITEHEAD: Right back atcha.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is FRESH AIR's jazz critic. He teaches English and
American studies at the University of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for
Coming up, we remember investigative reporter Jack Newfield. He died Monday.
This is FRESH AIR.
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