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A West Coast take on jazz

Jazz Idiom: Blueprints, Stills and Frames
Jazz Idiom: Blueprints, Stills and Frames
Photographs by Charles L. Robinson; poetry by Al Young

Heyday Books: 2008

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This review first appeared in the October 12, 2008 issue of the North County Times.

Charles Robinson doesn't have the name recognition of a William Claxton, William Gottlieb or Chuck Stewart. But like his better-known associates, the California-based Robinson has spent his adult life taking photographs of jazz musicians. Some of his best are collected in a new book from Heyday, "Jazz Idiom: Blueprints, Stills and Frames."

It's an intriguing collection presented here, a mix of performance shots and more relaxed, backstage candids. Robinson clearly had access – the multiple photographs of a recording session with saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and pianist John Lewis shows both men relaxed and utterly indifferent to the camera; that's the mark of a good photog, there.

The accompanying text – referred on the cover of the book as "poetic takes and riffs" – is by Al Young, the poet laureate of California. He doesn't explain the photos, doesn't even describe them. Rather, like a good jazz musician, he accompanies the photos – provides an aside or short poem. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you figure out where he's coming from, Young's writings are more illuminating than straight narrative explanation would be.

On the page opposite Robinson's shot of the great bassist Ray Brown holding a cello, Young contributed both a free verse poem, and then a short essay on Brown: "The gut strings, the wood of the bass. It's touch. Unlike some of the young guys who came after him, Ray was never out to show you how fast he was. Ray Brown's tone and the sound of his instrument – that was his touch. I'm curious today about who got his bass, and if anyone could get anywhere close to him. It's just beautiful to hear his grace notes."

Similarly lovely passages accompany Robinson's photos of Ray Nance and Jimmy Rushing, Milt Jackson and Miles Davis.

If there's a complaint about the book, it's that too few of the photos are run large enough to give them the visual impact they deserve. Even though the book is an oversized 9 by 8 inches, and is printed on a nice, heavy stock of paper, many of the photos are run as small as 3 by 5 inches.

Still, it's a strong collection of photos of some of the most important jazz figures of the last half-century.