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  • Analyzing Jazz: A Schenkerian Approach
  • Dariusz Terefenko
Analyzing Jazz: A Schenkerian Approach. By Steve Larson. (Harmonologia: Studies in Music Theory, no. 15.) Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2009. [x, 204 p. ISBN 9781576471869. $99.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography.

Typically, Ph.D. dissertations are placed on library shelves and left undisturbed. Occasionally, an aspiring academic or ABD candidate might place an interlibrary loan request for a certain dissertation. In the field of music theory—or, more specifically, jazz theory—there have been a handful of dissertations that not only have been very influential, but also so daring in their ideology and scope that they have shaken the very foundation of the discipline they purported to advance. Steve Larson's dissertation from 1987 is clearly such a work, and, at last, can be widely appreciated by jazz scholars and practitioners in a handsome volume published by Pendragon Press.

Analyzing Jazz: A Schenkerian Approach takes us back to the beginning of Larson's academic career, a budding period in jazz theory scholarship when novel concepts were suggested and fresh analytical directions were attempted. In 1987, Larson's study was an outgrowth of earlier works by different scholars: George Russell's The Lydian-Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation, for All Instruments (New York: Concept, 1959), Steven Strunk, "The Harmony of Early Bop: A Layered Approach" (Journal of Jazz Studies 6 [1979]: 4–53), and others; since then, such research has affected the work of jazz theorists such as Henry Martin (Charlie Parker and Thematic Improvisation [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996]) and Keith Waters ("Blurring the Barline: Metric Displacement in the Piano Solos of Herbie Hancock," Annual Review of Jazz Studies 8 [1996]: 19–37), to name just a few. Having subsequently written profusely on the subject of Schenkerian theory and its jazz applications (Steve Larson, "'Strict Use' of Analytic Notation," Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 10 [1996]: 31–71; "Composition versus Improvisation?" Journal of Music Theory 49, no. 2 [2005]: 241–75), it seems odd that Larson decided to publish the original version of his dissertation with only limited revisions.

In the preface Larson writes: "I chose to study Schenkerian analysis of modern jazz because of my interest in the theories of Heinrich Schenker and because of my interest in jazz" (p. x). With this declaration, Larson sets a rather lofty—if not unattainable—objective, given the overall conceptual framework of Schenkerian theory. While Schenker was largely sympathetic toward improvisation (as his writings on C. P. E. Bach indicate) and did not consider written composition to be completely divorced from the act of improvisation, his theoretical construct was designed for a very specific musical repertory. And, as with any theory—be it scientific, literary or other—that has a consistent and coherent testing apparatus, Schenkerian theory is most accurate and fruitful when applied to the musical genres and styles approved by its creator himself, which consists almost entirely of masterworks by C. P. E. Bach, J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Domenico Scarlatti, Schubert, and Schumann.

There is an apparent trap in trying to apply a specific theoretical model—especially one that had been so carefully designed—to a musical repertory that falls outside of the explanatory scope of that model. To put it more bluntly, employing a theory to analyze a repertory that the theory's author would have most likely detested seems risky at best and irrelevant at worse. Clearly, Larson's study ventures far beyond the familiar turf reserved for Schenkerian purists and follows the research of a more [End Page 323] progressive crowd for whom no musical style or genre is off limits from Schenkerian analysis. Given his apologetic tone at times, Larson is well aware of apparent difficulties and ensuing criticism his book might trigger. But despite the obvious risks, his magnum opus constitutes—for the most part—a well-thought effort with subtle recontextualizations of some crucial tenets of the original theory, and lives up to the reputation it has accumulated over the years.

The book is neatly organized into six chapters, a preface, and the transcription section. The introductory chapter 1 offers general remarks about the overall structure of the...