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Holding the Note by David Remnick review – erudite portraits of musical greats

<span>Photograph: Michal Augustini/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Michal Augustini/Rex/Shutterstock

How to critique a compendium of writings on music by the Pulitzer prize-winning editor of the New Yorker? Praise would read like a job application. A hatchet job would be absurdly polemical. In a 2016 piece on the late, great Leonard Cohen, David Remnick quotes a conversation between Cohen and Bob Dylan in which the two singer-songwriters discussed accomplishment. Cohen, Dylan said, was “number one” but Dylan was “number zero”.

Remnick’s stuff is noisomely good. Rightly or wrongly, the New Yorker is often held to be the loftiest spot left in print, where the business of stringing sentences together on interesting topics still exists in an exalted form, insulated from the closures, compromises and clickbait that prevails elsewhere.

Its archaic hangup with diaeresis notwithstanding (coöperation! Reëmerge!), this is an organ that takes its understanding of the arts as seriously as it takes its dissections of current affairs. And Remnick himself is that relatively rare thing, an editor who still writes reams of copy, an expert on Russia who came to pen biographies of Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama, all in his spare time from running the journal of record of liberal intellectual inquiry (or at least, its North American wing).

One of the ‘artists who occupy a place beyond genre’: Aretha Franklin performing in New York in 1971
One of the ‘artists who occupy a place beyond genre’: Aretha Franklin performing in New York in 1971. Photograph: Walter Iooss Jr/Getty Images

Holding the Note is album-length, pulling together 11 of Remnick’s long-form New Yorker pieces on people such as Bruce Springsteen and Mavis Staples, Luciano Pavarotti and Aretha Franklin. They are artists who occupy a place beyond genre, in what you might call deep canon – celebrated, storied, complex; older or gone.

With the exception of Pavarotti, a Beatle (Paul McCartney) and a Stone (Keith Richards), most are also Americans, and fit in with Remnick’s interest in myth-level US figures. The youngest is probably Springsteen. This is no slur on Remnick – recently, he interviewed gen Z pop icon Olivia Rodrigo for the New Yorker Radio Hour podcast – but more acknowledging that these essays assume a set of late 20th-century concerns, making sense of careers formed in the barely conceivable late boomertimes. In the foreword, Remnick admits he met with these veterans past their commercial peaks. What united them all, however, was a desire to “hold the note”: to keep working – or in the case of Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy, to keep an entire genre alive.

Helpfully, Remnick is also present earlier on. Now in his 60s, Remnick grew up in a jazz-obsessed Jewish family. He knows the work of Patti Smith and Bob Dylan first-hand and inside out; he saw them play, and others here, as a young civilian.

To an outsider, it feels as if New Yorker writers spend their days wittily debating the most delicious place to put a comma; they seem to have many luxurious months to pen vast profiles of subjects who grant them unlimited access. Many of these Remnick pieces are true to cliche: remarkable, not just for their expertise and vividness, but for the aeons he spends talking to his subjects and those around them.

His levels of access are exceptional. Dylan doesn’t actually talk to Remnick for his – still excellent – Dylan piece, in which he puts forward a “unified field theory of Dylan”. But he does get Dylan to talk about Cohen, and it’s no token pullquote, but rather paragraphs of erudite dissection, both technical and effusive.

Remnick conveys both the loftiness of this devotion to a niche interest and its attendant ridiculousness, with respectful humour

Remnick hangs out with Paul McCartney at his house in the Hamptons, in his Manhattan office. He flies to Singapore to do Pavarotti for a piece published in 1993, an assignment that ends up covering many months as the tenor undergoes knee surgery before going back on tour. Remnick rejoins him, on private jets and in dressing rooms.

Notwithstanding all the largesse in which this journalism can occur, the best piece here is one where the subject is more removed. In Bird-Watcher, which ran in May 2008, Remnick profiled a Columbia University radio DJ, Phil Schaap, who has since died. Schaap was a jazz obsessive and “a mad Talmudic scholar” of the every exhalation of saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker.

Schaap grew up surrounded by jazz musicians, who thought him a prodigious child savant. He turns out to have a heart, too. Schaap takes Remnick to visit Lawrence Lucie, one of the last then-living musicians (he died in 2009) with direct links to the heyday of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington, in his care home.

Knowledgable and probing, Remnick conveys both the loftiness of this devotion to a niche interest and its attendant ridiculousness, with respectful humour. In painstakingly restoring tapes of lost Parker performances, Schaap calculates he probably made “0.0003 cents an hour”. Jazz accounts for just 3% of music sales in the US in 2008, Remnick tells us – and that’s counting Michael Bublé and Kenny G. The piece is a lament about the decline of jazz as a living, breathing phenomenon, and one man’s great care and attentiveness to this most American, this most 20th century of art forms.

Holding the Note: Writing on Music by David Remnick is published by Picador (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply