Books: High Notes

AMERICAN SINGERS by Whitney Balliett Oxford; 178 pages; $10

A good jazz accompanist is hard to find.

He has to play up the soloist, adding a flourish here or a rhythmic twist there, never straying from the background. Whitney Balliett is his critical counterpart. Jazz aficionados tend to go heavy on the adjectives; Balliett favors a deceptively simple style that illuminates the musician instead of the writer.

This latest collection of a dozen profiles, mostly from his New Yorker criticism, is Balliett's "act of homage to a highly gifted and unaccountably neglected group of Americans." They are America's nonclassical singers: figures like Mabel Mercer,...

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