Village Voice critic Giddins (Rhythm-a-ning, 1985, etc.) shows his versatility in this large, varied collection of reviews and essays--but the jazz pieces remain far more impressive than the author's writing on literature and show-biz. Although Giddins can get a bit gushy about his enthusiasm for the vocal and instrumental jazz greats (e.g., a self-indulgent tribute to Sarah Vaughan), he's usually persuasive in his mix of extensive knowledge and eloquent appreciation. He uses lesser-known recordings to fashion a balanced assessment of Ella Fitzgerald's uneven yet awesome career; he makes a convincing case for the undervalued Kay Starr (whose ``serpentine portamentos...resemble tailgate glides''). As for Louis Armstrong, Giddins stresses a ``renegade'' quality that was able to transmute racist material. And, combining live-concert reviews with surveys of recorded work (plus a few interviews), he does justice to the distinctive contributions of harmonica-virtuoso Larry Adler, the erratic Miles Davis, sax-man Sonny Rollins (``the most commanding musician alive''), and Dizzy Gillespie--whose Afro-Cuban innovations are highlighted in a close analysis of the landmark composition, ``Manteca.'' Giddins's book reviews--on Vonnegut, Roth, Welty, James M. Cain (``no one squats more imposingly'' in the trashy dominion of ``foul dreams'') and others--are solid but mostly unremarkable. Overviews of the careers of Jack Benny and Irving Berlin are surprisingly bland; Giddins does better with Hoagy Carmichael and Myrna Loy. Least effective of all is an effusive defense of Clint Eastwood's Bird film-bio of Charlie Parker. Not Giddins at his consistent, authoritative best, then, but sturdy, accessible work from a valuable critic.