Friday, April 29. 2005
Some news items:
Tuesday, April 26. 2005
I started writing this entry a few days back, lost my thread, and don't seem to be able to get it back. I had the idea that the right's more paranoid mode of discourse is a muddled acknowledgment of major problems coming -- in many ways the same problems that we fear, even if they articulate them differently, and propose a radically different course of action. One of the big problems we have is that the political concepts, even the language, that we filter our perceptions through gives us distorted ideas about the nature of these problems and what to do about them. It looks like it's going to be a long hard project to sort them out. I think that a lot of our misunderstandings go back to the ideologies and practices of anti-communism -- a program that went beyond opposing a few hostile, tyrannical states to promoting the interests of capital over labor worldwide, and which operated by politicizing the most conservative religious sectors and by forging alliances with corrupt agents all around the third world. (In effect, war against the communist left advanced the power of the right against everyone.) The success of anti-communism added to the prestige of the military and espionage organs, psyched all the more to find new enemies. But there are deeper channels that concern us: the idea the pursuit of self-interest is always best; the idea that the world imposes no finite limits on the economy; the idea that the world can always be made to conform to our wishes; the idea that our ends justify whatever means. As political discourse has become corrupted -- as it has become a mere tool to advance political aims -- we've lost our objectivity, our connection to reality. Increasingly this disconnection gives way to myth and fantasy, vouchsafed by faith and impervious to reason. Religion has always been a method of coping with ignorance; it gives us conviction in the face of fears. As the future becomes ever more uncertain religion has increasingly become an attempt to hide deep in an imagined past. The fears are real, and faith prepare us poorly to face them.
The sense that we in the United States are headed towards disaster is palpable and growing. The left, of course, is obsessed with this, but the paranoid rants from the right are equally convincing. Another sign is the alarming growth and aggressiveness of religion in public life. Faith has always been a tonic for fear. Religion is defensive: it seeks to bind us together through shared ritual and myth, and by separating us from the other. Before civilization people defended themselves by huddling together in tribes. All of the progress that we have achieved -- longer lives, population growth, material wealth, science and culture -- came about by breaking down tribal boundaries. For much of the 20th century the U.S. was at the forefront of this civilization -- admirable in concept if not always in fact -- but something very profound has gone wrong, and today we find ourselves in the midst of a frantic retribalization.
It's tempting to let loose a scathing critique of religion, but that would be like treating a fever instead of the infection that caused it. Religion is symptomatic; one of many, like knee-jerk patriotism and blustering militarism, tribalism with fangs and a nasty snarl. When disaster falls, the country is likely to break along longstanding faults in its foundation, but picking at such old cracks as racism won't help much either. The problems that we face are profound. Let's try to list a few of them, in no particular order:
That list, at least, strikes me as one general way to sum up the core problems. On top of this list one can add another thanks to the amazingly counterproductive instincts of our political ideologues. Worried about gas prices? Give more tax breaks to oil companies. Crime? Build more prisons. Drugs? Tougher sentences. Terrorism? Go kill Muslims. Can't get health insurance? Tighten up the bankruptcy laws. Faulty, untrustworthy high-tech products? Sounds like a job for Tort Reform. But this is more than ineptness: it shows that we've developed some fundamental misunderstandings about how the world works. And while these seem to be highly concentrated among the neoconservatives, the neoliberals fare little better. Indeed, the old left-right political dichotomy has been supplemented by something new and ominous. Traditionally the right has been the party of property rights, against which the left advocated broader human rights. There is at least room for compromise along that axis, but politics today, at least in the U.S., splits along lines that are impossible to merge: between science and faith, or more pointedly, between reality and fantasy. Clinically, this is starting to look like a question of sanity, but nobody really wants to go there.
Thursday, April 21. 2005
Francis Davis wrote a piece in the Village Voice this week on Verve's reissue of fifteen albums of circa 1970 avant-garde jazz originally issued on the America label in France. I have these records, and will get to them when I get to them, but for now I just want to point out two things: (1) faced with such volume Davis did the simplest, most comprehensive thing: he did a paragraph on each artist, clumping albums together in only two cases; and (2) he didn't grade them, leaving the reader wondering whether, and how much, he likes each one. Grades are not without problems, but they do convey useful information very compactly. I don't know whether the idea of grading came up during the writing or editing. Aside from its utility grading carries a lot of baggage, but the main downside is that it urges the critic to be judgmental, even in cases where it's sufficient just to be informative. I haven't gotten very deep into these records -- haven't yet played most of them -- but offhand I'd say they're less likely to be great albums than interesting ones in their historical context.
Davis also wrote about new albums by Ted Nash and Grachan Moncur III. I like the Nash quite a bit, but don't much care for the Moncur -- an octet album, a configuration I often find unwieldly. Larry Blumenfeld has a piece on the David S. Ware live set, which I've written a JCG entry on (A-, unpublished, and probably now deprioritized). One comment I'll quibble with: "Bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp, who've ranged widely to great acclaim as leaders, do their most complete work with Ware." Unless "complete" has some meaning I hadn't met yet, that's way off base: Ware is such a dominant presence that they are inevitably role players, even though they are such strong individuals that they make their mark nonetheless -- especially in the more open concert space. I've listened to most of their albums, and they do lots more on their own than they do with Ware. (In particular, I've pencilled Parker's new quartet record, Sound Unity, in as a Pick Hit for the next JCG.)
Speaking of Parker, Downbeat gave Charlie Haden a blindfold test in their May 2005 year, and Haden was totally flumoxed by a Parker sample, finally commenting, "I don't know who William Parker is, or any of the other players." The others [Rob Brown, Cooper-Moore, Susie Ibarra] I can sort of understand, but Parker? This must say something about how isolated circles of jazz musicians have become.
Tuesday, April 19. 2005
Movie: The Merchant of Venice. This was the first play I ever read by Shakespeare -- in fact, the first and only piece of classic literature that I ever read in high school and actually appreciated. Most recently, I ran across Shakespeare quoted at some length in Michael Hedges book on war, where he drew fine points on the folly of ill ambitions. Shakespeare's influence on the English language is so profound that his Jewish financier's name here has been parlayed into an anti-semitic stereotype, but anti-semitism is in the mind of the beholder, including its opponents. As I hear this, Shylock has his just reasons for sealing the deal for a pound of Antonio's flesh: the latter's Christian hauteur is so warped by his sense of superiority that he scarcely considers his risk. But in rejecting the plea for mercy Shylock falls prey to his own ill designs, as the power he thought he had under right of law turned against him. Mercy, it seems, is a one-way street in old Venice. In the end Shylock is stripped and beaten, losing his daughter, his money, and his identity, as Antonio's own bigoted sense of mercy insists that forced conversion is a blessing. Michael Radford's movie goes far in framing this story, and Al Pacino's performance is powerful and moving. A-
Movie: Sin City. Too misanthropic, not to mention too gory, for my tastes, even with the artificing filters of black/white cinematography, spot color, and minimizing effects where live action jumps back onto the pages of the comic strip. Unless, that is, the central story of the ruthlessly corrupt politician (Powers Boothe) and his saintly cannibal son (Elijah Wood and/or Nick Stahl) is meant as an analogue to the Bush clan, in which case they've managed to paint an even viler image than I could imagine. Power corrupts, and absolute power is off the scale. Then there's the matter of the amazon whores, which reminds me that this is mere fantasy. B
Saturday, April 16. 2005
I've been neglecting the news over the last couple of weeks, but unfortunately the news has not been neglecting us. Some items, mostly from inattentive memory. In no particular order:
That's all I remember, but then I wasn't paying attention. Sorry about that.
Wednesday, April 13. 2005
My "smooth jazz" piece has been posted by the Village Voice. I grew up in the generation of rock critics who believed that good rock records should be, and for the most part were, popular, and that popular records (rock anyhow) must be doing something right, otherwise they wouldn't be so popular. That belief got beat in the mid-'70s, mangled beyond recognition (despite Prince and Madonna) in the '80s, and degenerated to dark humor in the '90s (despite Nirvana, I guess, or was that the point?).
Looking back, the argument's applicability to jazz waned in the '40s and vanished utterly in the late '60s, such that by now several generations of jazz artists have never imagined anything but their own inevitable commercially marginal status. But every now and then there would appear some jazz-like artists with substantial sales, and I've always wondered whether they had something valid more than their marketing edge. Six or seven years ago I tried to interest the Voice in me taking a fresh look at Kenny G, then at something of a peak. No go on that, and I never bothered pursuing the idea on my own. But when I started getting records for my Jazz Consumer Guides some smooth jazz showed up now and then, and I found myself hoping that I might find something enjoyably funky -- perhaps an analog to contemporary r&b comparable to soul jazz in the '60s or disco instrumentalists like Bohannon in the '70s. Invariably the records came up short, and when I did find something enjoyably funky, like Jim Cifelli's Groove Station it didn't fit the smooth jazz orthodoxy close enough to fly in those circles. But I couldn't work these thoughts into CG reviews -- the best of the records weren't compelling enough to make the grade, and the worst were so inevitably bad they had no interest either.
So this piece came into being as an attempt to figure out just how smooth jazz fits into the greater jazz universe. But two facts dominate this question: 1) smooth jazz has an order-of-magnatude sales advantage over mainstream jazz, and 2) smooth jazz has no critical standing whatsoever among mainstream jazz critics. And many things follow, especially from the sales equation. A typical independent-label jazz album might sell 3k copies, with a ceiling around 30k copies -- roughly speaking, the minimum sales figure for a smooth jazz album, while smooth jazz hits can break 100k, much more for Kenny G's bestsellers. This equation affects things like the budget for the album, the promotion push, and above all the distribution. Looking around Wichita, I noticed that WalMart has about one foot of rack space for jazz; Circuit City has three feet; Best Buy has nine feet. But all three have exactly the same jazz mix: smooth jazz hits plus a few Dead Legends. (With its extra space Best Buy has a few more mainstream artists on major labels and more old catalog -- I've even seen a copy of Ascension, which I'd love to hear on "Best Buy Radio" -- but nothing from labels that don't feature smooth jazz product.) Those are the sort of channels that serve most of America, and real jazz is locked out of that level of distribution. This lockout creates a closed circle, with a small coterie of labels, artists, producers, radio, distributors locked into a narrowing niche.
I have a lot more research I could present, but I haven't sorted it out very thoroughly. What I will add here are capsule reviews of the smooth jazz albums (plus a couple of ringers) I've heard over the past year. There's more that I haven't heard -- Norman Brown, Paul Brown, Richard Elliott, Dave Koz, Chuck Loeb, Joe Sample, Soul Ballet, Wayman Tisdale, Peter White, those are all names I noted. Also missing are the singers, who are in a slightly different class -- actually, one with more upside sales potential. And I've skipped a wide range of crossover moves that haven't intersected with smooth jazz, such as jazztronica, nu soul, and whatever it is that Dune Records is up to in London. But this should give you an idea, and none of it's likely to show up in the broad sweep of Jazz Consumer Guide.
Mindi Abair: Come As You Are (2004, GRP): Young blonde saxtress, she lacks the bright tone of most smooth alto saxes, and doesn't go in for showy dynamics. Sings three songs with a thin, whispery voice that matches her sax. But two pieces stand out: "New Shoes" has an old-fashioned west coast horn arrangement for propulsion, and "Cyan" has a little bite to it. B-
Acoustic Alchemy: Radio Contact (2003, Higher Octave): Two guitarists, the group's dynamic range can be summed up by noting that one uses steel strings, the other nylon. The loping guitar riddims are the group's essence; the bass, keybs, and percussion merely fill in. Easy listening almost to the point of sensory deprivation. C+
Acoustic Alchemy: American/English (2005, Higher Octave): The twin guitars still dominate, but they've never sounded less acoustic -- the synth fill oozes up through the cracks and cascades from the edges. Relentlessly bright and bouncy: I think I liked them better when they commanded less attention, but more likely I just disliked them less. C+
Gerald Albright: Kickin' It Up (2004, GRP): Saxophonist, mostly alto, can play some. I heard a story about him going off on a solo which had to be cut because it was disruptive. So credit him with some chops, and also some taste: the vocal here, by a guest I don't recognize, is a plus, and the non-funky closer, "If You Don't Know Me By Now," is done tastefully. His funk licks are perfunctory, and the usual keyb/synth/groove bottom is workable but not exceptional. B
George Benson: Irreplaceable (2004, GRP): The three instrumentals are minor groove pieces for uninspired guitar and synth beats, but at least they don't have to carry the lame lyrics of the other seven songs. The songs come with neatly groomed layered voices. We tend to classify this kind of soul fluff as easy listening, but easy playing is more like it. It's not like anyone actually listens. C-
Chris Botti: When I Fall in Love (2004, Columbia): His image may remind people of Chet Baker, but if he's the new Baker the original could pass for Fats Navarro. But this album at least breaks out of the smooth jazz formula: no funk, no groove, no beat. With Botti's plaintive trumpet backed by string orchestra, the record can be gorgeous as long as the songs are irresistible, like the title cut. But he can't salvage tripe like "Cinema Paradiso," and three cuts with guest vocalists, including his fairy-godfather Sting, just dull the mood. This was the best selling mostly-instrumental jazz album in recent memory. B-
Rick Braun: Esperanto (2003, Warner Bros.): Trumpet player, good for a big sendup on a cover of "Green Tomatoes," but his originals are slight and unimaginative -- "Latinesque" is the title of one of the better ones, a lilting latin beat with a bit of trumpet color and synth wash. B-
Brian Bromberg: Choices (2004, A440): Plays electric bass, including a piccolo bass tuned to sound like a guitar. Like most bassists, he specializes in funk lines although he can also conjure up chiming and ringing sounds, distinguishing him a bit from the crowd. Keyboardists vary, but Gary Meek is his sax guy, playing more tenor than soprano. Goes South African at the end. B
Craig Chaquico: Midnight Noon (2004, Higher Octave): Ozzie Ahlers' keyboards are merely par for the course, but it no doubt helps that this was cut by a touring band rather than pieced together by a producer and the usual bevvy of studio hands. The leader's guitar also has more zing to it than is usually deemed appropriate for smooth jazz. He may have picked that up in his previous rock band career, although it sounds more like Allmans than Starship. B
Joyce Cooling: This Girl's Got to Play (2004, Narada Jazz): So be it. But does she also have to sing? Her straight guitar groove pieces are nothing special, but at least they have direction, unlike producer Jay Wagner's keyboards. C
Brian Culbertson: Come On Up (2003, Warner Bros.): Keyboards and programming, favors funk beats. Guest features for Steve Cole (tenor sax), Marcus Miller (bass), Rahsaan Patterson (vocals), Rick Braun (trumpet), Norman Brown (guitar) -- did he forget anyone? The one great song is the one he didn't write, "Serpentine Fire" -- not that this is a great performance. At first I thought he had replaced all the horn parts with synths, but he just mixed them down so low they vanish under keyboard and bass. B-
Eric Darius: Night on the Town (2004, Higher Octave): Good, but lightweight, disco album. Darius plays bright alto sax, gets help from Ken Navarro with the beats. Couple of vocal tracks to give the programmers some options. B
Down to the Bone: Cellar Funk (2004, Narada Jazz): Funk grooves, built on keyb beats, bass, guitar, with occasional horn vamps and/or vocal chants, neither of which relieve the uniformity of the beats. B-
Fourplay: Journey (2004, Bluebird): The old white guys (pianist Bob James, guitarist Larry Coryell) haven't stretched out in decades, but toss off better licks than your average smooth jazz setup; the not-so-old black guys in the so-called rhythm section have some explaining to do. C
Kenny G: Ultimate (1986-2003, Arista): The grand duke of smooth jazz, the guy with the sales figures that created and sustain the genre. The first point one must make is he really does have an uncanny knack not only for playing pretty but for developing arrangements of surpassing gorgeousness. Nothing wrong with that, but G pursues one narrow definition of beauty with the relentlessness of his first calling, which is business. But it should also be noted that when he tries adding vocals he loses his touch -- aside from the one he stole from Louis Armstrong. He is much hated by people who are devoted to jazz (not to mention fans of hip-hop, heavy metal, and dozens of other niches), perhaps more as a false commercial god than for anything he might lack in technique (not much, although it's hard to tell) or inspiration (quite a bit, there). C+
Euge Groove: Livin' Large (2004, Narada Jazz): A pseudonym for Steve Grove, he plays tenor as well as soprano sax, and is nimble enough on the larger horn to gracefully engage Paul Brown's stock grooves deserve. Two takes on a Sly Stone song -- as a rap and as an instrumental reprise -- fail to connect either with song or subject. C+
Incognito: Adventures in Black Sunshine (2004, Narada Jazz): English disco group, splitting the distance between Chic and EWF without the distinctiveness that made those groups so great. Which still leaves them with a dependable groove, the sort of anonymous vocals that blend into the mix, and a warm and sunny disposition. Their relationship to smooth jazz is tenuous, but I guess you take the market niche you can get. B+
Boney James: Pure (2004, Warner Brothers): Every piece has at least six credits, with many adding a horn section or a string section, with Boney's sax tucked into the matrix so neatly that you notice neither the complexity nor the craft. Indeed, this record comes as close to nothing as any I've ever heard: the rough edges have all been smoothed over, the beats routinized, any trace of personality expunged, even the guest vocals fade into oblivion. B-
Jeff Lorber: Flipside (2005, Narada Jazz): There is a light, confectionary quality to Lorber's piano. Like much of the genre the synth beats lope along and everything else is tucked in neatly, including more trumpet and saxophone as the album winds along. Still, the extra instruments add little weight or diversity; rather, they intensify the sense that the music is mere mirage, a nothing that appears enchanting from a distance. B
Keiko Matsui: Walls of Akendora (2005, Narada Jazz): This reminds me of classical music: not the old stuff that way back in grade school I avoided like the plague, but the stuff that snuck into my cranium through the movies when I was too ignorant to fathom what was going down. The central role of classical music in Hollywood was partly a historical accident, but the customary orchestration of drama was bound to be useful -- contemporary soundtracks follow the same ruts, even when they trade in string orchestras for synths. Matsui borrows more from Morricone than Mozart, but eschews the former's minimalism -- she likes to lay it on thick. I'm surprised it's as effective as it is. B+
Pat Metheny Group: The Way Up (2005, Nonesuch): Metheny's tirades against Kenny G are such common knowledge that Richard Thompson wrote a song about the dispute, siding pointedly with his fellow guitarist. But this record found itself #2 on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart, stuck behind, you guessed it, Kenny G, and leading a crowd of smooth jazz icons. There is nothing in the music here that suggests that slotting -- a clue, perhaps, is that the only other artist on the Contemporary Jazz chart with any real jazz credibility is Bill Frisell, also on Nonesuch. Metheny himself is a guy we've never been all that sure of. On the one hand, he's worked with abstractionists like Derek Bailey, cut a near-unlistenable solo album called Zero Tolerance for Silence, and provided commercial camouflage for Ornette Coleman's dazzling Song X. On the other hand, his longstanding Group with keyboardist Lyle Mays has been the most consistently popular fusion group of the last 25 years. This album adheres to none of the conventions of smooth jazz. In fact, it's a suite: an opening and three parts, each running past the 15 minute mark. I can't conceive of how they can edit it for airplay, but it does have one smooth connection: it's an elegant piece of texturing, and as such it fades gently into the background. But the texturing feels organic, and Cuong Vu's trumpet adds color. It's not compelling enough for either an artistic or commercial breakthrough, but it's not complacent or formulaic either. B+
Jason Miles: Miles to Miles: In the Spirit of Miles Davis (2005, Narada Jazz): That Jason Miles worked with Marcus Miller and Miles Davis on the latter's late '80s albums from Tutu to Amandla is a connection, but doesn't say much about spirit. Davis' post-'70 work was built around electric bass and guitar with a live drummer, and the keybs, even with Chick Corea, were just cheese sauce. But with Jason the synth beats are central: that's what he does. And despite an impressive array of guest talent that's about all he does. B-
Courtney Pine: Devotion (2004, Telarc): Evidently a star of some magnitude in England, which may be why he feels free to push the music in all sorts of directions rather than just hacking to formula -- one with brass for Osibisa, aother with tabla and sitar, the gospel-tinged title song, even a brief nod to Pharoah Sanders. He can play, but this is built as a pop album, so it doesn't really develop as jazz, but it doesn't bland out either. B+
Positive Flow: Can U Feel It? (2004, Shanachie): Donna Gardier sings. Jesse Reuben Wilson writes the songs, arranges, produces, plays keybs, concocts the beats. Mediocre neo-anglo-soul, not trippy enough for trip hop. C+
Doc Powell: Cool Like That (2004, Heads Up): He's a pleasantly funky guitarist, with work for Wilson Pickett and Luther Vandross on his resume. Kirk Whallum helps out on sax, but most of this is just highly competent funk groove. The vocals are dispensable, but the two takes (vocal and instrumental) on "Let It Be" are nice work. B
David Sanborn: Closer (2005, Verve): He's been there, done that, put enough money in pockets to get a recording budget and a listen from radio programmers who wouldn't give Bobby Watson or Vincent Herring the time of day. It helps that he has no interest in free time, and that his alto sax is a thing of beauty, and it don't hurt much that he can play the devil out of it. This isn't smooth in any definition, although the James Taylor song with the Lizz Wright vocal would fit the bill. But if they the smooth jazz powers slipped his perky "Tin Tin Deo" into their rotation it would stand out like Madonna on '80s AM. And while his "Capetown Fringe" does nothing that hasn't been done before, one wonders what the masses who never heard it before will think. His covers show good taste, and he doesn't muck them up even on the five tracks with strings. And he wrote the closing ballad, which, strings included, is lovely. B+
Spyro Gyro: The Deep End (2004, Heads Up): Spry funk, thick layers of guitar-keyb-sax that never let up, occasional tidbits of exotica; they don't aim for pablum, but they don't take risks either, so in the end they're as predictable as formula. B-
Thievery Corporation: The Cosmic Game (2005, ESL Music): This mild-mannered dub outfit is the name most frequently dropped as the difference between old-fashioned Smooth Jazz radio and its purported successor, something called Chill. Not jazz, smooth or acid or whatever; not dreary enough for trip-hop; not up enough to dance to; not ambient enough to snooze to; not much of anything, which is presumably the point. Still, the designation seems unfair, unless they lose the patois next time. B
Nestor Torres: Sin Palabras (Without Words) (2004, Heads Up): Puerto Rican flautist, at best he flies above irresistible latino groove, sometimes switching to the more substantial alto flute. But more often than not the groove is merely prefab, which leaves his flute fluttering in the wind. B-
Urban Knights: Urban Knights VI (2005, Narada Jazz): Is there funk after death? And why should anyone care? C
Andre Ward: Steppin' Up (2004, Award/Orpheus): Warm, comfy alto sax; old-fashioned disco grooves, reminds me of Bohannon at its best, but Bohannon meant for you to work out harder. The vocal guest shots, although not bad, still interfere with the vibe. Best smooth jazz album of 2004, not that that's saying much. B+
Kim Waters: In the Name of Love (2004, Shanachie): His alto sax is sweet and lustrous, standing out from the usual synth mishmash that makes up the rest of the groove. He reaches back to Barry White for an inspirational cover ("right now we're gonna go way back"), and taps R. Kelly for something comtemporary. C+
Pamela Williams: Sweet Saxations (2005, Shanachie): Alto sax, with a tiny boost to her playing which reminds me a bit of old guys like Hal Singer, but the rhythm matrix here is the usual painless groove. The one token vocal piece ululates gospel, but the basic grind is old fashioned r&b. B-
Yellowjackets: Altered State (2005, Heads Up): In business since 1981, with Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip still in their original roles 18 albums later, plus relative newcomer Bob Mintzer on reeds -- AMG sez Mintzer gives them "more jazz credibility," but this album doesn't. The groove tracks are exceptionally lifeless, and Mintzer plays along decoratively rather than taking any tangents. The obligatory vocal track is even more lifeless. C
Forever, for Always, for Luther: A Tribute to Luther Vandross (2004, GRP): You can follow the thread of r&b back at least fifty years and find jazz analogues every step of the way. If today's matches suffer by comparison, it's partly because today's slicker, more urbane r&b depends more than ever on the vocalists, and because jazz vocalists these days just don't make the grade. What keeps this from tanking is that the instrumentalists at least get good songs to work over. Best shots: Kirk Whallum, Mindi Abair. B
Jazz for Couch Potatoes! (2004, Shanachie): Old TV themes done up by the Couch Potato All-Stars, a/k/a Chuck Loeb with help from much of Shanachie's roster -- the good (Eric Alexander), the bad (Kim Waters), and the ugly (David Mann). Light but tasteful arrangements, clever to downright mediocre tunes. I like Alexander on "Bewitched" and Loeb on "The Andy Griffith Show," but would have preferred Charlie Parker to convolute "Gilligan's Island." B
Wednesday, April 6. 2005
My Recycled Goods reissues/world music column has been posted by Static Multimedia. This is the 18th more/less monthly column I've done for Static, dating back to Feb. 2003. I keep them archived on my website, and keep an artist index there. I've covered 638 albums there. I started to install the reviews at Terminal Zone, but haven't gotten very far. There they can be combined with the Jazz Consumer Guide reviews and the hundreds of notebook reviews (at least the ones that are fit to keep). The big difference between Recycled Goods and Jazz Consumer Guide is that I have unlimited space with RG, so I can fit in an introduction and include pretty much everything I get, whereas JCG is very compressed due to the limited allotment of space. This shows up not only in how many records get included but also in how many words I write per record. With JCG I have to weigh every word like it's a zero-sum game: an extra word here means one less word somewhere else. It's much harder to write, but also better written. (Much of the credit there has to go to Robert Christgau's editing -- it's tough to slip anything sloppy past him. Michael Tatum's editing of RG is immensely helpful as well, but he's not nearly so picky.)
Another difference is that I make a much more serious effort to make JCG comprehensive. I try to hear all the new jazz worth hearing for JCG, and the publicists are usually obliging. On the other hand, reissues are such a huge domain that I can only hope to poke around selectively, and I usually have so much backlog that I'm less likely to go out of my way to track things down. Moreover, some publicists figure that anyone can write for a webzine, so Static has less pull than the Voice does, even though I'm much more likely to actually publish something about an RG candidate than a JCG candidate. All this makes RG more arbitrary. When I look through the reissues sections of Mojo, Blender, Rolling Stone, most of what shows up there never makes it to my door. On the other hand, I get a lot of jazz, and I get more from Sony/Legacy and Shout! Factory than I ask for -- I guess there wasn't a lot of requests for that Jim Nabors worst-of -- so they show up disproportionately. On the other hand, UMG's reissues division has clammed up, BMG's difficult, and WEA's impenetrable. Reissues is a segment that is overwhelmingly dominated by majors -- they accumulate catalogs, and make good money in their recycling. There's some interesting stuff out on the fringes, and I wish I had more time to track it down. But for now I cover what I can, which is still quite a bit.
Tuesday, April 5. 2005
My fourth Village Voice Jazz Consumer Guide column appeared today. The first column appeared in July, 2004, followed by one in September, then another in January, 2005. I haven't been working to a schedule here -- early speculation on how frequently the column would run ranged from three to six times a year -- but it's actually run almost like clockwork every three months. This is something of a surprise to me, since what I notice day-to-day are the delays -- how long it takes to assemble, to edit, to schedule space and lay out. Each time I write more than fits, then haggle over where to cut, then think I have the next one half done already, expecting to finally pick up the pace. Early on I was short for material, but these days I have so much material that's so remarkable that I find myself cutting lots of genuinely good records realizing that I'm never going to find space for them, even if I do somehow manage to pick up the pace.
The Jazz Consumer Guide is the front end of a system for sorting as much new jazz as I can get my hands on and find time to make sense of. Behind it I have a series of files that I use to keep track of everything I get, and more files that try to list what else is out there. (It's impossible to know what you don't know, but there are ways to measure what you don't know, and less perfectly to assess how much your ignorance detracts from your knowledge.) One shift evident in this column (and it's probably exaggerated) is that I'm doing a more effective job of seeking out records as opposed to just responding to what shows up in the mail. The breakdown this time is 8 to 4, the 8 including two records I bought and 4 that I got by approaching the artists (3 self-labelled), while only one of the 4 (Potter) was likely to have shown up in most working critics' mail. (The Björkenheim/Ligeti was actually a side-effect of trying to track down Juhani Aaltonen's records, about which you'll hear more next time.) Branch Rickey's famous maxim is that luck is the residue of design. It may be lucky to find such great records in such out-of-the-way places, but there's a lot of logic and organization behind the search, and it seems to be paying off.
My system puts a ridiculous amount of emphasis on grades. This is wrong in that it suggests that there is a measurable standard against which the records are evaluated. Of course, there is no such standard. The closest simple grading system I can come up with would be to measure two factors: how expertly do you fulfill my expectations for a type of music, and how surprising is the result. In other words, competency and invention. But two such factors are incommensurable, often even contradictory. Quantify the two and multiply them and the answers is bound to be nonsense. Yet that's more or less what grading does. Still, I do it. I see two advantages in it: one is that it helps in managing quantities of data; the other is that it makes my writing more economical. With the grade at the end you know whether I like the record or not, and approximately how much -- no need to tune adjectives. And the data is large: I get about 400 jazz albums a year, and the grades map those 400 into a context provided by over 10,000 grades in my album database.
The grading system I use is roughly based on what Robert Christgau has done in his Consumer Guides, but I'll give you my definitions here. First, a B record is a good one: competent, skilled, pleasing, unremarkable. I could play B records all day long and never complain, but presumably I'd wind up wondering why I bothered. I've mostly tuned my ears to not notice B records. Anything below B has somehow managed to annoy or offend me. I rarely go very far down the grade list, and don't claim much precision there -- once a record dips below the line of tolerance I lose interest in it. In general, a C+ record is probably a competent piece of hackwork, while a C- record is likely to be a much less competent atrocity. Lower grades usually indicate pain, as opposed to mere annoyance.
A B+ is a consistently enjoyable album or one with remarkable features that I may not fully appreciate or value. I've found many of my favorite albums in Christgau's B+; you will likely find treasures in mine. In practice, the upper third are records I enjoy a lot; the bottom third include records that I admire more than I like, but they all have much to recommend. It's just that the A- records have more -- sometimes much more. Higher grades are rare -- in the database they are usually records that have stood the test of time, that exemplify a unique artistic vision, but sometimes they just make me deliriously happy from beginning to end. I'd like to think that A and A+ records are universal -- that even someone who doesn't think they like avant-garde jazz, for instance, could really get into records like Dave Holland's Conference for the Birds or Amalgam's Prayer for Peace.
Based on what I get, I'd have to say that the distribution for current jazz records is a bit above normal -- the mean record is somewhere in the low B+ range. My own results skew this way mostly because I seek out good records while bypassing not so good ones, but if I did get everything, and managed miraculously to grade it all, the mean should drop into the mid B range, but the distribution wouldn't be normal -- it would be skewed high, more B+ than B-/C+, maybe more A- than C/C-. Most of the reasons for this are systemic -- they apply to any kind of music, where good musicians (however you define that, and there's a wide range of opinion) simply get more opportunities to record than bad musicians, where good records get promoted more than bad ones, etc. But I will mention two reasons that are relatively specific to jazz. One is that it's a relatively homogeneous form of music -- mostly instrumental, mostly out of a specific historical tradition, with common conventions. The other is that jazz is relatively untouched by commercial pressures -- and things that go with money, like production budgets. Proof of these points can be gleaned by looking at the exceptions: vocal jazz grades much more variably than instrumental, while the most commercial jazz variants skew quite a bit down. (The mean for "smooth jazz," in my rather limited experience, is close to the B-/C+ border, and I'm rather open-minded on the subject.)
I think that the four Jazz Consumer Guides to date have shown progressive grasp of the domain, sharpening of my sort skills, and possibly a little tighter writing. I expect the next year to progress similarly -- there's still a lot out there that I don't know about. It's also made me more aware of my preferences and prejudices: love tenor sax, especially in small groups; don't like multiple overlapping horn lines, either in small groups or big bands; don't have much to say about piano trios or solo; don't like strings or flutes, especially when they remind me of classical or new age; like world fusion exotica, but often find myself dumbfounded by latin; give singers a tough time; rarely think avant-garde solos and duos pay off; find smooth jazz too formulaic, although synth beats are fine. I'm getting better at following avant-garde, free, creative, whatever you call it, although I still suspect that a lot of the experiments are half-assed and don't work. I'm having trouble finding as much traditional jazz as I'd like. But there are exceptions to all of this, and in the end the exceptions are more interesting than the rules.
Time to clean up the system again. I keep a "done" file with notes for everything that I've rated but haven't used, and clean that out on each column publication, putting the notes into the notebook. The "done" file started with 279 records, of which 31 appeared in the Jazz Consumer Guide. I've culled the following albums, listed in rank order (best to worst). These are records I've heard, rated, noted, and decided not to include in future Jazz Consumer Guides. There are various reasons for this: some were written about by other Village Voice writers and I don't have much to add to their comments; some I wrote about in my Recycled Goods reissue column; some are of marginal interest to jazz; a lot are B+ albums that lose out in the space crunch -- I listed 15 Honorable Mentions this time, leaving 157 B+ candidates, about ten columns worth; almost everything B rated; some lower rated records I don't feel like picking on for one reason or another. Total cull is 108 records, leaving 152 rated/107 unrated. From the latter, plus whatever shows up in the meantime, I'll write up 30 or so records next time.
Here's the cull list. The notes are in the notebook.