Q and A

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Tom Hull.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

September 08, 2020

[Q] Anyway, I was singing along to the radio with a lotta joy and silliness today in my car and wondered . . . do you sing? do you dance? anything specific that might get you to start singing or dancing? -- Peter, New York [2020-09-03]

[A] I've never been any good at singing or dancing, and have long made it a point to avoid things I'm hopeless at. I remember being in a choir in 5th grade and the girl behind me insisted that I lip synch -- and kicked me any time she could hear me. As for dancing, I never figured out what to do with my arms. I can't help but sympathize with Donald Trump's idiotic swaying with his hands locked together so they don't get into trouble. On the other hand, I do have vague memories of being able to dance to the Temptations' Greatest Hits -- no album gives me joy more consistently. And when no one's around, sure, I sometimes catch myself singing along. Most recently: "Ruby Baby" (The Drifters).

[Q] I just read the piece about your method for voting in the Downbeat Critics Poll and I thought it was fascinating.

My question, as a musician, is how does one even get on the radar as a candidate for consideration to one of these polls? Thank you very much for your time. -- Alix St. Felix, Killeen,TX, USA [2020-09-01]

[A] I've written up notes on DownBeat polls every year from 2003 through 2019, except 2010 (index here). It looks like the first series (2003-09) were reactions to the published poll results, whereas the second series (2011-19) are mostly records of who I voted for (so 2011 seems to be when I got my first invite). I've probably written about methods and rationales along the way, but don't think of myself as having a consistent approach to the task. The last several years all I've tried to do has been to capture the album lists (as a check against what I've heard and missed) and get through everything else as fast as I possibly can. The invites claim voters can work through the ballots in 45 minutes, but I've never been able to complete the set in less than 4 hours, and 8-10 was more common back when I tried to take them more seriously. I've never compared notes with other voters, so I have nothing to generalize from.

I should also note that my votes are way out of line with the poll totals, so I'm unlikely to help you there. About the only thing I can say is that having the backing of a big label and publicist helps, but probably isn't sufficient. Of course, it's easier to break into the less popular instrument categories, and the Rising Star tier is relatively volatile. I know of one case where a guy mounted a very aggressive, personal campaign for Rising Star Guitarist, and managed to win. That wound up pissing a lot of critics off, and I've never heard from him again, so maybe it wasn't such a great career move.

DownBeat seems like a big deal in the small world of jazz magazines, but I've never found it very useful for finding good records I didn't already know about. Back when I was writing Jazz Consumer Guide, virtually every one of my Dud picks enjoyed a DownBeat cover story. Of course, that wasn't accidental -- I wasn't going to waste a Dud pick on something obscure -- but even so was a striking correlation. They've never asked me to review anything, so I have no insight into how their review decisions are made. From far away, it does look like buying advertising helps, but that's not something I know. Publicists should have some insight into that sort of thing. I don't know what they cost or whether they're cost-effective, but as a reviewer I appreciate their efforts and support.

[Q] Just a simple question to ask what you think of Future Nostalgia. Loved so far, and I like it. Is Dua worth the acclaim? -- AJ Blackett, London [2020-08-13]

[A] I gave it an A- shortly after it came out, and a recent replay didn't tempt me to change it. How it holds up for the ages is hard to gauge -- I'm beginning to wonder whether, given my age and changes in consumption habits, anything new will ever resonate with me as much as the music I grew up on -- but I'm happy for every good dance-pop album that comes my way. The remixes on Club Future Nostalgia are nothing special, but also fun.

August 31, 2020

[Q] May I suggest Jimmy Heath as a topic for more research? You don't seem to have covered many of his sessions. And you could always throw in some Heath Brothers releases though they don't hold as much interest for me.

Also am surprised that your ratings for Wayne Shorter's early work excepting Night Dreamer don't rate an A of any sort. Just sayin'. Thanks -- Tom Viti, Westwood, MA [2020-08-22]

[A] I only had two Heath's first two albums in the database: The Thumper, which I probably bought in the 1990s and found too bebop at the time, and Really Big!, which I got a reissue of when I was writing Recycled Goods and liked a lot. I looked through what I could find, and wrote them up here. I thought I had a copy of Little Man Big Band (1992), but couldn't find it, even to stream. Given his early focus on arranging, big bands were a natural extension, but I found myself liking his basic quartets best, even though he's never spectacular. His brothers were first-rate roll players, and Percy's only album as a leader (A Love Song) is a delight.

I'm reluctant to go back and revisit the ones I've heard, although there's a good chance that The Thumper belongs in one of the B+ tranches. Same with Shorter, although a revisit to Adam's Apple raised the grade significantly (but not quite to A-). Instead, I made an effort to listen to the records I had missed (same link as above), finding good stuff early and some pretty awful albums during and after his Weather Report period -- a band I have little respect for, but their 3-CD box (Forecast: Tomorrow) did eke out a B+(**). He returned to form with the quartet he formed around 2000, although I haven't liked his attempts to expand on the quartet (Alegria, and especially the highly praised Emanon). I did give his 2-CD The Classic Blue Note Recordings an A, but as I'm writing this I'm playing his earlier Blue Note compilation, The Best of Wayne Shorter, and I'm not blown away.

August 08, 2020

[Q] My questions: I've recently been discovering 60's/70's UK jazz which -- with a few exceptions like Joe Harriott -- had largely been off my radar. Players like Michael Garrick, Don Rendell, Ian Carr (who I was aware of more for his Miles writing), Mike Osborne, Tony Coe, Harry Beckett, Tubby Hayes, etc, plus players associated with the South African expats Blue Notes group: Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, Louis Moholo. Also missing women who emerged a bit later in UK like Annie Whitehead and Lindsay Cooper. A few of these folks appear in your database but others missing or very limited coverage. Have you thought about checking out on this scene at all given the recent apparent London jazz resurgence? The quality of these recordings is wildly uneven and the rhythm sections mostly hit or miss. But some of the best strikes me as an interesting blend of Mingus-like or western Euro (or Caribbean?) compositional structures filtered through a Blue Note hard bop sensibility.

There's also been some recent reissues of Polish Jazz, which aside from the great Tomasz Stanko I know nothing about. Seems like a few others had been working with Komeda, who is represented by only his one A rated album. Thoughts?

And BTW -- does/did Francis Davis have a website? Thought I noticed a mention of you working with him but I've not found anything. -- Rich, Nashville [2020-07-31]

[A] Most of what I know about British jazz comes from Penguin Guide. Being based there, Cook and Morton are pretty encyclopedic, including a soft spot for trad jazz as well as avant-garde. Same for the continent (including Poland), although their coverage is spottier. The European (including British) share of Penguin Guide may be as much as a third, whereas the European percentage of US guides is at most a single digit, probably a small one. I don't have an easy way of figuring how how many jazz musicians I've reviewed from which countries. I did once compile a list of Norwegians I had reviewed. If memory serves, it came to about 50 names. It would only take 600 names to get to 10% of my database (1200 to get to 20%), so I'd expect the answer to be within that range.

From 1995-2005, I compiled a long list of Penguin Guide picks, ordered a few, but mostly scrounged around for them in used CD shops. So what I found reflected distribution (or lack thereof) in the US. In particular, I almost never found British labels like Emanem, Incus, Slam, or FMR (Leo fared a bit better). I never got many promos from Britain -- although I did a bit better from elsewhere in Europe. Later, I tried to stream whatever popped into my head and could find, including most of the much hyped recent London scene. I've recently looked for old records by Harriott, Hayes, Beckett, and Pukwana (from your list -- I've been a big fan of In the Townships since shortly after it came out, and I've tried to follow the other South African expats). I noticed a recent box set of Carr, but 6-CD is a lot to tie yourself down to the computer for (if, indeed, it's available). I'm surprised I don't have more by Osborne, who's always impressed me. Also that I didn't even recognize Whitehead. British jazz covers the gamut, although there is hard bop and post-bop are less dominant than in the US, and there is still a chance that someone with a little edge can score a crossover hit (someone like Courtney Pine, or more recently Shabaka Hutchings). Obviously, there's a lot more I should listen to.

Poland's become a pretty important center, especially for free jazz. Not Two, like many European labels, started by hosting foreigners, but has grown into one of Europe's most important labels. Unfortunately, they've been hard to deal with, and their streaming release schedule is erratic. ForTune and Fundacja Sluchaj each sent me a big (one-tim) package a while back, but I'm mostly able to follow them on Bandcamp, so I do. I recently found some older Polish jazz on Napster -- Polskie Nagrania Muza's "Polish Jazz" series, which now seems to be owned by Warner Music -- so I've started to work my way through it, including some pretty decent trad jazz. I haven't found Komeda's "complete works," but they're probably worth a deep dive. Same for major players like Stanko, Zbigniew Namyslowski, and Jan Wroblewski, and no doubt others I haven't gotten to yet.

After Gary Giddins left the Village Voice, Francis Davis took over writing feature jazz pieces, and I filled in the cracks with my Jazz Consumer Guide. When Francis started his Jazz Critics Poll, I was delegated the job of posting the ballots, so we work together on that each year. Seems like at some point I pitched the idea of building him a website. As I recall, he was intrigued, but neither of us followed up. I'm not aware of him having one.

PS: Over the following weeks, I reviewed a number of Polish jazz albums (mostly 1960s-1980s), as well as a bunch of British jazz albums by Ian Carr, Michael Garrick, and/or Don Rendell. See Streamnotes (August 2020).

July 23, 2020

[Q] You've probably answered this question already, elsewhere on your site, but here goes: can you clarify your rating system, particularly the asterisks after the grades? Are they just a finer grading system than the letters? -- Jeff Golick, NYC [2020-07-21]

[A] I can't find the reference, but I think my first note on my grades was that they "follow contemporary academic standards." I was referring to Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide, which I had read since its inception in 1969 -- those earliest columns were transcribed from copies in my ancestral attic -- and had internalized like a second language. Sometime in the 1990s I created a file of albums I owned and assigned them grades as best I could recall, and that file eventually turned into my ratings database. Christgau has several explanations of his system (e.g., from his 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s books, his 2008 User's Guide to the Consumer Guide, and 2019's introduction to his newsletter, It's a Start. His original use of letter grades ran from A to E (not F), with plus/minus for shadings. In 1990, he resolved not only seek superior albums and not to bother with B or lower grades. When he collected his 1990s reviews, he decided to sort his Honorable Mentions into three tiers, represented by *, **, and *** (the more the better). He confused things by continuing to use B+ for longer reviews, and sometimes argued that B+ ranked above ***, but my interpretation was that that the stars denoted subdivisions of B+, and the literal grade just meant a record worth writing more about than the single-line HMs.

I didn't automatically start using his stars, but in 2005, after I started writing Jazz Consumer Guide, I found myself in a quandry, where I had way more B+ records than I could fit into my HM section. However, his three-tier system fit my needs nicely. The top records I wound up with as HMs could be graded B+(***), B+(**) were candidates I might still consider but probably couldn't fit in, and B+(*) were good records I needn't give any further thought to. Soon I was using this scheme for all records. When I've attempted to plot grades on a curve, I've been fairly pleased.

On the other hand, if I had it to do all over again, I'd probably use a numerical scale, like { 0 . . 10 }. As I've collected my reviews into book files, I've been converting the grades to a numerican scale: A and A+ (a distinction I hardly ever make these days) to 10, A- to 9, B+ to 6-8, B to 5, B- to 4, C+ to 3, C to 2, C- to 1, D+ or lower to 0 (another distinction I haven't made in a long time). This dispenses with the school association, is more intuitive (at least compared to the stars), and simplifies the math.

Finally, I should note that what the grades mean is personal -- as I put it in the Introduction, "the grades probably say more about me than about the music" -- and provisional: they are based on as much listening as I have done, which is often just one play, and sometimes a distracted one. They don't signify anything objectively; just how much I enjoyed the record, how interesting I found it, and maybe how distinctive (to the extent that matters). Your view may, and probably does, vary, and I don't mean to dissuade you from it. But I do believe I've applied my taste pretty consistently over a large number of albums (currently 33,650), and hope you may find that data useful.

I've created a file called A Note on Grades to answer this question in the future. At some point I'll take what I wrote here and try to make it a bit clearer.

[Q] Americans are banned from Europe, tourists are excluded from visiting the European Union, just as Russians they are condemned to the penalty box. The position of the US in playing a leading role in international politics was untouchable for a long time, but the countries in Europe seem to focus more and more on their own strength now. Of course the election of a crazy president is much to blame, and all this has accelerated due to Covid 19. I wondered how you look at Europe, have you ever been there and what do you think of our music? Just Celtic longing, phony Englishness and exotic accents? In the 70's Dutch bands as the Golden Earring, Shocking Blue and Focus were popular in the States. In the 80's the obscure Boulevard of Broken Dreams was mentioned by Robert Christgau, just as some African compilations, music from that continent was very popular in Holland despite the fact that we did not have colonies there (well, Cape Colony perhaps). In the 90's we had Bettie Serveert (all B plusses for you), they were more popular abroad that in their own country. Just like the Ex or Gruppo Sportivo. Pop bands over the years have began to sing more in Dutch, rap music did not help in that respect. It makes me feel very proud that you always admired the Dutch jazz and improvisation musicians like Han Bennink and the Instant Composers Pool. I like to think they convey the true Dutch spirit of independency, but in fact I fear we are more a traders nation, always keeping a sharp eye on other peoples cultural trends and make use of them. -- Ziggy Schouws, Amsterdam [2020-07-17]

[A] To start with the easy part, I did some work in France and the UK in the mid-1990s -- a couple weeks in Paris, 5-6 months in England. I worked for a computer prepress company, and designed, built, and integrated the user interface internationalization, plus I helped the UK office with all sorts of technical problems. I've never been as a tourist, but I managed to get around England, and spent a lot of weekends in London or Oxford. There is something nice in working with locals and absorbing a country at that pace. (Also nice was the expense account, and the car in the UK.) Would like to have gone further and done more, but it didn't work out.

I can't think of anyone I grew up with who's even done that much -- discounting military assignments (lots of those). On the other hand, I lost my American exceptionalism (and chauvinism) pretty young. I was a huge geography buff as a child. I studied French, German, and Italian -- can't claim to speak worth a damn, but I'm not helpless either. Eventually I met and befriended many Europeans, Asians and other world travelers, so I'm comfortable with many parts of the world. I can also cook a fairly decent meal in a couple dozen cuisines.

What I know about music is more haphazard and scattered, but I'll follow a good beat anywhere. I got most of my jazz tips from The Penguin Guide, where Cook and Morton pay a lot of attention not just to the UK but to the rest of Europe. When I started JCG, I went out of my way to court European labels. For a while, Toondist sent me regular packages of Dutch avant-obscurities, so I'm one of the few critics who know anything about Albert van Veenendaal or De Nazaten. I know far less about European rock or pop, especially non-English, which hardly ever gets any notice here. Some of my EOY aggregates draw heavily on European lists, and I've occasionally checked out the odd German or French hit, but can't claim much insight there. Access is invaluable to critics, and hard to come by across oceans (or even Trump's wall).

It's also hard to say how I look at Europe politically. On one hand, the continuing remnants of the social democratic safety net have become an inspiration for left/liberals in the US. On the other hand, the threat of far right parties in Europe disturbs many of us. I'm personally more bothered by the continued legitimacy of center and center-right parties, especially as they continue to be swayed by Washington's surrender of public goods to the directives of now globalized capital -- especially as capitalists have become ever more predatory and corrupt (I'd have to go back to the British East India Company to cite a comparable example).

Trump's innovation in foreign policy has been to mask America's declining capability and competency with nationalist jingoism, influence peddling, and callous indifference. Biden may imagine he can turn back the clock, but I think that ship has sailed. After WWII, Europe faced two critical tasks: to rebuild their domestic economies, and to continue their exploitation of their colonies without the expense of maintaining their subjugation. The US offered answers that weren't terribly difficult for Europe to swallow -- loans and trade integration, and a global ofensive against Communism that kept western corporations in control of Third World resources -- and ever since European politicians have happily let the US run their foreign policy. (For a sense of how bizarre this still is, look at the list of countries the US got to recognize Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela: Albania, Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, etc., including the Netherlands.) However, US foreign policy went off the rails with the neocon plot to dominate a unipolar world, turning the US (even before Trump) into a rogue state, built on a hollowed-out economy, endless fruitless wars, and total contempt for international law and institutions. Given how reluctant Europe's current political leaders are to plot a course independent of America, even with Trump so haphazardly in charge, I don't see how this will change. Only that it must.

July 18, 2020

[Q] You said, in your most recent post, that Pere Ubu "produced one of [your] all-time favorite albums -- The Modern Dance (1978)." Same here, and Dub Housing is right up there for me, too. So I'm wondering, what are some other all-time favorites? I figure anyone who IDs The Modern Dance as an all-time favorite, and whose musical tastes generally parallel mine (but for the African music, which still, for the most part, doesn't grab me), has other all-time favorite suggestions that would be of great interest to me. -- Ronnie Ohren, Chicago [2020-07-10]

[A] I probably had a more intense personal identification with The Modern Dance than with any other album ever. For starters, I had read Alfred Jarry a decade earlier, shortly after I dropped out of high school, and readily identified the Pere Ubus in my own experience. (I imagine that reading Jarry now would just conjure up sordid visions of Donald Trump, but those were more innocent times.) I dug the pataphysics, indeed the whole absurdist gamut of surrealism and futurism, even before adding a layer of Marxist revolution -- also echoed in The Modern Dance. And sonically, its industrialism twisted punk in the right direction. I was so ready for it, I felt that if I were ever to attempt an album, that's where I'd want to see it go. Most similar album, in terms of my emotions, was probably X-Ray Spex: Germ Free Adolescents, but the mid-to-late 1970s were an intense and volatile period for me and my understanding of music.

As for other recommendations, it's been quite some time since I tried to order an all-time list. I can't even find an old one in the clutter of my website, but do recall The Velvet Underground (1969) on top, with compilations of Hank Williams and Madonna in the top five. The closest thing I have is a select but unranked list: 1,000 Albums for a Long and Happy Life. I compiled it in late 2008, as a second opinion to Tom Moon's book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. I added several things later, expanding the list to 1,020 records, but there's nothing there past 2009 (Lily Allen: It's Not Me, It's You, and Leonard Cohen: Live in London -- two more favorite records). [PS: While working on this, I've added some more recent records, but have yet to remove anything. Clearly I need to give it another pass.]

A few more records of special personal import from the 1974 on (no ranking here, having skipped many albums this good -- see note below): Roxy Music: Stranded (1974); Roswell Rudd: Flexible Flyer (1974); The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz (1974); Ducks Deluxe: Taxi to the Terminal Zone (1975); Patti Sith: Horses (1975); Brian Eno: Another Green World (1975); Have Moicy! (1976); Ronnie Lane: One for the Road (1976); Bootsy's Rubber Band: Ahh . . . The Name Is Bootsy, Baby! (1977); Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (1978); Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (1978); Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (1979); Professor Longhair: Crawfish Fiesta (1980); Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (1981); Ian Dury: Jukebox Dury (1981); Linton Kwesi Johnson: Making History (1984); Mekons: Fear and Whiskey (1985); New Order: Brotherhood (1986); Laurie Anderson: Strange Angels (1989); Welcome to the Beautiful South (1990); Pharoah Sanders: Welcome to Love (1990); Pet Shop Boys: Very (1993); Iris DeMent: My Life (1994); Dave Alvin: King of California (1994); Manu Chao: Clandestino (1998); Billy Bang: Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001); The Coup: Party Music (2001); Cornershop: Handcream for a New Generation (2002); DJ Shadow: The private Press (2002); Lyrics Born: Later That Day (2003); Buck 65: Talkin' Honky Blues (2003); Mavis Staples: We'll Never Turn Back (2007); Maria Muldaur: Good Time Music for Hard Times (2009). Skipped a lot here, including most African, jazz, hip-hop, major figures (most notably George Clinton, Leonard Cohen, Ornette Coleman, Al Green, Madonna, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Prince, John Prine, Lou Reed, Todd Snider, Loudon Wainwright III, Lucinda Williams, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young) and groups (Clash, Drive-By Truckers, Public Enemy, Rolling Stones, Pavement, Sonic Youth, Steely Dan, Talking Heads).

Before 1974 my picks are less likely to vary from the consensus.

[Q] Your reviews of Hampton Hawes were very positive for the 1950's releases. For the most part the 60's releases were ignored. Did you see a fall off of quality or just lost interest? Some, such as Séance are highly regarded. -- David Wagner, Birdsboro, PA [2020-07-02]

[A] A fall off in perceived quality would have left a trail of lower grades, which isn't the case with Hawes. At least since 2002, I write up everything I listen to, even if I offer little more than a grade. A decline in reputation could have steered me away, especially before promos and streaming reduced the cost of checking something out to near-zero (actually, to time). For the better part of a decade (1995-2005) I used to carry a 30+ page "shopping list" of well-regarded albums (including everything 3.5 stars or better in Penguin Guide), and used it while crawling through used CD shops. Penguin Guide doesn't give Hawes a 4-star album after For Real (1958, A-), or a 3.5-star album after The Green Leaves of Summer (1964, one I haven't heard). I had heard As Long as There's Music (1976, B+, PG ***), but that's filed under Charlie Haden.

I've played some more Hawes since receiving this question, and can say that he remained a consistent player to the end. He died in 1977 (at 48), but 1976's Something Special is one of his best post-1950s trios. On the other hand, nothing later quite matched his four A-list albums from 1955-58.

June 25, 2020

[Q] I read the latest Xgau Sez column where he talks about books on jazz and popular music. While I have closely followed his writing since the Village Voice days, I don't find his reviews on jazz, books or music, to be particularly insightful. So, I want to ask you, as a deep jazz guy, about some books on jazz that you see as important or have recently read.

I've read quite a few things on jazz and black music. The earliest were Samuel Charters, Country Blues; Amiri Baraka, Blues People; A.B. Spellman, Four Lives in the Bebop Business. The titles I've really thought impressive: So What by John Szwed; Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch; Thelonious Monk by Robin Kelley. -- Tom Viti, Westwood, MA [2020-06-19]

[A] You're probably better read than I am. I'm a slow and awkward reader, but make up for it by persistence and having a pretty fair memory (or at least used to). I also cheat by poking around in reference books. I developed a system for reading history books by limiting myself to the front and back matter plus the footnotes, which is where proper historians would bury their personal opinions. Also, since 2001 I've prioritized reading about politics, economics, and history over music, science, technology, and other subjects I read extensively in earlier.

Most of what I know about jazz comes from record guides: The Penguin Guide (I have all eight editions) stands out, Gramophone Jazz Good CD Guide was pretty reliable, as was Tom Piazza's The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz. I have several shelves of such things, mostly from the previous century -- production has really fallen off in this one. Gary Giddins' Visions of Jazz: The First Century is very good. (I own, but haven't read, his later Jazz written with Scott DeVeaux.) Whitney Balliett's American Musicians II is on my nearest shelf -- his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 looks familiar, but I'm not seeing a copy nearby. Philip Larkin's All What Jazz: A Record Diary was a personal favorite (not least because he indulged my then-current doubts about bebop). I can also recommend Allen Lowe's books, especially That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950. One more book I greatly enjoyed was Geoff Dyer's fictionalized But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.

My reading in non-jazz is similar but even older. Two important books are Francis Davis' The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People, and Ned Sublette: Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo.

[Q] I have two questions for you. One may be harder than the other.

1: What has become of James Carter? When The Real Quiet Storm came out I thought he was going to conquer the world. The show I attended when he was supporting Conversin' With the Elders remains one of the greatest concert experiences of my life. After that he put out recordings with varying degrees of interest and success until 2011 and then nothing until a live recording put out in 2019 that retraces previously covered ground. I miss him and could really use some fresh James Carter these days.

2: I was born in '62 and have clear memories of protests, social movements, uprisings, and riots from the late sixties on. Every decade since then has been filled with bias, inequality, injustice, and hatred and each time the social unrest has been called unprecedented with youth being singled out as the difference. Given humankind's history of inhumanity towards one another why should I believe it's different this time? -- Benjamin Barnes, Seattle, Wa, USA [2020-06-17]

[A] I saw Carter about the same time, and was duly impressed, although I doubt that particular show was anywhere near his peak. (For one thing, he spent an awful lot of time fussing with reeds.) His run from 1994's JC on the Set through the twin 2000 releases (Chasin' the Gypsy and Layin' in the Cut) was so brash, at once rooted in the tradition and bristling with fresh ideas, that I speculated at the time about how much more he might have done had he recorded for small labels like David Murray instead of majors like Atlantic. (Carter's first two albums were on DIW, but picked up for US distribution by Columbia, as were a couple -- but only a couple -- albums by Murray and David S. Ware.) He then went to Columbia, and after three years turned out a Billie Holiday concept album that was my first Jazz CG Dud of the Month, and he's rarely been heard from since. I don't really know what happened, but it seems like he's only to play for major labels -- he did manage three 2008-11 albums for Universal, and his only album since then appeared on Blue Note in 2019 -- and he's sworn off anything avant, touring mostly with organ. His side credits are also way down, although I recommend two records he did with the Dutch group De Nazaten: Skratyology (2009) and For Now (2011). One last note is that Craig Taborn, the pianist in his extraordinary 1990s quartet, is by now probably better known now than Carter is.

The second question is presumably meant as the harder one, but I'll give you a softer answer. I was born in 1950, so I grew up in a world where every movie and TV show led to a happy ending. It was a world when America's wealth even extended to humble working folk like my parents, who still had the Great Depression in memory. Before Lyndon Johnson Americanized the Vietnam War in 1965-66, the the 1960s movement (at least as viewed by well-heeled liberals) aimed to help lift both black and white Americans out of poverty, which necessarily meant ending the legal discrimination of Jim Crow. This might have ended happily with Johnson's "War on Poverty." One could also claim success stories for women and the environment, but Johnson's other war was ended not by enlightened liberal decision but by bitter defeat on the battle field. The new right grew out of denial of that debacle, first by blaming the antiwar protesters, then by expanding their culture war while loosening all restraints against the greed of the rich.

The protest movements from the late-1950s into the mid-1970s won all of their issues in principle, but failed to convert their intellectual victories into stable political power. This was largely due to distrust of unions -- who decided to give up organizing workers (especially in the South) after Taft-Hartley reduced their bargaining power -- and Cold War liberals, who had supported American effort to crush the working class abroad (and to start by purging American unions of so-called communists). Decades of Cold War propaganda promoting capitalism and religion eventually paid off for the right, and their power further eroded the social fabric of the nation, which leads us to now.

I see three major differences between protesters today and those in the 1960s: aside from the thin upper crust, America is in much worse shape today, with inequality even greater than before the New Deal, and grift and dishonesty at previously unimagined levels; the protesters today are campaigning for themselves, whereas in the 1960s many protesters were altruistic, hoping to help other people; Cold War ideology is bankrupt, having lost its threat and fear -- sure, the right's hysteria hasn't skipped a beat, but the reforms they so dread are practices western Europe and the US have long enjoyed (like Social Security and Medicare). I'm tempted to add a fourth one: that racism, while certainly still existing and not uncommon, is far less entrenched than it was in the 1960s, which is making it harder for Trump to orchestrate any sort of backlash than it was for Nixon and Reagan.

Most convincing to me is that it's clear to me that doubling down on the right only makes life worse -- directly for many, but indirectly even for the supposed winners. It may well be too late to reverse global warming, but nothing constructive can happen until the power of the right is broken. But then I grew up in a world that believed in happy endings. Young people who started out with stories like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad may have a darker view of their prospects. But at my age, this current reality isn't my problem much longer. It's theirs, and up to them to do something about it.

[Q] From his consistently high ratings, it would appear that David Murray is one of your favorite saxophonists. I do appreciate his attempt to combine older playing styles with the avant-garde, his many fusion experiments over the years as well as his prolific output in multiple aggregrations. I was wondering what about his output/playing makes him such a consistent standout in your rating system? -- Eugene Haston, Atlanta, GA [2020-06-17]

[A] Fair question, but one I'm not sure I can answer. I am aware that my favorite instrument is tenor sax, and not just for jazz. I loved the sax parts of early r&b records (and X-Ray Spex), and I've noted how artists like Bruce Springsteen and Merle Haggard used it to add a classic flair to their bands. The tenor is the horn which most closely matches the human voice, but with a richness of tone not even Sarah Vaughan can approximate. If I had to pick a pantheon of tenor saxophonists, it would probably go: Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, David Murray, Lester Young, Stan Getz, and while I could try to pick from three or four dozen more worthies, let's end with Albert Ayler for historical import. Murray is the youngest player on that list, which makes him the one who had the most opportunity to form his style as a synthesis of his forebears (although perhaps no more so than Rollins and Webster followed Hawkins, or Getz picked up from Young). Murray can be thought of as a synthesis of Webster and Ayler for an age where the avant-garde had become part of the tradition. Webster is best remembered today for his quaking vibrato on late ballads, but early on he was a brawler, nicknamed The Brute, and the main thing he did to Hawkins was to muscle it up. Murray is the most muscular player on the list. His only real rival in that regard was David S. Ware, who trailed Murray by a decade, despite being six years older. The connection to Ayler was even more obvious. Murray grew up in church, and Ayler was his epiphany, as "Flowers for Albert" made clear.

The other thing that should be mentioned is that Murray cut a lot of records. In my Guide, I list 78 records under Murray, plus 62 side credits (including 21 in World Saxophone Quartet). That's more than Rollins (76), Coltrane (63), Hawkins (49), Getz (46), or Dexter Gordon (42), and much more than anyone else on the list. Major American jazz labels had collapsed in the late 1960s, leaving avant-garde artists few outlets. Murray was one of the first to find outlets in Europe (Black Saint) and Japan (DIW), and those labels encouraged him to record a lot (21 Black Saint releases from 1978-93, 25 DIW 1988-98). This wasn't unprecedented -- Prestige in the late 1950s cranked out titles as quickly, which is why Rollins and Coltrane come close -- but the improvisational nature of free jazz added to interest in each unique encounter. (Ken Vandermark is the only tenor saxophonist in my database with more rated records than Murray: 117; Peter Brötzmann trails at 52, Evan Parker 38, but I've missed many more records by each).

Murray's recorded much less frequently since moving to Justin Time (1998-2009), and his records have more often depended on concepts, such as his albums with African and Caribbean musicians. The torrent slowed further in the last decade, just 4 albums on Motéma (2011-18). But he's still a commanding performer, with an instantly recognizable sound. At least he was in 2015's Perfection. He was less imposing but still terrific on this year's Kahil El'Zabar's Spirit Groove.

One last point: From the early 1970s on, most tenor saxophonists, especially in America, have sought to emulate Coltrane, and Murray was one of the few to buck that trend. One easy way to measure their influence is to note all the tenor players who have picked up soprano sax as a second instrument. Murray, on the other hand, went with the bass clarinet, which gave him a way to soften his sound.

June 10, 2020

[Q] As one of the (few?) individuals who Robert Christgau relies on for jazz recommendations and critical opinions on the subject of jazz music, which he rightly admits is not his own expertise, are there any classic jazz albums or artists that you have tried to get him to like with no success? For example, he once wrote that Art Pepper and Lee Konitz, both big favorites of yours I believe, were two purveyors of cool jazz that he meant to check out if he was "feeling adventurous." And conversely, what classics did you hip him to that he did like? -- Joe Yanosik, NY [2020-06-08]

[A] This is really a question for Christgau. He introduced me to a number of classic jazz albums back in the 1970s, when I moved to New York, and knew damn little about jazz, but I also got tips from other writers, and sometimes bought things just because I liked the label or thought the record looked interesting (like most of JCOA and Arista Freedom). I didn't get into many of the "classics" until the mid-1990s, when I started really scouring the record guides, and I didn't hear a lot of new jazz until I started writing my Jazz Consumer Guide column for the Voice in 2004 -- although Christgau regarded me as some kind of expert a few years earlier.

Christgau reviewed scattered jazz albums in the 1970s and 1980s, but cut back in the 1990s when, overwhelmed by the flow of records in his key areas, he decided to focus and skip everything else. I know that wasn't an easy decision, especially given his long love for jazz. He did continue to edit Gary Giddins, and when Giddins left the Voice, he figured it would take three writers to fill the gap: he brought in and edited Francis Davis to write features, my Consumer Guide for bulk, and Nate Chinen for live reports (as neither of us I lived in the City).

I gather Christgau reads me regularly, though probably not for jazz prospecting. He doesn't seem to have any interest (by which I mean time, not taste) for postbop or avant any more, and he's never cared for the retro forms I'm particularly fond of. I mention things on occasion that I think he might like (most recently Heroes Are Gang Leaders and Mark Lomax), but they rarely seem to pan out for him (if he checks them out, or can -- all critics are limited by what they have access to, even him). I accept that our tastes have diverged -- indeed, many of his semipop picks don't engage my interest, although I'm thankful for the ones that do. As for Konitz and Pepper, I doubt he's given either much of a chance -- he naturally prefers east coast hard bop (mostly) blacks vs. west coast cool jazz (mostly) whites, although he has written favorably about Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck -- but why not ask him?

You can look at my pretty extensive grade lists for Konitz, Pepper; also Baker, Brubeck, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, or anyone else (some lesser names I think of as quintessentially cool include Herb Geller, Bud Shank, and (at least At the Blackhawk) Shelly Manne). I think of cool jazz as a stepping stone to postbop, which roughly speaking is what happens when bebop goes to college and picks up some music theory including tricks for incorporating innovations like those of George Russell and Ornette Coleman. That makes postbop much broader than cool, but even there one is more struck by differences than commonalities. Pepper, like many cool brethren, got his start in Stan Kenton's orchestra (the other great source was Woody Herman, and everyone on Birth of the Cool got stuck with the tag). But Pepper's later work is more marked by his passion -- not something you think of as a cool trait. Konitz was very different, almost opposite: an early follower of Lennie Tristano, he reveled in abstraction, which could seem aloof but was intensely, cerebrally engaged.

May 27, 2020

[Q] Combining two of your interests, music and politics (maybe next time for food), is a Geoffrey Himes column about how songs about blue collar life are ignored. or misinterpreted, by the audience they depict. "Born In The USA", possibly the most egregious example, may not need to be listed but I do wonder how you interpret this music/audience disconnect. It's weird, don't you think? -- Gregory Morton, Caldwell, ID [2020-05-25]

[A] I'm not sure I think anything about this, other than that stereotypes are worse than worthless, and generalizations leave out all meaningful detail by definition. Songwriters start with what they know and feel, which includes class and race and sex and a lot more, and it rarely reduces to just one thing. Their cohort may recognize themselves in such art, or not, just as other people may relate to it, or not. Add politics to the mix if you dare. Unfortunately, many people tend to straitjacket themselves to only like or dislike things they perceive as politically correct, and lose touch with the muddle we call life. I've known more people like this on the left than on the right, but I know more people on the left, and people like this on the right stay away from me, so it'd be wrong to generalize. What I can say is that when John Prine died, outpourings of grief came from all across the political spectrum -- even though you and I know he was one of us. One of my pro-gun, anti-abortion, Trump-loving relatives forwarded my link to my review of Fair & Square, even though I could hardly have been more explicit about both my and Prine's politics. Perhaps she didn't understood me? Or perhaps she misunderstands her own politics? Regardless, I love her, and politics has nothing to do with that.

[Q] Do you listen to music differently when you are trying to "grade" an album, trying to figure out whether it's any good or not? If so, do you find that type of listening enjoyable? How much of your listening is done trying to suss out the merits of a work, as opposed to just enjoying it?

Those came out as very specific questions, but my question is broader than that, but I'm not sure how to ask it. Which is to say, if you answer this, feel free to take it broadly. -- Matt Crawford, Pacifica, CA [2020-05-19]

[A] I don't do anything special for grading, or listen any differently when I know I'm going to grade a record. Grades are always provisional, just a note to myself, a crude of measure of how much I enjoyed a record, and not much else. I don't have any fixed aesthetic standards. Bad execution and/or lack of inspiration may count against it, but that's mostly because such things detract from enjoying a record.

Back when I was writing assigned reviews, I took more extensive notes, looking for details I could use in a review, and I kept playing a record until I finished writing. That's a lot of work, and I rarely put that much into a record any more. If I had to write at greater depth, I wouldn't be able to get to nearly as many records, and my sense of comparative value would suffer. The downside is that I regard most of words I do wind up publishing as crap: not exactly useless, but lacking in insight and craft. Probably why I tend to denigrate my skills as a reviewer.

I started grading just as a memory aid. I was very familiar with Robert Christgau's grading scale, so that gave me a framework with a few thousand data points. But whereas he insists that "grading is hard work," and has minimal standards of how many times he has to play a record before grading it, for me it's just data -- necessarily approximate at first, better considered over time, not that I have any way of making that distinction. (I toyed with the idea of using two numbers for grades: one for level and a second fraction or degree of certainty, but decided that would be way too much trouble.)

[Q] Found you by looking up who made the Robert Christgau website. I love it! It really captures the internet in the '90s. Was curious, did you make all of the websites you have linked here, or are these just things are recommended? i.e. did you make the original website for FiveThirtyEight and Glenn Greenwald?

Thanks! Also wanted to add that I love this website: http://carolcooper.org/

-- Naif Alrayes, San Francisco [2020-05-19]

[A] I built the Robert Christgau's website in 2001, and Carol Cooper's a bit later. I had the idea of creating a portal toolkit for music writers based on a more generalized revision of the Christgau website code. Several writers expressed interest, but Cooper signed up first, so I rushed a site together for her, and when I didn't develop my proposal further, her prototype stuck. I've done several other websites, including one for Carola Dibbell, but not the ones you mentioned, or anything else in the "Links" list on most of my pages. ("Local Links" directs you to various spots in my own website; "My Other Websites" points you to other websites I maintain, although the current version of Wichita Peace was designed by someone else -- I built an earlier one using Drupal.) Hullworks was intended for other people's data, but mostly contains my Jazz Critics Poll pages.

I suppose the "Links" list is also attributable to me being stuck with a 1990s web aesthetic. I used to have a whole "Links" section, but found it impossible to maintain, and got increasingly annoyed when website maintainers wrote me begging to get included. On the other hand, I've never gotten into the habit of using my browser's bookmarks, or for that matter a RSS reader, so the links still help me get around.

I have on occasion gotten complaints about the "1990s look" of my websites (but never from Christgau or Cooper -- their interest has always been in their words, so the lack of graphics has never bothered them). Some of those principles I still regard as valid, and I still don't see much value in JavaScript, or in things like cookies. But it has become clear to me that some degree of design changes are necessary. About a year ago, I announced that I was going to do a redesign, and I set up a mailing list for people who would like to consult. Lots of things have slowed me down, so I have little progress to show at present, but if you'd like to be included in the list, and especially if you think you could help, please drop me a line.

[Q] You obviously listen to a lot of music and read a lot books on politics, but I wondered if you also read a lot of music books. For instance, Rolling Stone just published a list with The 50 greatest rock memoirs of all time: are there many on it you have read? As for myself I am specially fond of books with references to other records, like the Questlove book. Speaking of Questlove: he published a list last year with his favorite albums. I was pleased to see Coltrane Plays the Blues on it, a personal favorite. But I also noticed some jazz albums you haven't graded as far as I know (by Ahmad Jamal and Max Roach), something I didn't think was possible for some one with such an jazz affliction. -- Ziggy, Amsterdam, Netherlands [2020-05-13]

[A] I'm not a very fast reader, but I've read steadily since I quit high school in 1966, and keep plugging away at it. After losing my tech job in 2001, I thought I'd focus on writing, and figured the subject I knew the most about, and had the most to contribute to, would be political philosophy -- a pursuit my wife, who's always been a political obsessive, encouraged. Ever since then I've focused almost exclusively on political topics, as you can see from my list here. As fate would have it, I've written a lot more about music during this period -- even made a little bit of money off it -- but I really haven't read many books on music. In particular, I haven't read a single one of Rob Sheffield's The 50 Greatest Rock Memoirs of All Time. The only one I've even been tempted by was Patti Smith's Just Kids. The Questlove book does look promising, and Luke Haines' Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Role in Its Downfall might be fun. The one music memoir that I did read recently was Ani DiFranco's No Walls and the Recurring Dream, which surely belongs on Sheffield's list. I've written a good deal about DiFranco before, and I had a personal interest, in that I have family in Buffalo who knew her growing up. Indeed, for me the later music/career parts were less interesting than her childhood and emancipation.

The Questlove list appears here. Should be easy to see how I've missed some jazz albums. I don't have any real idea how many jazz albums have been released. My first swag was 100,000, which would be 1,448 per year since 1950. Then I thought I'd try Discogs, which comes up with the number 1,159,285, but that includes reissues and singles. Hard to extrapolate from that, but it certainly doesn't suggest that my swag is too high. I currently have 17,966 jazz records (including pop vocals) rated, so that's what? 12-18%? I've made several attempts to come up with a sample size over the years. Even with promos and streaming in recent years, I doubt if I've ever heard more than 25% of all the new jazz being released. Looking at my 2020 music tracking file, I've heard about 40% of all the jazz I've taken the trouble to list. I've omitted at least as many jazz albums as I've listed, reducing my share to 20% or less.

So far, I've heard 11 Ahmad Jamal records (2 A-), out of 24 in my database (but he's released more like 80). I've heard 9 Max Roach records (1 A-), out of 31 in my database (that's just records which list Roach as leader; I have 10 more rated with Roach as co-leader, including 5 at A/A-; with co-leader records he's released close to 100 records, plus side credits on another 100+, some as monumental as The Amazing Bud Powell and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus). I'm not a big fan of piano trio or drum ensembles, but those are major artists, and I'll check out more of their work when I can.[1] But there are lots of jazz musicians I've barely sampled (if at all). That's just inevitable.

[1] I listened to a bunch of Roach records in the following week, so the numbers above have roughly doubled.

[Q] Your reception to Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville and Whipsmart mirrored that of the critical establishment at the time, but something changed for you circa Juvenilia, and you outrightly panned Whitechocolatespaceegg despite Christgau's positive reception to both albums (A- and A respectively). What changed for you, especially as it relates to Whitechocolatespaceegg which Christgau treated as a comeback of sorts? -- David [2020-05-06]

[A] Those albums date from 1995 and 1998. I wasn't writing about music then -- at least not in any systematic way -- and I wrote nothing about Liz Phair until Funstyle in 2010 (which I liked much more than Christgau did: A- vs. *). I vaguely remember Juvenilia as being short and rough, a step back, so I'm not surprised I found it wanting. Those tracks are probably all in the 3-CD box The Girly Sound Tapes (2018), which I graded more generously (***), but 25 years after her masterpiece, it probably sets somewhat differently in my mind. I don't remember the other album, or for that matter her 2003 Liz Phair (a B+ which Christgau graded A), at all. I did start to stream White*egg after this question, and shut it down three tracks in. Maybe it's a tad better than B-, but not so much I felt I needed to figure it out.

You previously asked me this same question about two other records: Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Robert Cray's Strong Persuader. Those I remembered, not only the records but the exact point when I decided I couldn't stand them any more. I suppose the reason I can remember them so vividly is that I quickly grasped their appeal, before something else turned me off. I won't go into what -- one thing I never want to do is to spoil a record that you like just because I don't, and you should never let me. But part of the story thers is that I've always had an anti-hype reflex. (I don't recall much hype behind the Cray or Phair albums, but they sold well and the former won a Grammy, so must have had hype beyond Christgau.) It's not that I don't like Dylan, but I've often been out of sync with whatever the critical consensus is on him. The best known cases where my initial reaction was heavily influenced by anti-hype are Bruce Springsteen and Charlie Parker. I've since made my peace with both, although at a lower level than they are generally accorded.

But back to the Phair album(s). Christgau wrote not just capsules but feature reviews of White*egg and Liz Phair. I don't know whether he did that because he initially thought them important, or thought them newsworthy and wound up deciding that he really liked them, but either way he spent a lot of time with the records, whereas I played them once or twice and decided I had wasted my money. Maybe I played them more -- I often do that with records I initially panned that Christgau came to like (most don't move much, but one that really did was Randy Newman's Harps & Angels).