Q and A

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

To ask your own question, please use this form.

August 24, 2021

[Q] The subscription-only post excerpt from "The Vanishing Legacy of Barack Obama" was long enough for me as well. Trump has, in the end, embraced being the "heel" of American politics, because that's what the Republican Party needed in the absence of principles, ideas and/or vision. There has been a constant attempt by writers on the right and left to make Obama responsible for the election of this miscreant. Should Obama not enjoy a 60th birthday party, because of the resolute "heel turn" in the Republican Party that followed his popular presidency? Do you think an Obama-like gravitas in response to these accusations and absurdities is the best hope for the future health and sanity of American democracy? -- Eugene, Atlanta, GA [2021-08-16]

[A] Isn't there a famous logical fallacy about assuming causality from sequence? [There is: Post hoc ergo propter hoc.] Trump is almost perfect as the polar opposite of Obama, but his election doesn't prove that most Americans rejected Obama, let alone that Obama's faults demanded such a radical change in direction. It seems probable to me that had Obama been able to run for a third term, he would have beat Trump rather handily, but I've come to have a pretty low opinion of the Democrat Trump beat.

I won't try to explain how writers on the right think, but I can give you several thoughts as to why those of us on the left might blame Obama for the rise of Trump:

  1. Obama wasted his first two years when he had a Democratic majority in Congress through efforts at bipartisan compromise, including making significant unforced concessions on the budget/stimulus bill (too many tax credits, not enough spending, nothing on infrastructure) and health care. He could have raised taxes to (or above) pre-Bush levels, and as long as the recession lasted return the revenues as stimulus. With oil prices crashing, he could have passed a carbon tax, which would have prodded businesses and consumers to limit oil and coal usage, putting us in sligthly better position on climate change. Both of these would have undercut the debt overhang issue (which was phony and hypocritical, but hurt him politically). ACA is messier, but had Democrats killed the filibuster, they could have passed a better bill (e.g., one with a public option). With more to show, Democrats might have done better in 2010, and the longer Congress stayed Democratic Congress, the more he could have delivered. This is clearer in retrospect, but the one thing I've always faulted Obama for was dismantling Howard Dean's national Democratic Party organization, which produced landslides in 2006 and 2008, and only focusing on his own re-election in 2012.

  2. Obama totally bought into the Clinton economic program, with much the same people in charge. He bailed Wall Street out of its mess (and didn't prosecute any of their fraudsters), promoted Silicon Valley tech rackets, undermined unions, and left the less favored parts of the nation -- the same ones hardest hit by the recession -- to fester. He was so locked into the status quo that he reappointed Bush's Fed Chair. He also helped businesses less inclined to help Democrats, especially the fracking boom in oil and gas, and he kept up defense spending. He continued Clinton's efforts at negotiating job-destroying, rent-enhancing trade deals. The net effect was that inequality continued to increase, as it had since Reagan, to unprecedented levels. This engendered frustration and resentment, which left some voters open to Trump's demagogy (especially given that Hillary Clinton only promised more of the same).

  3. He promised to change how America thinks about war, then fell right back into the "global war on terror" rut. He kept Bush's Secretary of Defense, and promoted Bush's generals (even the odious and insubordinate Michael Flynn). He escalated the war in Afghanistan, with no success. He pursued drone strikes and targeted assassinations even more aggressively than Bush. His early diplomatic efforts flopped, and were never restarted (although Kerry negotiated deals with Iran and Cuba, which Trump subsequently trashed, as he did the Paris climate pact, DACA, and everything else Obama did by executive order).

  4. Obama's whole Democratic Party organization lined up in lockstep behind Hillary Clinton as the 2016 nominee, and she lost, taking Obama's legacy with her. Only Bernie Sanders dared challenge her, and came close enough to suggest that she was out of touch with rank-and-file Democrats, but no one in Obama's elite circle seems to have noticed or cared.

None of these things really explain why Trump won. The roots of that go back to the insane reaction of right-wing media to Obama's win in 2008. Trump was the only candidate who had a personality to match the inchoate outrage whipped up by Fox. He was an outsider, relatively free of the taint of partisan Washington, but was still able to line up the billionaire right-wing donors with their crazy economic ideas. They gambled that they could control the demagugue, much like the far right in Weimar Germany thought they'd domesticate Hitler. Due to his laziness and incompetence, they had more luck this time -- not that Trump didn't leave quite some mess.

The problem with the 60th birthday party is that Obama is still primarily viewed as a political figure -- loved by most Democrats, loathed by most Republicans, in a time of intense polarization so the distinction matters a lot -- and one expects a certain sense of decorum from public servants (exempting Trump). But Obama is not too old to contemplate a post-presidential career, and he's decided to do it in show business. From what little I've bothered to glean from the guest lists -- slighting old political allies (like David Axelrod) in favor of celebrities like Beyoncé and Tom Hanks -- his party was aimed at making a social splash for his new career. Maybe he came off as a bit of an arriviste, but that appears to be the intent, and as far as I know, such events are routine in that set. (Of course, I'd have to revise this if you found a lot of politically active and/or merely rich guests on the list. Like the Clintons, Obama spent much of his political career sucking up to the rich, so he could never quite shake the notion that his end game was to be one of them.)

I don't have an answer to your final question other than to note that Obama's "gravitas" -- his reason, integrity, erudition, empathy, sanity, faith in a very idealized America few of us even recognize except as myth -- didn't play all that well, even among people who voted for him because the Republican alternative was unthinkable. And it certainly didn't convert his sworn enemies, or even make much of an impression on the swing voters. Maybe as a black man he felt he had to be perfect to get elected, but that made him a different kind of target. Joe Biden is a much less imposing figure, and that element of fallibility seems to be working for him. We live in a world where a lot of things are going wrong (pandemic, Afghanistan, climate), so maybe it's better to have someone who cares and reacts than someone who supposedly knows it all and tries to project confidence.

By the way, that last word brings up another peeve about Obama. His economic team convinced him that the key to recovery was confidence -- much like Franklin Roosevelt opened his presidency with "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." It's a truism that economies rise and fall on confidence and panic. But you can't reverse a panic just by pretending confidence, which is what Obama tried to do. (Ron Suskind's 2011 book on Obama's economic team was called Confidence Men. At the time, Paul Krugman regularly made fun of their faith in "the confidence fairy.") But the problem isn't just that confidence preaching doesn't work. More important is that you lose the edge you had to blame your present woes on the people actually responsible for them -- the greedy bankers and the Bush administration that let them run amuck (and, hitting close to home, the Clinton administration's deregulation moves) -- and the people currently trying to prevent the government from helping (Republicans, starting with Mitch McConnell and his "one-term" austerity agenda).

June 29, 2021

[Q] If it isn't too much work, it'd be great if you could create an index of graded releases for each year from like 1970 onward like on Christgau's site. I'd love if we could get pre-1990 recommendations from your site, or see non-A records you graded pre-1990, since your available lists start from 1990. Thanks. -- Ricky Erickson, New Zealand [2021-06-22]

[A] Best answer here would be to put all of the data in my "database" files into a real database, like I use for the Christgau website. Then I could write scripts to do queries. Several things make that a lot of work, but maybe some day. What's kept me from doing this is that I've never been happy with the Christgau database schema, and as much as I've thought about it, I've never come up with something I really do like. I could get into the technical weeds on that, but suffice it to say: normalizing artist and label names turned out not to work very well (which is largely, but not exclusively, Peter Stampfel's fault, or Christgau's, inasmuch as he insisted on preserving all of Stampfel's aliases); and I wanted to track recording dates as well as the arbitrary release dates Christgau uses, and that complicates things. Still, at this point I could probably come up with a single table that would work ok. The bigger problem would be correcting various discrepancies in 61,078 data records.

Another approach would be what I recently did for 1971, which was to construct a new file by hand. That took a couple days, mostly in research to verify actual release dates. For instance, I originally had Jack Johnson filed with its recording date (1970) instead of release date (1971). A lot of jazz albums in the "database" only have recording dates, as that's what Penguin Guide uses. Also, I wanted to check the original labels -- the "database" often substitues reissue labels, as that's often what I actually listened to. While interesting as a single-year project, I could see that getting real tedious trying to cover every year.

Finally, there is a third approach: I routinely generate a flat table of everything in the "database," so it's possible to write scripts to pull data from it. This is how I generate my Artist Grade Lists, so I wondered if I could spend an hour or so and write a script to pull out lists by release date. Here's what I came up with. The big problem is that the underlying data doesn't have reliable release date data (indeed, it needs to be modeled differently, which means checked and possibly changed for those 61,078 records -- the number comes from counting the number of lines in the file). A more obvious enhancement would be to sort the records by grade. (Sorting by letter grade is a bit of a nuisance, and the artist name sort is messy, too.) That's a bigger job than my time budget allowed for, but not especially difficult. Another enhancement could be to split the data into new and old music lists, based on a recording date heuristic. One could then apply the style of the 1971/2021 lists, minus rank order. It's hard and nearly pointless to try to rank within grade levels anyway.

[Q] It is well known that one of your all time favourite albums is Winter Moon by Art Pepper. There are of course of more string albums by jazz artists, Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown to name two of them. You made it clear in the past that you are not a big fan of Parker (the horn, not the strings I think) but can you elaborate on why you like the Pepper one more then the Brown. Is it the sappy arrangements, the lack of improvisation, it certainly can't be the tone. And why is there no Brown in your list of 1.000 albums for a better and happy life (not even the collaborations with Max Roach or Sarah Vaughan). -- Ziggy Schouws, Amsterdam [2021-06-21]

[A] The vogue for saxophone-with-strings albums may be something else we can blame Charlie Parker for, but it reflects an idea common in the 1950s that strings are classy, as in classical (respectable) music. The result was a spate of albums with formidable saxophone leads over string-laden murk. Parker's 1949-50 strings "Master Takes" fit that description, as do similar efforts by Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and many others. Still, not all of Parker's strings projects were waste. The smaller string section he used in The Complete Legendary Rockland Palace Concert worked out nicely. Several cuts from that wind up Rhino's Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection, which is easily the best Parker intro ever released, and recommended to anyone who wants to know what the hype is about.

Later saxophone/strings albums are more varied. Stan Getz's Focus is exceptional in that the strings are so distinctive they're worth the attention on their own. The strings on Winter Moon aren't that interesting, but with Pepper's alto (and Stanley Cowell's piano) the album is simply gorgeous -- not a concept I'm especially big on, but there's no simpler way to put it. Nearly everything Pepper did from his Village Vanguard sessions in 1977 to his death in 1982 was extraordinary. I wouldn't say this is better than the rest, but it does stand out.

There weren't many trumpet-with-strings albums, with Brown's by far the most famous. He died in a car crash when he was 25, leaving little more than 3 years of records, but during that brief period he towered above his contemporaries (including Miles Davis). I'm not a big fan of either With Strings or Sarah Vaughan (a Penguin Guide crown album), though I blame neither on Brown, who was rarely anything short of superb. It was sheer sloppiness that I left Brown off my 1,000 Records list. I had 5 of his records in my commented-out candidate list. The obvious pick should have been Study in Brown, although More Study in Brown is on the same level.

I should probably say something more about Sarah Vaughan. I've graded 20 of her albums, none above B+(***), and most well below. Technically, she was one of the greatest vocalists of all time. Her voice was deep and distinct, and her control, especially her timing, was beyond compare. Her early work with Columbia was slaughtered by her string arrangers, but even when given a decent jazz combo she seemed remote up on her pedestal. I have the same reservations about Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter, who were about as similar as any singers could be to someone as unique as Vaughan.

[Q] What website(s) do you use as resources for new jazz releases, if any? -- Fred, Vancouver, Canada [2021-06-19]

[A] There's no simple answer to that, probably because I haven't found any sites that are broad and complete enough. I pick up information from all over the place, but I only once tried to compile a complete list of jazz releases: back around 2005. Since 2014 I've kept a tracking file, which probably peaked in 2020 with 1891 jazz records (851 rated). I started assembling my EOY list aggregate early, with points awarded for favorable reviews in 50+ publications, mostly as tracked by AOTY and Metacritic, but also including several jazz reviews they didn't track: All About Jazz, Downbeat, Free Jazz Collective, and the jazz columns in Bandcamp Daily (Dave Sumner) and Stereogum (Phil Freeman). I also counted everything Tim Niland wrote about in Music and More. I also consulted the lists maintained by Chris Monsen and Phil Overeem. I also get regular email bulletins from Downtown Music Gallery and SquidCo, although I don't compile them regularly (DMG includes a lot of reviews of old product). I also get a lot of email from labels, publicists, and a few artists, though most of it goes straight into the bit bucket.

This year I've slacked off from my music tracking considerably (thus far, the 2021 file only has 377 jazz records, 252 rated; if you pro rate for 5/12 months, my ratings this year are down 29%, but overall listings are down 52%). One thing I tried was Discogs, but even using their filters { Jazz, Album, 2020s, 2021 } the search offers 3,227 albums, so it's a long slog to find a few items of interest. I've also looked at Jazz Music Archives, but I haven't found a way to scroll back, which really limits its usefulness.

There really should be a free database and software of album release data. I thought about that as a project back in the early 2000s, and was involved in MusicBrainz for a while, but never quite saw eye-to-eye with the project (focus there was on tagging digital files where I wanted to track physical product). I don't know how hard it would be to write an application using their data, or indeed how much useful data they actually have (although a useful ap would motivate people to add data).

[Q] You seem to like her Compass Point output (two A minuses and a B plus), and you've reviewed two of her [Grace Jones] single disc compilations. I wonder what you think of the double disc collection Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions. I would assume it's a no-brainer pick for you, since it contains most of the three albums (looks like about 90%), but it uses longer versions and dub versions etc, so maybe it's de trop? Or maybe the original albums hang together better? Any thoughts? Thanks. -- David, Washington, DC [2021-04-29]

[A] Grading reissues is most often a hopeless and thankless task. By definition, the material is redundant, so its value depends first on whether you already have it -- something the critic doesn't know. If you don't, what effect has age had on interest? There was a moment when it surprised to see the model Jones struck her pose over Sly & Robbie's new wave/dance synthesis, but that moment's passed. I'm not sure anyone needs this music, although I still enjoy (if hardly ever play) the 1980-82 albums, but if you do want to sample it I'd suggest the 11-track Millennium Edition over the individual albums or the 2-CD compilation -- unless you're a DJ, the long versions don't help, and the odds and sods are marginal ("She's Lost Control" is good, but doesn't need 17:00). I'll write a separate review, but it's not good that they left out "Bullshit."

[Q] Was there a better artist during the '00s than Buck 65? I've had both Square and Talkin' Honky Blues in rotation during the past year and my fascination with both albums hasn't waned a bit -- it's just so clear how inspired and durable both albums are. Also, is Laurie Anderson's Strange Angels an A+? I think she flirts with banality far too much for it to qualify even if the good stuff outweighs the bad stuff and the concept of the record is so affecting. -- David [2021-03-31]

[A] Strange Angels is a truly great album. United States Live may also deserve an A+, but at 5-LP/4-CD it's a little mind-boggling. Christgau thinks Heart of a Dog is even better, but I didn't buy a copy, so haven't spent enough time with it (although I can still remember enough that perhaps I should).

I wrote about Buck 65 for Rolling Stone, and his grade list is here. I've never indulged in decadal rankings of any sort, and see no reason to start now.

January 05, 2021

[Q] The December 26, 2000 Consumer Guide on the Christgau website has a Postscript note you added saying that the Merle Haggard review originally included in that CG was "withdrawn by Christgau." The issue was that when he reviewed it, Christgau thought the Music Club compilation included original Capitol recordings when in fact they contained later remakes. When you say that Christgau "withdrew" the review, does that mean he asked you to remove it from the body of the CG and add the post-script, or did Christgau actually rescind the review somehow? I ask because I'm curious if he reviewed the CD simply by looking at the track listing rather than playing it. I can't believe he'd do that - but even a single spin is enough to realize that those aren't the original Capitol recordings. If he did listen to the CD, perhaps that A grade applies to the re-recordings even so. Did your conversation with him about adding the Postscript note address that? P.S. I know this could just have easily been a Xgau Sez question but figured you might know as well. -- Joe Yanosik, NY [2020-12-31]

[A] I hope "withdrawn" was clear enough. The review was removed from the main body of the column, and never put into the Consumer Guide database. I kept it in the endnote to the column in case someone checks it against the original print edition and wonders about the discrepancy. I don't recall the detailed discussion, but I wouldn't have removed any reviews without having been directed to do so. As you've painstakingly pointed out, there are reviews on the website that no longer reflect Christgau's views, but they still appear, because I haven't been directed otherwise, and because the spirit of the website is to archive the printed word.

What's still missing from the website is the letter (as best I recall) published in the Village Voice explaining the withdrawal. I'd be happy to add that if someone can track it down and forward a copy. Music Club was a pretty dodgy label, sometimes programming terrific records but never providing details about where they came from. Christgau reviewed 31 of them, including grade A collections of Lee Dorsey, The Everly Brothers, Los Van Van, Charlie Parker, and Huey "Piano" Smith, and a This Is Ska! compilation that's been permanently lodged in my travel case. Sure, any off-label Haggard collection should be suspect, but he seems to have found the label worth the risk. Even so, he admits he didn't check the authenticity (as he evidently did with This Is the Everly Brothers -- by the way, turns out that the first Everlys best-of I owned was a re-recording, and I'm still partial to some of those versions).

Your speculation that Christgau may have reviewed the album without listening to it is, well, scurrilous. I'm certain that he's never done such a thing. (On the other hand, I did once, based on a single radio cut that I heard too many times under a very high fever. He refused to run the piece until I bought a copy of the LP and played it. He didn't, however, insist that I change any words, and I didn't. He just needed to know that I had listened to the record. See Let's String Up the Outlaws.)

These days I do occasionally (but rarely) flip a record off after I'm satisfied with having written something about it, convinced that the last few minutes wouldn't make any difference. I've also been known to review something based on an incomplete stream source, although I have minimal standards, leading to my recent "Further Sampling" sections. And I often review records based on a single (complete) play, so a degree of uncertainty is baked into the very process. I'm not out to break records (although with 34,698 records graded I may have). I'm just trying to use my limited time effectively.

[Q] Ok, a response not a question. You said you might get back to fiction reading. As a public librarian for 42 years and a voracious reader across genres, I'm taking the liberty of recommending a list by foreign born authors:

  • A Long Petal of the Sea - Isabel Allende
  • Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Madeleine Thien
  • Exit West - Moshin Hamid
  • My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante
  • The Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai
  • The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota
  • Waiting - Ha Jin

Heavy on social and political themes, and all readable.

PS Yes, classic jazz has been a great source of comfort this year. -- Thomas Viti, Westwood, MA [2020-11-23]

[A] I'm slowly working my way through Kurt Andersen's Evil Geniuses (highly recommended), and have several more non-fiction books on the immediate horizon, so my hopes/threats of switching to literature are still premature. When I do, I'm likely to scrounge around the house and see what catches my eye. One book I started long ago and always means to return to is Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and I know exactly where it is. I have a few hundred novels I bought speculatively in the late 1960s and never got around to -- a mix of classics and then-contemporary yarns -- so there is quite a bit to choose from. I recovered most of my late-teen books when we moved to Wichita, so they're in pretty good shape. (Still, I wonder where my copy of Ulysses disappeared to.)

Beyond that, my wife is a voracious reader, usually alternating mysteries with heavier tomes. She has, for instance, already read three books from your list. (I recognize My Brilliant Friend from the HBO series, and The Sympathizer from her raves.) She has managed to keep fewer books, aside from the bits stored on her Kindle and its cloud, but that is another option. I've never had much interest in e-book readers, but one would have come in handy during yesterday's lengthy blackout.

[Q] Hi, Tom. Over the years, I've found that I align with you with respect to most jazz, other than, for example, the WSQ, and with respect to most rock (although you're way more caught-up than I am). We've never aligned, though, with respect to African music. I'm pretty sure that my first record within that broad category was purchased in the early 1980s, soon after the Village Voice named King Sunny Adé's Juju Music one of the top albums in its annual Pazz & Jop Poll. Since then, every so often, your or Christgau's recommendations have prompted me to listen to other African music, usually compilations. Nothing has really rung any bells for me yet, but now that I'm (stuck) at home, playing a lot more music throughout the day, with all the music available to me via Spotify, what would you recommend if you were trying to sell me on African music--current or historical, or both? Thanks!

PS [2020-11-12]: I guess this is more in the nature of a follow-up to my question. Today, looking for something new to play, I scanned your list of top records, and saw King Sunny Ade: The Best of the Classic Years (1967-74 [2003], Shanachie), Franco: The Very Best of the Rumba Giant of Zaire (1956-87 [2000], Manteca), and Fela Anikulapo Kuti: The Best Best of Fela Kuti (1972-89 [1999], MCA, 2CD). I'll start there. -- Ronnie Ohren, Chicago [2020-11-10]

[A] Sorry for not trying to answer this earlier, but I doubt I can offer much of an answer -- nor am I likely to improve on the well-researched list offered in the follow up. At the time, I replied directly, and offered one more suggestion: Mzwahke Mbuli's Resistance Is Defence (1992, Earthworks), adding a South African example, also one mostly in English with accessible political themes. A few more individual records that stand out, not least for their variety, are: Konono No. 1: Congotronics (2004, Crammed Discs); Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck: Djam Leeli (1989, Mango); Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens: Thokozile (1988, Earthworks); Thomas Mapfumo: Ndangariro (1984, Carthage); Daniel Owino Misiani & Shirati Jazz: The King of History (1973-79, Sterns); Youssou N'Dour: Nothing's in Vain (2002, Nonesuch); West Nkosi: Rhythm of Healing (1992, Earthworks); Orchestra Baobab: Specialist in All Styles (2002, Nonesuch); Rachid Taha: Made in Medina (2000, Ark 21); Dr. Sir Warrior & Oriental Brothers International: Heavy on the Highlife! (1990, Original Music). Also, of course, the big Serns retrospectives of Franco and Rocherau, and the early Etoile de Dakar compilations. My long list is here (although a detour is needed to pick up North Africa).

I started running into African music in the mid-1970s: Osibisa, a popular band in England in the 1970s led by Ghanaians was probably my first, or perhaps I got to South African jazz (Abdullah Ibrahim and Dudu Pukwana) before. Christgau dates his own interest in African music to John Storm Roberts' Africa Dances, which came out in 1973 but he didn't hear until 1976 -- about the time I moved to New York, where I would have heard it. Since then, I've mostly followed his leads, with slight differences in taste (e.g., he's more into the dry regions of Sahel and Sahara than I am, though I enjoy much of what I've heard).

The appeal of African music to me has always been rhythm, and I don't mind not being able to follow the words (not that I don't enjoy what little French I recognize -- I noticed early on that the former French and Belgian colonies often kept the language, while the former English ones almost never did). I especially like the exuberant pop from 1950-80, like highlife, juju, early soukous, and township jive, much like my taste in Jamaican music runs toward the ska and early reggae periods (and calypso). I play less contemporary African music than I did before 2000 -- partly because my jazz duties have pushed it to the back burner, but also because I never felt like I had the expertise, and it's becoming ever harder to keep up. Back in the '90s Christgau tried to recruit me to review African music (specifically Mbuli), but I shied away. It's even harder to jump in now, not just because the diversity within Africa probably exceeds that of the rest of the world -- that's always been true -- but because global music has soaked in everywhere (not just the rhumba and reggae that always looked back to Africa, but everything, like metal in Kampala).

Of course, I shouldn't have to reassure you that there's nothing wrong with not liking things that others acclaim as genius, or in liking someone else's garbage. Such choices are too complex to be judged.

November 09, 2020

[Q] Always find your book commentary of interest (and expense). But no books about music? Did I miss something? -- Clifford Ocheltree, New Orleans [2020-10-19]

[A] I've occasionally mentioned books on music. Not many, and not often, but I came up with 82 when I took a pass at collecting the notes I've done into a file. The master file contains 4928 book notes, so that works out to about 1.66%, or about 1 in 60. The seeingly small share can be explained several ways: I haven't read many books on music over the last 20 years (although I've gone through periods when I read a lot, especially in the 1970s); in recent years I've tried to focus on political matters, thinking (perhaps foolishly) that I have more to say about such things; and the Book Roundup form is basically designed to survey the range of current thought, giving me a broad picture of the state of the art. I've even gone so far as to collect books by right-wing propaganda houses because they give me a way to gauge the delusions and conceits of their ideology. There may be comparably bad books on music (or any other subject), but no reason to face them.

Still, might be a good idea to do a roundup on music books once or twice a year, perhaps adding other arts to get the numbers up, and/or looking back at my own shelves for older but still valuable books. I've thought about doing something like that for cookbooks, probably because I'm more actively in the market for them, and my own collection is better organized. Another topic I used to read a lot in but haven't lately is science.

October 08, 2020

[Q] As per Bob and Carola, love to one day see your RS top 50. -- Daniel Joseph Weber [2020-09-29]

[A] I figured it wouldn't be too hard to compile one just by editing down my 1,000 Albums for a Long and Happy Life, but 50 albums (which is 1 per year since 1970, or 0.5 since recording got serious around 1920) proved way too tight a squeeze. You can look at my exercise here. There's a list at the end acknowledging some fairly glaring omissions

[Q] In its obituary for Stanley Crouch last week the NYTimes mentioned his essay in Jazz Times called "Putting the White Man in Charge" in which Crouch argued that white critics promote white musicans in order to "make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role evaluating an art form from which they feel substantially alienated." I've been thinking about that and I am at a loss to think of a white critic of whom that could fairly be said. Nat Hentoff? Gary Giddins? Ira Gitler? Orrin Keepnews? That jazz is an art form invented by Black musicians is indisputable, as is the fact that it is an expression of the best of American aspiration. Certainly it is true that it has been appropriated and diluted from time to time, but I'm troubled by Crouch's apparent belief that the form can only be shared and appreciated by only certain people. Who was Crouch referring to? -- Bill Altreuter, Buffalo, New York [2020-09-20]

[A] Crouch only mentions two critics in his column. One is Tom Piazza, quoted out of context as ammunition for his broadside on Francis Davis. Because Piazza is white, he is seen as having secret insight and authority into the minds of white critics. The charge is patently ridiculous, as is his tangent in deriding all rap as akin to minstrel shows. Why he chose this particular tack isn't clear at first, until he gets around to Dave Douglas (who "is far from being a bad musician, but he also knows that he should keep as much distance as possible between himself and trumpet players like Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard, and Nicholas Payton, to name three, any one of whom on any kind of material -- chordal, nonchordal, modal, free, whatever -- would turn him into a puddle on the bandstand"). Davis's book is a collection, Like Young. Most of the jazz essays are on black musicians, with the major exception a piece on Douglas.

The obvious name missing from Crouch's column is that of Wynton Marsalis, who was hugely hyped in the 1980s, and in the 1990s took control over Jazz at Lincoln Center, cornering the single largest conduit of money and patronage from the rich of New York to working jazz musicians. I don't know many details, but Wynton had a very narrow conception of jazz ("blues + swing = jazz"), and he attracted a coterie of critics (including Crouch) who followed him in writing everyone else out of the jazz tradition. Wynton's star began to fade around 2000, most conspicuously when Douglas started to edge him out in "best trumpet" polls. That seems the most likely explanation. I've heard most of their recordings, and have given them both mixed grades, but one thing I'm sure of is that Douglas has the superior chops.

I haven't read much by Crouch. My impression is that he can write with considerable insight when it suits him -- which is mostly when explicating artists he admires. On the other hand, his put downs can be crude, displaying prejudice, and hidden agendas. I did read his Jazz Times columns in early 2003, and agreed with JT's editor (in a column defending his firing) that "his columns were becoming tedious, generally alternating between vitriolic rants and celebrations of his buddies." (Quoted by Daniel King in the Village Voice, in a pro-Crouch recounting of the controversy: Hanging the Judge.)

One thing I know for certain about race and jazz criticism is that any attempt to generalize is bound to be stupid and offensive. One thing I am pretty sure of is that no one who cares enough about jazz to write about it is a problem racist. People my age grew up in a world where most prominent American jazz musicians were black, so racists either stayed away or got over it. Since 2000 (or maybe 1980) the demographics have flipped (even without counting Europe, which is less white, especially in London, than it used to be), but jazz is still the most thoroughly integrated music on earth, and its fans understand that.

By the way, Ethan Iverson recently republished his 2007 Interview with Stanley Crouch, which among other things rehashes the Jazz Times column.

[Q] Is Buck 65's Talkin' Honky Blues not too wordy to be an A+? I think every cut on there is well-written and thematically it's very cohesive, but isn't it a bit of a drag to listen to it front to back? -- David [2020-09-18]

[A] Well, I did give it an A+, something I don't do lightly, and listed it as my top record for 2003, so no. I've never claimed to be much good at deciphering let alone deeply understanding lyrics, so words rarely count for much in my ratings, but this is the rare case where the words always delight me. And sure, so do the beats.

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.

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