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Friday, November 9, 2012

Tasteful? What's in a Word?

I just read a review of an album in which the critic described the rhythm section's playing as 'tasteful' I really hate when critics use that description of someone's playing, because to me it denotes several things.

First of all, when the word tasteful is used to describe the playing of the rhythm section, either individually or collectively, it tells me that the writer probably has no idea what to say about the them, and probably doesn't have enough knowledge of the intricacies of rhythm section playing to venture anything other than this bland phrase. It's a cop-out on the writer's part - a one-size-fits-all phrase to use when you've no idea how to differentiate the playing of one rhythm section player from another. It also implies an under-appreciation of how important the rhythm section is - the kind of writer who will  apply the 'tasteful' soubriquet to the rhythm section will usually have written extensively about the soloists in previous paragraphs and then, feeling they have to say something about the rhythm section, will describe their playing as tasteful. It's the same kind of lazy writing that trots out cliches like 'getting up close and personal with......' to describe an interview with someone.

If the rhythm section have had the good manners not to distract the writer from listening to the soloists, whom (ahem), after all are the most important members of any group, the critic will describe them as tasteful. Which brings me to my second point.

'Tasteful' can often be freely substituted by the word bland..... The kind of rhythm sections that are described as tasteful often are units that plod along, playing the right changes, keeping the time in an efficient way, doing nothing to frighten the horses. They have no identity and fulfill a function - they don't get in the way. Like good children, they are seen and not heard. Anonymous. In short, they are a terrible rhythm section. A rhythm section should always be adding to the music, not staying out of the way of it. This doesn't meant that they have to be incredibly active all the time in terms of amount of notes played (it depends on the context), but it does mean that whatever they're doing should be vital to the sound of the band, to the energy of the rhythm, to the forward motion of the music. It should be vital, not tasteful.

If a critic says that a rhythm section is 'tasteful' it usually means one of three things: 1) The critic has no idea about rhythm sections, how they work, or what to say about them. 2) The critic likes his or her rhythm sections to be of the 'seen and not heard/servant of soloists/Bebopper's Labourer kind. Or 3) The rhythm section is crap.

A final point in this mini-rant. What does 'tasteful' even mean in this context? Does it mean played with good taste? A subjective judgement if ever there was one...... Does it mean polite and well mannered? Or does it mean, appropriate to the music? For my money, the latter is the true definition of tastefulness. If a musician is playing in a way that is apposite to the requirements of the music he or she is being tasteful. Elvin Jones, rampaging through 'Transition' with Coltrane is the epitome of tasteful playing. Ron Carter, rhythmically and harmonically nudging and bossing Miles' band is tastefulness personified. Monk's comping behind Coltrane is an object lesson in good taste. Good taste is about doing the right thing in any musical situation, it is not necessarily only about being polite and self-effacing.

Poor Bill Evans is always burdened with that cliche by critics who see things in a very simplistic way. Because his music is lyrical and often on the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum, his playing is often thought to be 'tasteful' in the same way that a restaurant pianist's playing could be described as being tasteful. Quiet, not getting in the way, not drawing attention to itself. Well mannered. This does such a disservice to the depth and complexity of Evans' playing. Whenever I see a critic describe Evans' music as tasteful, I just can't take anything else they say seriously. This is a surface listener, a lazy writer, someone who really doesn't have the equipment to talk about the music in any depth.

If you are a jazz writer, please don't use this vapid cliche when describing someone's playing - do a bit of research instead, listen a little harder, tell us something worth knowing about the music you're describing instead of giving us some bland bromide that fulfills your word count but means nothing. 

In my opinion, describing someone's playing as tasteful is in the worst possible taste..........


  1. Thanks for the post. I've often puzzled over the word "tasteful." I've seen critics use it, of course, and I think your reaction is largely fair, although its use needs to be evaluated in the context of the review. I've also seen it used appropriately by smart and knowledgeable reviewers, in a way that's similar to the way that musicians use it: to distinguish someone who's playing is "genuine," as opposed to someone who uses too many notes, shows off, etc. It's often used to denote"roots" music versus "coopted" music.

    BTW, you say" servant of soloists/Bebopper's Labourer kind." I'd be careful about using bebop drumming in that context. The concept gets debased, of course. but you know that Klook and Max were nobody's field hands.

  2. Very interesting reading.

    I prefer 'tasty' as a positive descriptor. Fresh Humous made properly = tasty. Miles' playing of the head of If I Were A Bell = tasty.