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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Musicians on Music

One of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was because I’ve always liked reading musicians writing about music and I’ve always felt that there wasn’t enough of this kind of writing out there. There are lots of text books and educational books, and technical treatise kind of books and all of these are of course written by musicians. But of the other kind of writing – music criticism and analysis, opinion, musings on the philosophy and history of music – nearly all of this kind of writing is done by non-musicians – professional critics and writers. Musicians writing on this more non-technical level is still rare, unfortunately.

It was coming across an essay by Ethan Iverson from his blog ‘Do the Math’ on the subject of Lennie Tristano - a model of its kind in my opinion - that inspired me to get into the blog thing myself. I’ve written musical essays from time to time in the past, usually for music magazines or more latterly for inclusion on my website. With the advent of Blogging it seemed a natural home for these occasional essays.

But apart from wanting to keep writing occasional essays on stuff that interests me, I also wanted to try and add to the all too rare places where musicians write about the job they do, their work, how they view the music and its place in their lives and society in general. There is no question in my mind that no matter how good a non-musician critic or writer may be, in the end they have to have a different perspective on the music than that of somebody who not only makes their living from playing the music, but also knows how it works. A musician knows the real nuts and bolts of music – knows the trade and the craft as well as the art. And they know this in a way that’s just not possible for a non-musician – no matter how much music they may listen to, or how much they may read about it. Without wishing to be offensive to anyone – because there are some really good jazz writers out there, especially these days – there is still a certain truth to the adage that ‘a critic is someone who knows the way but can’t drive the car’. This ability to drive the car gives the working musician an insight to music that’s just not available otherwise.

Of course not all musicians wish to, or even have the ability to write about music. But I know from my professional life that I’ve been involved in many conversations – nearly always casual, on the road, in restaurants, hanging out etc. - with musicians in which the music and its history and practitioners was discussed at a depth and a level that’s almost entirely absent from most jazz writing. I’ve often thought, while involved in these conversations, that it would be great if more people, from outside the circle of the musicians themselves, could be privy to these discussions – how much more illuminating that would be to the general public regarding the real world of playing creative improvised music. Instead the general public has for the most part been served – sometimes very well, sometimes incredibly badly – by the writing of non-musicians, many of whom don’t know anything about the structural and technical aspects of the music they’re writing about.

This lack of technical knowledge has unfortunately been a feature of much jazz writing in the past and, equally unfortunately, is still with us. I remember at one point several years ago, when I was trying to expand my knowledge of the classical music world, reading the English classical music magazine ‘Gramophone’, and being struck by the clear erudition of the critics and reviewers. Whether one agreed or not with their opinions, you could always see that the writers had a clear understanding of the technical facets of the music they were writing about. In one edition the magazine gave potted biographies of their writers and every one of them had been to music school to a relatively high level. This gave their opinions a certain foundation that I as a reader found to be very helpful when reading about unfamiliar music.

Then when I would pick up Downbeat, or one of the other mainstream jazz periodicals and read Gramophone’s jazz counterparts, the comparison was often depressing, with not only much garbled English on display, but often an additional lack of understanding of the music and its history and repertoire. The phenomenon of the ‘fan with typewriter’ was rampant in the pages of the mainstream jazz media. I remember one reviewer in Downbeat referring to Chick Corea as a ‘chopsmeister’ and another reviewer in Jazz Times describing McCoy Tyner’s performance of Monk’s ‘Little Tutti Frutti’ (sic) at a festival in Lisbon. The fact that a reviewer in a respected jazz magazine not only didn’t know the title of a classic Monk piece (‘tutti frutti’ is probably how he heard it over the mic), but that the sub editor obviously didn’t know it either made it depressing enough, but what made it even more depressing was that the dedicatee of the original piece – T.S. ‘Tootie’ Monk – was the featured cover artist of that edition of the magazine!

Things have improved somewhat in recent years, but this kind of sloppy ill-informed writing is still with is – here are a few quotes from reviews that I’ve taken from respected jazz blogs that have appeared in the last two weeks. I’ve not appended the culprits’ names – this is more to make a general point than to do any personal online flogging:

‘The duo play back and forth between each other with Hancock dominating the sonic spectrum of the song with low bass thuds and high register melodic runs.’

‘this is still a fantastic three minutes of interaction from one of the best to have ever done it and one of the most promising talents of the future.’

‘I am not sure who is playing percussion behind Loueke but it's a nice addition, giving the track some much needed flare (sic).’

‘However, it’s Baron who is the biggest star of this show. He propulses this song into a wide orbit with shimmering cymbals, subtle fills, well-timed rumbles and bombs.’

‘Potter re-enters with bass clarinet in hand, playing skronky high notes in a manner that I’ve never heard the instrument being played before’

‘Propulses’ the song? Much needed ‘flare’!? ‘Skronky’ high notes!!? Are there no editorial standards on these blogs? What criteria do the reviewers have to have in order to make the cut onto the reviewing team? Even the English is terrible, never mind the musical descriptions. ‘Low bass thuds’, ‘well timed rumbles and bombs’, and ‘skronky high notes’ are classic examples of the kind of ‘fan with typewriter’ jazz writing that has bedevilled attempts to have serious and informed discussions about musical issues in the jazz media. We have little enough opportunity to get the message out there in print (or now in online print) it’s a shame to have this kind of writing take up any part of that.

But as I said, things have also improved with the advent of blogging – some very fine writers are in action, some of whom are musicians, some not. I would never claim that you have to be a musician to write well on jazz – there are several writers out there whom I don’t think are musicians (though I could be wrong) whose writing I enjoy very much, such as Nate Chinen and Patrick Jarenwattananon, and of course writers such as Nat Hentoff have made great contributions to jazz journalism. And then there are writers whose activities, these days at least, seem to be largely in the literary field but who are also musicians – Ted Gioia (who has written a marvellous history of jazz), Bill Kirchner and Lewis Porter spring to mind. I find in their pieces that the musical knowledge they have illuminates their writing.

But it’s still rare to find musicians, whose primary activity is playing and composing, writing about music – and I think this is a shame because when they do apply themselves to it, the results are often startlingly good and refreshingly different. Ethan Iverson’s blog is probably the best known current example of this ‘musician as writer’ genre and his imaginative ways of approaching music criticism, reviews, musings and interviews has really set a benchmark for how good this kind of writing can be. There’s an insider knowledge here that gives the writing the edge I mentioned earlier – that extra spin that only an accomplished practitioner can add to a piece. There are several others I enjoy – Darcy James Argue’s blog for example and the blog of the Australian pianist and composer Mark Hannaford would be another. Another blog well worth checking out is the English composer Graham Collier's blog - there's always something of interest there.

And one of the earliest ‘bloggers’ is still going – Dave Liebman! I remember back in the 80’s Dave used to send out a printed ‘newsletter’ that was to all intents and purposes a blog – it contained information on his doings and opinions on various musical and extra-musical topics. This is now hosted on his website under the heading ‘Intervals’ and I’d highly recommend it if you haven’t checked it out already.

And I recently discovered some fantastic writing on jazz by jazz musicians from over fifty years ago – from the pages of a magazine called ‘The Jazz Review’. This was a magazine founded by Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, and Hsio Wen Shih in New York in 1958 and the standard of writing in it is of an extraordinarily high level. One of its innovations was to invite jazz musicians to review the work of other jazz musicians. So far I’ve only worked my way through Volume Two, Number Two, but there’s so much great stuff in that edition alone – bassist Bill Crow on Cannonball’s ‘Somethin’ Else’ album, the Belgian saxophonist Bobby Jaspar on Elvin Jones’ style, and Cannonball writing about Ahmad Jamal and Tony Scott!

One thing that’s fascinating about their writing is how frank they are about the work of other musicians with whom they must also have been meeting on a social level in the New York scene at the time – yet they pull no punches when describing what they like and what they don’t like. For example Cannonball’s description of what he sees as Tony Scott’s strengths and weaknesses is of a level of outspokenness that you’d never see today, since we now all love each other – at least in print!

Here are several example of the kind of insider stuff you can only get when a musician, who knows how music works, listens to music. Here’s Cannonball on the difference between Milt Hinton and Henry Grimes on Tony Scott’s album:

The rhythm section on this record is beautiful. Paul Motian is one of the steadiest drummers around. Paul and Bill Evans work very well on this. The rhythm section plays better when Grimes rather than Hinton is the bassist because Milt's beat is so dominant. Henry has a tendency to sit down on the beat so that it's there when the soloist arrives.

And here’s Bill Crow on the recorded sound on Cannonball’s album:

I wish engineers would stop adding all that echo to the horns. Both Miles and Julian sound like they are playing in a large hall, but the rhythm section is recorded flat. The resulting illusion is that the horns have a built-in resonance that continues even when the note is stopped. I know this is done to satisfy the hifi fan, but this sort of distortion strikes me as a far cry from "fidelity."

And finally Bobby Jaspar on Elvin – I find this particularly fascinating since Elvin was in the process of developing his style at the time this was written, so you’re reading an analysis of Elvin’s style from someone who was playing with him on a nightly basis (In JJ’s band) at the time – and it’s a brilliant essay too:

I must especially emphasize the absence of the afterbeat accent on the high-hat. When one is not used to its absence, one feels a sensation of freedom, as though floating in a void with no point of reference. Actually this kind of freedom is a trademark of the greatest jazzmen. Charlie Parker carried this kind of floating on top of the time the farthest, I think"; and the great soloists at their best moments seem completely free of the alternation of "strong-weak, strong-weak" that some people mistakenly call swing.

I would highly recommend that you check out the issues of this magazine that are now available online – you can see them Here

And the issue in particular that I’ve mentioned is Here

At the beginning of this post I stated that one of the reasons I got into this blogging game was to be able to add to the places where jazz musicians talk about music - among other things I wanted the blog to be a place where music could be discussed at a maybe less general level than is often the case. But this does not always meet with the approval of other jazz bloggers as evidenced by this post by UK jazz blogger Sebastian Scotney about my essay on the nature of rhythm - ’The Art and Science of Time’:

If you like what Ronan Guilfoyle is saying , then be my guest, and try The Art and Science of Time...and I will give a prize for the best explanation in no more than 50 words of what it means.

50 words or less – that sounds about right for what’s considered to be in-depth jazz writing sometimes............

PS Found this very witty letter to the editor printed in the 2nd edition of above-mentioned ‘The Jazz Review”

Congratulations on the publication of your first issue . . . I am . . . enclosing a money order for $4.50 for a year's subscription. I have thought about saving $3.50 by taking a three year subscription but have decided that with the wonderful advances in ballistic missiles and automobiles, it is unwise to commit yourself for more than a year in advance.

David Givner, New York

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