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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Judgement! Competitions, Critics and the Jazz Meritocracy


There’s been a lot of judging or discussions of judging in the online jazz world recently.

Ethan Iverson started one of the balls rolling with his questioning of the value and artistic merit of jazz competitions. This was prompted by the announcement of the impending Thelonious Monk competition, which this year focused on drums. The competition was subsequently won by Jamison Ross . People weighed in with varied opinions which ranged from outright support to outright opposition.

Then in another dust-up, the very strange jazz critic Brent Black launched an attack on George Colligan, ludicrously dismissing him as ‘second rate’. Needless to say this triggered an outpouring of scorn for Black’s opinion, and Black did himself no favours with a bitter, mean-spirited and puzzling tirade directed at Colligan’s gracious response.

And finally the Canadian pianist  Andrew Boniwell responded to Peter Hum’s review of his new recording with what might be best described as icy fury.

All of which made me think about this whole issue of our being judged by others, and indeed judging others ourselves. To what extent does the judgment of critics have an effect on musicians? What effect does winning a competition have? Or what effect does losing a competition have?

Seventeen years ago I was a  competition winner myself - the 1996 Julius Hemphill Composition Competition for this piece:

I must say I didn’t benefit immediately from winning, though it has to be said that competition was very small compared to the Monk Competition. Nor was it a stressful event for me, since there was no performance element involved, and no jury to look at out of the corner of my eye as I played. What winning did do for me was to give me a lot of confidence as a composer, and there’s no doubt that this kind of public approval of your work can have a very positive effect on you. On the other hand, If I hadn’t won it I don’t think I’d have been discouraged – I didn’t expect to win, and no-one was more surprised than me when I did.

But Ethan’s main point was whether such a competition would encourage individuality, or whether it would have the opposite effect, rewarding whoever was closest to the mainstream. The question is sometimes asked whether Monk could have even got into the final of the competition named after him? There's no doubt that if you have a panel of six judges, the winner will have to not only impress as many of them as possible, but also do whatever he or she can to alienate as few of them as possible. The more personal and idiosyncratic a performer is, the more likely they are to polarize the jury. There have been many famous cases of this in the classical world, the most celebrated of these being the Chopin competition of 1980 where Ivo Pogorelich, (a performer for whom the word idiosyncratic could have been coined), was eliminated in the third round, despite Martha Argerich calling him a genius. I have a feeling that a performer like Monk - a guy whose playing very much flew in the face of the prevailing pianistic orthodoxy of the day - would have had an equally polarizing effect on a jazz piano jury......

There's no doubt that in these difficult days for jazz musicians, anything that can help you to raise your profile is welcome, and winning something like the Monk competition is about as high-profile as it gets for jazz competitions. No doubt winning this competition will help Jamison Ross, but looking at his profile and bio, it's clear that he was already on his way - as were the 2nd and 3rd prizewinners, which confirms for me what I've believed for a long time - jazz is a meritocracy and always has been.

It's also a marathon rather than a sprint, and though something like winning a competition or getting a gig with a famous bandleader will definitely help, in the end it's the work you produce over a long period of time that will ultimately decide whether you succeed or fail. There are many examples of players who got a lot of press and attention at one time, maybe even a major record deal, and yet are hardly remembered these days. And I believe that this is because they ultimately didn't have something that could be sustained over a long period of time. They undoubtedly had some aspect of their music that was attractive for a while, (at least to the jazz media), but in the final shake-up it wasn't sustainable and didn't develop, and their star waned as a consequence of that. Jazz is quite Darwinistic in this sense and I think this is a good thing.

Jazz musicians have to deal with a lot of unfairness - the dice is loaded against them in so many ways - but within the jazz community I think, over a period of time, musicians achieve the status they deserve. I believe that if  you are a really great player, and you have something original and personal to offer, then sooner or later you will get recognition for that. 

Often you hear a story about this or that guy being a great player but never getting recognition, but as a general rule I don't buy it. If there's a truly great player who's not working, there's usually a reason for it - they're alcoholics, or junkies, or socially impossible, or difficult to deal with, or completely flaky, or recluses, or cripplingly shy, or something along those lines. I've yet to meet a truly great player who takes care of business but who's sitting at home forlornly waiting for the phone to ring........ 

Maybe New York is an exception to that rule, in that there are just too many musicians there, so someone can indeed be a great player but struggle to get recognition among the jostling crowds of other great players. But NY is different - a once a year gig at Small's under your own name and a 'tour' of Europe consisting of 6 gigs counts as being a success for a lot of people there.

But even in NY you can make a career for yourself if you're talented enough and have something to offer over the long term. In this way jazz hasn't changed - ultimately what's going to decide your status is your own playing. If you're a great player, you're immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous critics like Brent Black. His attack on George Colligan is toothless because Colligan's career demonstrates more than words ever can, the stupidity of Black's opinions. Someone who has played with a who's-who of contemporary jazz, including being a current band member of Jack DeJohnette's band has the ultimate imprimatur of the jazz world. His work and success is the the proof of his quality - this is the final arbiter of his quality and nothing that Brent Black can say can alter that. 

And jazz has always been like that and even though the jam sessions, that for many years were the proving grounds of aspirant jazz musicians, have ceded their Gladiatorial position as arbiters of musical ability, it's still true to say that the opinion of your peers is the one that is most important. Play well and you will eventually get the attention of established players, play with them and you will get the attention of the public and the media. I've lost count of how many times I first heard hitherto unknown (at least to me), great players when I went to see a band led by someone of real status - Mulgrew Miller with Woody Shaw, Terence Blanchard with Art Blakey, Gabriele Mirabassi with Rabih-Abou Khalil etc.

Yes it's nice to get a good review, yes it would be useful to be on the cover of Downbeat, yes it would be very helpful to win a major jazz competition. But ultimately what a jazz musician needs in order to succeed over the long term is the approval and admiration of his or her peers. Jazz has always been a meritocracy and it still is one. Competitions and critics may come and go, and you (or media admirers of yours) may talk a good game, but eventually you're going to have to shut up and show everyone the music. And thank heavens for that.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

My New CD - Renaissance Man

The photo on the cover of my new CD 'Renaissance Man' is of my father Brendan, taken in about 1950, it shows him in a very relaxed moment, complete with cigarette and cup of tea, and is one of my favourite photographs of him

Renaissance Man is written in memory of my father and its genesis goes back a long way in that if it hadn’t been for my father it’s doubtful if I, or my brother Conor, who plays drums on this recording, would be involved with music in the way that we are today.

My father passed away at the age of forty eight, when I was seventeen, and he was an extraordinary character. He wasn’t a musician but he was an absolute devotee of music, with very specific tastes – classical music from 1880 onwards, and jazz from 1945 onwards. So we were raised with the music of Bartok, Stravinsky, Ravel, Shostakovitch and Prokofiev, and the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Errol Garner. As children, (there were eight of us!), he would play games with us where we would have to identify the instruments of the orchestra, or identify a particular soloist in a jazz piece. We didn’t realize it, but he was giving us a fantastic aural musical education, and for some of us he was setting the course of our future careers in music.

This was 1960s Ireland, a conservative, culturally isolated place, so our experience of all this great modern music was pretty unique for a child of those times. And when you’re a child, the music you hear is the music you hear – nobody told us that ‘The Rite of Spring’ was ‘difficult’ music, or the music of Bartok or Miles – to us it was just our everyday music.  And it wasn’t just in music that my father played the role of cultural evangelist, he was also interested in literature, film and the theatre and introduced us to everything from the Marx Brothers to Lewis Carroll, from ’Twelve Angry Men’, to ‘Three Men in A Boat’. Thanks to him we had a thorough cultural education at a time, and place when something like that was very hard to come by.

I wrote this piece on the 30th anniversary of his passing and I decided to write a piece for jazz guitar trio and string quartet – two classic ensembles of their respective genres that would be the perfect vehicle for what I wanted to express. In choosing the musicians to play the piece it was a foregone conclusion that my brother Conor would play drums on the project, for obvious familial reasons as well as the fact that we'd played together for over 20 years.

(John, Conor and I at the rehearsal for the 1st performance of the music)

In choosing the guitarist for the piece, I wanted someone who could not just play the instrument well, but play in many different emotional climates - which is not a common quality in many players, and certainly is rare in young players. So I asked John Abercrombie to do it - we'd worked together several times previously and I had studied with him in Banff in the mid-80s, so we knew each other on both a personal and musical level. John is of course one of the great contemporary guitarists with a unique approach that is much more multi-faceted than most guitarists, or indeed musicians. John has the ability to play completely sparsely and quietly, or to completely burn. he also has a unique harmonic approach and sound and is a true improvisor. His sensitivity to the music and what I was trying to do with it was perfect for this project and he played the music beautifully.

In choosing the string quartet, I knew I needed really good players - in writing the piece I wanted to represent my father's love of modern classical music and I definitely didn't want a typical jazz 'string pad' effect. The writing for the quartet is very involved and very challenging at times, and Ioana, Cliodhna, Cian and Kate really did an amazing job on the music, I couldn't have asked for more.

(Rehearsing the piece at the 1st performance in 2005)

The piece itself is in six movements, each one inspired by some memory of my father: some are inspired by quotes from his favourite books, some by music he loved, and some by general memories I have of him.

1) Stillness/Movement

A recollection of my father taking me cycling up to Killiney Hill, a local beauty spot, at dawn on a summer morning around 1970 when I was about 12. There were few cars in those days, and even fewer at 5am, and there was this feeling of being the only two people in the world -  utter silence. Then the birdsong began, and got louder and louder till it reached a cacophony......

2) Mr. BP

Brendan Patrick Guilfoyle, was my father's name and this is a lyrical tune dedicated to him

3) George's Hat

This refers to a line from 'Three Men in a Boat' - 'It was George's hat that saved his life that day' - that my father found hilarious  - and it is hilarious! If you know the book you'll know why, and if you don't then check it out!

4) This Was Very Odd Because

This refers to another line from classic literature, this time 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' from Alice in Wonderland', which my father would read to us and we would be expected to know the last line of every stanza.

5) It Was The Middle Of The Night

Although my father was a wonderful man with so many great qualities, he also had his dark side for sure, and could be pretty scary at times. This movement reflects that aspect of his personality

6) 2 Degrees East

The only explicitly musical reference, to John Lewis' blues 'Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West'  from 'Grand Encounter'. My father loved this piece and played it incessantly. The theme is referred to here, but the treatment is completely different to the original.

Here are excerpts from each movement in order

  Excerpts from 'Renaissance Man' by RonanG

And here is a little film about the making of Renaissance Man

My father passed away before any of us began playing seriously, and I’ve always felt that it was so unfair that he never got to hear the results of the groundwork he laid for us. But I also feel very fortunate to have been able to write this piece, and to have such great musicians perform it. Renaissance Man is written in recognition of the great gifts he gave to us, and the debt we owe to him.

As a little bonus - here's some footage of myself, John, Joey Baron and Michael Buckley playing a quartet arrangement of the 2nd movement, 'George's Hat'

Whenever you release a new recording it's an exciting and special moment, but for me, this release is particularly special and personal. In this case the importance to me of the music being widely heard outweighs any other consideration and so I'm selling the physical CD for a very low price. If you're interested in purchasing a CD you can click on the Paypal button at the top of this page. If you want to buy it in downloadable format you can do it here