Talk to the Newsroom: Ben Ratliff, Jazz and Pop Critic
The New York Times / January 12, 2009
Ben Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times since 1996. Born in New York City in 1968, he grew up in London and Rockland County, N.Y., and studied Classics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings” (2002), “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound” (2007) and “The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music” (2008).
Q. Why isn’t there more of an audience for “straight-ahead” jazz? Or put in a different way, how come established jazz artists who have been active since the ’50s or early ’60s are given only niche status (or no visibility at all) by the media? Do you feel the media plays a role/responsibiltiy regarding the public awareness of such artists as Freddie Hubbard, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton, for example? Why is it that the general (U.S.) public have no awareness or appreciation of this genre?
— Paul Loubriel
A. Paul, this is a big question. I’ll try to hit some parts of it but I probably won’t answer it to your satisfaction.
In the last 60 years, people almost completely stopped dancing to jazz, and far fewer people grew up with pianos in the house. I think that has a lot to do with why jazz is no longer the popular vernacular art it used to be. When you dance to music (in all ways — partner dancing, stepping, headbanging — just reacting to music with your body) or when you play it, then you own it. A lot of people born since 1960 don’t feel that they own jazz.
Absolutely, the media plays a role in why the average person doesn’t know who Cedar Walton is. But I think the mainstream media — obviously we’re not talking about jazz magazines like Downbeat, which has Benny Golson on the cover this month (a good example of the kind of artist you’re talking about) — doesn’t, by definition, deal with the kind of art that post-bop mainstream jazz has become, which is an art of tradition and very slow refinements.
Mainstream publications, generally, want to run music stories about what’s new or radically different, or about trends. (This could get into a larger issue about the shallowness of the general perception of “news.”) With classical music, they put a lot of stock in premieres or big, notable new compositions. In jazz there are few premieres and few big, notable new compositions. One has to sniff out what’s interesting, however it presents itself: it could be a one-night gig attended by 15 people or a sold-out run.
As for the general public, they’re not buying albums as much anymore, and as much as jazz is a recordings medium at all, it’s still an album art.
I believe that jazz needs more jazz clubs (with small cover charges), because it’s still a social music. The way to know about Cedar Walton in 2009 is to go see him at the Village Vanguard.
By the way, I see that The Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times, in reviews and articles and listings, since 1980. Not too bad.
Q. You consistently do two very helpful things in your jazz reviews. First, along with describing the musical experience, you subtly work in nuggets of the music’s history, “teaching” jazz roots even as you review a single performance drawing on them. Second, you artfully suggest, in words, what the actual aural experience in the nightclub or concert hall was like, so that I sometimes feel as though I might have been seated in the audience myself — and might not even agree with your interpretation of what we’ve both “heard!” This is most welcome reviewing. I wonder what you think a jazz critic ought to minimally try to accomplish in a review, especially since, given brief engagements and steep ticket prices and cover charges, most of your readers won’t hear the musicians you’ve heard in the circumstances you’ve heard them.
— Ivan Webster, New York
A. Ivan, I try not to write play-by-play criticism about a gig, because it’s just too boring for non-initiates. I have notes to guide me, but generally I can remember two or three or four moments in the gig when something really got cracking in the music: a shift, a contrast, a confluence of things, or a little gesture that says exactly what kind of musician we’re dealing with. I try to write from a kind of sense memory and I tend to think of the music as almost a physical, visible thing.
Sometimes, though, you have to deal with more than just music. You’re not sitting there in the dark with headphones on: you’re taking part in the two-way (performers and audience) ritual of a concert. The performer’s attitude, body language, his total rhetoric, is important. What’s going on in the audience, how it’s reacting physically and intellectually, is important, too.
I like to write about shows at the beginning of a run at the Village Vanguard, or Iridium, or the Jazz Standard, or wherever, so that readers can go see it before it’s over. I also like to write about regular weekly residencies, like the Mandingo Ambassadors at Barbès, or Forró in the Dark at Nublu: those kinds of gigs create an environment that’s great for the clubs, great for their neighborhoods, great for the musical culture of this city.
But sometimes I write about concerts that only happen once, and leave the reader thinking “why didn’t he let me know about that when I could have still bought a ticket?” Well, sometimes it’s worth fighting against mainstream media becoming completely service-oriented. (It’s a fine line, sometimes, between an excited, optimistic preview piece and what publicists do.) Something good happened in a club in such a place at such an hour: that’s cultural news. So you can’t see it yourself tonight? Tough. You still deserve to know about it.
Q. Who, in the current jazz scene, will be thought of as a true innovator 50 years from now and why? My favorite jazz innovators of 40-50-60 years ago are Miles, Trane, Mingus, Monk, Bird and Duke (no surprises there!).
— Kris Spencer, Detroit
A. Besides the obvious question in this question — who’s really good out there — you’re also asking me who will be remembered, who will be heard widely among musicians, who will be written about and studied, and what people will understand as “innovation” in 50 years.
I gotta tell you, Kris, I don’t measure jazz musicians by innovation. I measure them by how much they are their greatest selves. Sometimes an idea that’s basically ancient can be the freshest, most explosive thing, if it’s played with real presence and authority. Or an idea that mixes the ancient with the contemporary: even better.
But one thing is for sure: whoever is seen as innovative and important in 50 years is someone who is going to have had a lot of gigs with a steady working group, or a series of working groups. Lots, lots, lots. This is how any jazz becomes important and great. We need jazz clubs right now, and affordable ones.
But I know what you mean. Here’s some bandleaders, musicians, and bands in jazz who have come along in the last 10-some years who might well be important in 50 years:
Jason Moran, Guillermo Klein, Stacy Dillard, Miguel Zenón, Dafnis Prieto, Robert Glasper, Darcy James Argue, Tyshawn Sorey, Jenny Scheinman, the Bad Plus (and its constituent parts Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and David King), Marcus Gilmore, Nasheet Waits.
There are lots of others, I promise you. I will soon have regrets about who didn’t spring to mind.
Live Performances vs. Recordings
Q. I have two questions. First, as a fairly recent convert to Jazz, is it just me or is it a common knowledge to Jazz lovers that Live Jazz is almost infinitely better then even a great recording on a good quality home sound system. Sure seems that way to me. Secondly, and as a guitar player myself, I’m wondering if you, or anyone, might know how Django Reinhardt was able to do some of those seemingly impossible runs up the neck- especially with a deformed left hand.
— Gene Bloxsom
A. I’m kind of mystical about this, Gene. Yes, I do think that live jazz is often better. Jazz is about revision and development: it’s always going somewhere. There are great jazz records, a lot of them, but I think that in jazz, records are finally not really the point. I find I can take the measure of a musician or a band much better by seeing him/her/it live, over a few nights, than digesting something fixed and created away from audiences, like a studio record.
As for Django Reinhardt, just watch this and I think you’ll get your answer.
A Cultural Shift Toward Jazz?
Q. Now that Barack Obama has said there will be jazz in the White House — does that mean we’re at the end of stupid and the beginning of smart?
— James Brinsfield
A. I think that we tend to look at our president and think, this is us. If that this-is-us perception includes President-elect Obama’s interest in John Coltrane, say, it might be a meaningful thing. If he installed a “secretary of culture” who knew a lot about jazz and Afro-Latin music, there might actually be concrete results.
I don’t know yet what Mr. Obama is going to do for jazz. I thought it was clever that after his acceptance speech he used one of the same Brooks & Dunn country songs (“Only in America”) that George W. Bush had used on the campaign trail in 2004. Maybe that’s the jazz process: using an old song to new ends.
10 Very Good Jazz Albums
Q. What are, by your lights, the 10 best jazz albums released since your guide to jazz was published?
— Errol McDonald
A. Here are 10 very good ones, not in any particular order, since 2002:
Andrew Hill: “Time Lines”
Gonzalo Rubalcaba: “Avatar”
Jason Moran: “Modernistic”
Guillermo Klein: “Filtros”
Maria Schneider: “Blue Sky”
Wayne Shorter Quartet: “Beyond the Sound Barrier”
Rudresh Mahanthappa: “Kinsmen”
Ravi Coltrane: “In Flux”
Miguel Zenón: “Jibaro”
Branford Marsalis: “Braggtown”
Higher Education and Jazz
Q. I’ve read that jazz studies programs at the university level are thriving, which if true struck me as a pleasant surprise. Yet at the same time, would you see this as a positive indicator for jazz’s commercial viability, or could it push it off even further into a niche segment?
— FL from Philadelphia
Q. What has been the effect of music schools on jazz? More and more players are getting more and more training and achieving ever-greater technical skill. But has this helped or hindered the development of jazz as an idiosyncratic and personal art?
— Michael Hochanadel, Schenectady, N.Y.
A. Jazz is a compound that keeps getting bigger. What started out as a fusion (of African and Caribbean and European elements) kept rolling, picking up more as it went along. Many of those additive elements have been personal languages: styles of arrangement and composition and improvisation as put forth by Armstrong-Ellington-Basie-Monk-Parker-Rodriguez-Rollins-Jamal-Vaughan-Jamal-Coltrane-Davis-Silver-Coleman-Giuffre-Hancock-Bley-Shorter-Metheny-Marsalis-Frisell-Douglas-Mehldau, and on and on.
And as the music grows bigger, the audience grows smaller. You’re right, FL from Philly, that university-level jazz studies are thriving. But I worry about all those graduates: Where are they going to play? Who’s going to listen to them?
We need more audiences, but we also need more education of audiences. Jazz should be taught as a natural part of our cultural patrimony.
Everyone’s experience with higher education is different. I don’t think you want to blame music schools too much: Miles Davis went to one, and it didn’t ruin him. Sometimes people need an education to learn what they eventually want to react against. Those who are teaching jazz currently at the New School or Cal Arts or the Manhattan School will have an enormous effect on the direction and orientation of jazz musicians in the next 10 years. That’s the way it goes.
Does all that jazz education make new jazz less approachable, more academic? Sometimes, yes, I can hear it. Especially where it’s not enough about rhythm. But more often I’m just hearing a band that hasn’t played live enough.
The Plight of the Unsigned Artist
Q. As a longtime reader and subscriber, it strikes me that the Times is clinging and catering to the dead business model of the “record business”, reviewing only label releases, reviewing performances by “signed” musicians. There is little doubt that “physical product” isn’t selling, and the trend is toward free downloads/alternative distribution/extensive touring. Why isn’t the Times working on the leading edge, exploring unsigned musicians who are choosing to pursue viable careers outside of the “biz” and exploring and reporting on the emerging new ways of finding ways to make money while pursuing a viable artistic career?
— Jeff Lynch, Harrisburg, Pa.
A. Before I say “we do!,” let me unravel your question a little bit.
Record labels for me are a kind of filter, one of many different ways that a musician or a band reaches my ears. Other ways I find out: the opinions of people I trust, some magazines, some Web sites, some blogs, opening acts, recommendations from musicians.
At this point, zillions of bands of all kinds can be “signed,” though being signed doesn’t necessarily mean a nice advance and tour support. And a lot of musicians or bands stay with tiny labels; being signed by Sony or Def Jam or Geffen or whatever does not necessarily lead to happiness and wealth. Being “signed” doesn’t particularly convey credibility. Being “unsigned” conveys a little less.
Jazz and pop musicians are putting out their own records all over the place. I’m thinking of some I have reviewed in recent years, by Dave Douglas, Eric Revis, Judith Berkson, Noah Preminger, Leron Thomas, Julie Feeney. If they’re doing it themselves, does that mean they’re unsigned?
What’s a viable career outside any form of “the biz,” including your own biz? How long can you do your art if you can’t feed your kids or yourself? You’re right that the record-business model is in decline, but most bands are still in the practice of putting out records of some kind, if only as calling cards for gigs.
I guess the question is, why don’t we review music in the form of songs from myspace pages, or streams from Web sites, or whatever, rather than albums on CD. Sometimes we do, when they’re worthwhile: in our Playlist column on Sunday, in live reviews, in previews. I’m sure we’ll be doing it more as time goes by.
I also tried to address music outside of the usual parameters of albums, publicists and the usual concert circuits in a series of articles called “America’s Music,” which wrapped up about a year ago. I wrote about music in this country that serves a community function, that brings people together, without really becoming a commercial concern, like H.B.C.U. marching bands, Czech-American polka in Nebraska and megachurch rock.
Maybe we should just cut out the middleman and review musicians when they’re rehearsing, before their first gig.
The Role of Race in Jazz
Q. What in your view does race have to do with jazz? Some have called it Great Black Music and consider it to be America’s true Classical Music. Historically, there is no question that this music arose from the amalgamation of martial instruments colliding with African rhythmns in the reactor of urban America. What role does race and culture play in contemporary jazz? The future of jazz?
— Chere Lott
A. Chere, jazz is really self-referential. It’s a hundred-year continuity: that’s the only way to make sense of it. And so it has a lot to do with tradition and cultural memory, even when it’s playing games with them. Race obviously plays an enormous part in tradition and cultural memory.
Just in realistic terms: when we talk about “jazz,” we’re talking about music currently played by people from the ages of, let’s say, 20 to 85. Three generations, lots of different styles. Plus, we’re almost never talking about jazz of this moment (the way we talk about, say, hiphop of this moment by thinking about what songs have come out over the last month). We’re talking about the whole of it. Are you asking me if it’s still black music? Yes, some of it, though in the past, more of it was more so. Any kind of person can become part of jazz now.
Jazz doesn’t represent American culture today. It represents those who are gifted and lucky enough to learn it. But I wouldn’t say any particular music represents the culture of America, because the culture of America is too broad for that.
Respect for Heavy Metal?
Q. Heavy metal is wildly popular again. This is heart-warming to me as a 36-year-old because many of us thought the music would never come back after the glory ride of the early 1980s. My question is why doesn’t the music merit much serious consideration? I know you — and some other serious and talented scribes — write about it on occasion, but over all it’s side-stepped by the mainstream and established media. That’s the way it was then and is now.
— Ray Hogan, Stamford, Conn.
A. Ray, do you mean over the last year? Or the last week? Or today?
Over the past year or so I’m remembering that we wrote about platinum metal and tiny-audience metal. Cynic, the Dio-era Black Sabbath box set, Opeth, Cannibal Corpse, Genghis Tron, Dillinger Escape Plan, Thrones, Megadeth, Ocrilim, Neurosis … I wrote a front page Arts & Leisure story about Metallica … Jon Caramanica hiked out to Jones Beach to write about the Mötley Crüe tour and stayed out until 3 a.m. on a recent morning reviewing Nachtmystium.
As for the rest of the mainstream and established media, I guess I’m not seeing much about metal in Newsweek. But you know that Lester Bangs hated Black Sabbath, don’t you? We’ve come a long way since then.
There is a certain midlevel meat-and-potatoes death metal that resists “serious consideration” outside of specialist quarters because … because … because so much of it sounds alike. It’s not bad that it sounds alike; it strengthens a tradition. But writing about it for a general audience is really hard work.
Places to Hear Music
Q. Curious what your favorite venues are for jazz, and why, and also perhaps the ones you don’t particularly like.
— Steve Kos
Q. What’s your favorite venue for live jazz, taking into consideration ambience, atmosphere and acoustics?
— Matt Moran, Evanston, Ill.
Q. As an occasional visitor, what are the best New York City (and northern New Jersey) venues for seeing rising players? If I don’t want Vanguard or Jazz Standard, where can I experiment on names I don’t know and (usually) find quality?
— Larry Ropeik,Silver Spring, Md.
A. I used to answer this by suggesting that you should be thinking in terms of who to see, not where to go. But I’m changing a little. It’s important to keep going to a place that you like, and to take chances when you don’t know the band.
I like places where music sounds close and physical, and where musicians like to hang out. In New York jazz, when it’s not for musicians, that seems to mean it’s for tourists. And I like tourists, but I don’t want to feel like one every night.
I have spent some very good nights at the Village Vanguard on Seventh Avenue South, Nublu on Avenue C, St. Nick’s Pub on St. Nicholas Avenue, the Lenox Lounge at Lenox and 125th, and Barbès on Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn. I like the Jazz Standard on East 27th Street, particularly the second table back near stage right.
As for music: Le Poisson Rouge, on Bleecker Street, is working hard on smart booking, and it shows. The Stone, on Avenue C, as well: every month a different musician is the curator. The atmosphere is a little ascetic, but I guess that’s the point. For a jazz club, the Jazz Gallery, on Hudson Street, presents a lot of composition-oriented projects — premieres of long pieces written on grant money. And its bookings are like an index of who’s getting serious out there.
I’ve also felt very happy at the Bowery Poetry Club, but it doesn’t only book music.
I think I’m not alone in my problem with the Blue Note. I feel like I’m in an airplane there, and I’ve never liked the bright sound very much.
You’re asking about jazz, but I have been really happy to see the flourishing of do-it-yourself rock venues around Manhattan and Brooklyn, like Death By Audio, Less Artists More Condos and Silent Barn. And speaking of do-it-yourself, I always really liked Phill Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia on Centre Street. He’s been doing it himself since 1973. In this city that’s an accomplishment.
Another Night, Another Concert?
Q. How many jazz sets/pop concerts do you attend on an average week?
— Serge Mezhburd
A. Between one and four, though during festival time in June it could be more.
Musical Roots of Jazz Critics?
Q. How much musical knowledge and playing ability does a jazz critic need? How would you compare that to a classical or pop critic?
— Joseph Ballerini
A. Mostly, the job is about lots of listening, and seeing lots of performances. That’s where almost all my information comes from — not sheet music.
But with all kinds of music — not just jazz and classical music — it helps to know a little bit about form and style, to compare and to anticipate.
It definitely helps to be able to play an instrument. It also helps to have some experience performing. I’ve played various instruments for a long time and I’m nothing more than amateur, but every bit of it has helped.
I can’t speak for classical critics. Pop critics, though, are generally dealing with what you might call audience theory as much as (or more than) music theory.
Finding Time to Listen
Q. I see you review concerts and recordings, jazz and pop music. How do you typically divide your listening time? How do you keep up with all the recordings and shows that aren’t directly related to your assignments, but are still broadly related to your work?
— Gavin Carney
A. Gavin, as for records — I call CDs records, because it’s recorded music — I listen when I’m not writing, exercising, eating, sleeping or helping children with homework. That’s not a lot of time per day.
My best listening is while driving, no question. My worst listening is on the subway, but I have to do it.
You do it when and where you can. And once in a while, you have a day without a deadline, and you want to clean your office, and you get a lot of listening done in one really intense stretch. Give me more of those, please.
Is Jazz Dead?
Q. Is jazz dead? Are we in a moment in history when even the most creative and talented musicians will find it impossible to “find their own voice”? After Coltrane, Monk and Mingus, maybe there’s really just nowhere else to go?
— Doug Stone
A. Coltrane, Monk and Mingus were geniuses, Doug, but they also lived during a time when there was a fair amount of intellectual and media interest in the culture of jazz, and also in the larger idea of cool. I know a fair amount of jazz-playing geniuses myself, but at the moment there are not a lot of people telling you that you would be crucially uninformed if you didn’t hear them.
Proclaiming something or other is dying or dead is a very media kind of thing to do. I have fallen into that trap myself, regretted it, and learned from it. Editors of magazines and newspapers really, really want writers to say that something is dead. Partly because it’s a dogmatic position that makes people’s blood boil, but partly because they don’t want to think any longer about whatever it is that they’re saying is dead. They want to cross off that box and move on.
Just in terms of volume, there are more jazz musicians and gigs than I can ever hear, and that’s in New York alone. About once every other month — in New York alone — I encounter a young player I’ve never heard of who astonishes me. (Forget about musicians in Cuba and Poland and Italy and Spain whom I may never get to hear.) It’s facile and compulsive, this need to say that an entire art form is dead.
Listening With Jazz Artists
Q. I’d like to ask you a question about your latest book, “The Jazz Ear.”
1) Which of the artist(s) that you interviewed made the biggest impression on you in terms of giving you new insight or a point of view you hadn’t anticipated?
2) Which did you feel was the most opaque or confounding?
— Gil Carlson
A. Gilmore, Thanks for asking about “The Jazz Ear,” which was adapted from articles I wrote about musicians in the Times.
1) Might be Dianne Reeves, because I don’t think I knew how much she comes from a singer/songwriter tradition rather than, say, a Sarah Vaughan tradition. Also, one tends to think that a singer of her abilities comes on stage and slays you from a great height because that’s all she knows how to do. Talking to her and listening to her choices of music — like that medley on Sam Cooke Live at the Copa where he’s running through hits and talking to the audience members at the same time, trying to earn their trust — made me understand how she comes out there concerned and thinking hard, using various strategies to win over the crowd by degrees.
2) Would be Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter, who are ninjas of the opaque. But I think there’s a reason why we like them opaque: around the fifth time you read what they have to say — about harmony or memory or life and death or what happens when we name things — you see that underneath the oracular statements are some very strong and simple ideas and a lot of humor.
More Latin Jazz, Por Favor
Q. Why do you not write more about Latin jazz artists, like Dave Valentin, Paquito D’Rivera or Tito Puente to name a few? They have contributed greatly to this genre. It would be nice to hear from you about this. I think the readers of The New York Times would benefit to know about these people.
— Julio C. Ramos, Bronx
A. Julio, Actually I reviewed Paquito D’Rivera 10 days ago, with an enormous picture of him by Earl Wilson on the front of the Arts section. And all of us — myself, Peter Watrous, Jon Pareles, Robert Palmer — wrote quite a lot about Tito when he was alive, and after.
As you probably know, right now we’re in a very good time for Latin jazz. Jazz as a whole, which was part Latin from the start, is becoming more Latin all the time. A few people that I (and Nate Chinen) have written about recently are Miguel Zenon, Papo Vazquez, Yosvany Terry, David Sanchez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.
Finding a Balance
Q. 1) Do you ever feel a conflict between your desire for jazz to be more popular and your desire to warn your readers away from bad musicians?
2) You have a difficult job; pretty much all jazz sounds the same today. I admire your ability to find new phrases to describe the exact same predictable concert. I’ll bet you could write most of your reviews before you even arrive at the club. How do you deal with the monotony?
— Josh, New York
A. Josh, you’re a stern fellow.
Here’s what I do. If there’s a musician who doesn’t do it for me in a gig or a record, and that musician has a very small constituency, I tend not to write about that musician. Even after I’ve gone to the trouble.
If a musician is pretty well known and plays a horrible gig, one writes about the horrible gig. But not so much in terms of “I’m warning you! This music could hurt you!” The conflict isn’t so much about how to protect jazz; it’s about how to stay calm. A degree of moderation is very important to me. Daily newspaper critics ought to be believable. One night I walked three miles after a bad gig, trying to figure out how to write a sufficiently negative review without seeming demented.
“Pretty much all jazz sounds the same today.” No.
“I’ll bet you could write…” No.
Innovation vs. Tradition in Jazz
Q. While there are numerous jazz artists today that are bringing new tonal and structural elements to their music, there are an equal number of artists that are simply dictating the bebop tradition. What value do you find in jazz musicians today who are merely recreating the past? Is a salute to tradition an equally appropriate approach to this music when the music itself has so much to do with breaking boundaries and pushing limits?
A second question: I understand you have addressed several questions dealing with jazz pedagogy, but I’d like to know your feelings on the current philosophy of jazz education. If a student is taught such a structured and specific approach to improvisation (for example, blowing corresponding scales over changes, etc.), will the student be unable to approach the music in a unique way?
— Matt Gold
A. Matthew, honestly, I don’t hear a lot of musicians these days who are “merely recreating the past.” That kind of thing is a sign of inexperience. I hear lots of references to older ways of playing, absolutely, particularly from bebop to Coltrane. But the better musicians do things to those older ways of playing. Naturally, they add newer language, or create mixtures of languages, that wouldn’t have occurred to players back then.
But, you know, I also hear lots of references to different kinds of free jazz that are up to 45 years old. Even free music forms its own traditions.
Your second question makes me think I implied that jazz education, by definition, works against musicians becoming good artists. I hope I didn’t. I don’t think that at all. Most contemporary jazz musicians go to school, learn a great deal, and in the process start to show who they are. School doesn’t make them unable to be unique and creative. Absolutely not.
It occurs to me, though, that when I hear musicians I don’t really want to think about where and how recently they went to school.
Is There a Jazz Stigma?
Q. Lately, I hear contemporary Indie/alternative/progressive rock groups playing with a lot of improvisation and employing some varied and flexible rhythms. They don’t sound all that far from jazz, but nobody ever calls them jazz groups. Do you think artists make efforts to avoid being called “jazz”; that it would be a career killer? And from another perspective: anytime musicians show any proficiency on their instruments or can sing in tune they are called “jazz influenced” (Norah Jones come to mind — there are others). What’s up with that?
— J.T., Dayton, N.J.
A. John, in the case of Norah Jones, people will tell you her music is jazz because she records for a jazz label, she’s a good pianist who has studied jazz, and because there are good improvisers in her group. Don’t believe them.
A lot of people will give you confusing information about jazz. Put 15 people from varied backgrounds in a room, ask them if they like jazz and if so, what. You’ll get very different answers. Bix Beiderbecke, Leonard Bernstein, Jill Scott, Tortoise, Tuck and Patti, Miles Davis, Albert Ayler, Machito, Stan Kenton, Al DiMeola, Paolo Conte, Steely Dan, Django Reinhardt, King Oliver, Squarepusher. Then there’s the Jazz Age, jazz dance and smooth jazz. Incredibly confusing
When people say something is “jazz-influenced” they generally means there’s a bunch of chords in it, it’s too slow or quiet to be a club banger, and it isn’t obviously coming from the 19th century classical tradition. Maybe, sometimes, it means it involves improvising. About the rock groups you mention — I’m not sure who you’re talking about, and this is all so subjective and vague that I’m not going to guess — the sense I get from talking to smart musicians who play “jazz-influenced” music in rock clubs is that they’re not really ready to be called anything in particular. They’re fighting the whole idea of category.
Would It Be Jazz?
Q. If I just listened to Mingus pluck an open string that he let resonate for a while, would I be hearing jazz?
— Elias Falcon, Brooklyn
A. No. You would be hearing Charles Mingus.
The Influence of Art Tatum
Q. I really enjoy your reviews and interviews as you have such a nice touch for providing insight that’s easy for a non-musician like me to understand.
I’ve always listened to jazz but never gave it much thought until about 10 years ago when someone gave me an Art Tatum CD. I was just blown away — thought I was listening to the music I’d waited all my life to hear. I’ve found quite a bit of his music, but there doesn’t seem to be much written about him. What do you think of Art Tatum — how important was— or is — his influence on jazz musicians? Do you think he really played too many notes? I love all those arpeggios, but some of my friends tell me those runs are unsophisticated and useless. Do you think his ornate style is why he isn’t as recognized as lesser players of his generation? I know those are a lot of questions, but I’m nearly rabid for the man, hungry for any information.
— Linda Humphers
A. Linda, you ask good questions. You’re right, Art Tatum is dazzling. Why don’t lots of pianists still try to sound like him?
Some definitely refer to him in their playing. Chucho Valdes and Eldar Djangirov, for example.
But one reason they mostly can’t is because his strength, physical control, vast memory and the speed of his decisions were all unique to him. Not everything can be learned. And he was much less interested in playing a single note and making it personal, like, say, Miles Davis did. That kind of thing inspires a lot more imitation.
But also, he violated one pretty essential rule of the jazz tradition, which is that it’s a music of bands. He made some great music with other people but he could make them sound unnecessary. I think he was generally better by himself. Hank Jones said something to the effect that even when he was accompanying singers, Tatum’s accompaniment would be another pianist’s whole performance.
I have trouble with all those runs, sure. I like music to be less overstuffed. But I also think they’re part of his language, not just ornamentation. I guess you’ve already found your way to the album called “20th Century Piano Genius,” solo recordings from house parties in the 1950s. I like those the best. And there’s a biography of him, too, “Too Marvelous For Words,” by James Lester.
Ray Barretto’s Band
Q. I was recently floored by a YouTube video I saw of Ray Barretto’s band playing “Ban Ban Qeure” featuring a young Ruben Blades. It features an incredible flute solo by a player I didn’t recognize. I haven’t been able to find a high quality recording, preferably on vinyl, of this version or at least by the same lineup. This is Latin jazz at it’s best. Do you have any information on the recorded works of this Barretto lineup? I would love to hear more.
— Matt Nyce
A. So that flute player is Artie Webb, who lives and works on the West Coast now, with Johnny Polanco y Su Conjunto Amistad. (Polanco’s new record, with Webb on it, is “Amistad Para El Mundo Entero.”)
This great video is mid-70s Ray Barretto, salsa turning hard toward jazz. For more from that time, you want the studio album “Barretto” and the live album “Tomorrow: Barretto Live in New York.” Both albums have “Ban Ban Quere” on it.
You can find all these things at descarga.com, the online retailer for all things Afro-Latin.
Forming Opinions of Records
Q. How many times do you generally like to listen to a record before you feel “ready” to review it? Do you sometimes find, after publishing a review (and after weeks, months, maybe years of more listening…) that the record sounds considerably different than it did at first; even to the point you wish you could “take back,” or at least rewrite, the review? If so, is it more likely to happen with certain kinds of music than others? Or — after years of doing this, have your early impressions become pretty reliable?
— Sam Jeffries
A. I have to hear a record about three times, Sam. Then I start to feel comfortable with it. It’s a lot better if you can do this over the course of more than one day. First you’re feeling your way in the dark, then you start to know the landmarks.
All the time I am anxiously aware of music that I have heard barely or not at all, music that is new or recently old or older than me. There’s not much room in there for “You know what I’ll do? I’m gonna revise a few opinions.” I’m not really a list-maker. I go instinctively toward it or away from it. I think much less about my opinion.
To put it another way, if I am aware of a big change in opinion, it’s usually from haven’t-paid-much-attention to wow-this-is-great. Not so much from, say, positive to negative.
But you asked. “Midnite Vultures,” by Beck. I thought it was very clever at the time.
Does Rhythm Overwhelm Melody?
Q. I have been an ardent jazz listener and a semi-pro player for three decades. The first stuff that really grabbed hold of me were recordings of Prez, Bird, Miles, Stan Getz,and Wes, and the wonderful groups they were in. I can hear and sing back melodies in my head from each of them. With the exception of Parker, they weren’t “notey” players. They used space and told amazing stories. Skip to concerts I’ve gone to in recent times, and I’m disappointed so often that the quality of melodic beauty is missing, even though the musicians, some of them really famous, just play so many notes and go on chorus after chorus. I can’t leave the place whistling anything memorable, although there usually has been creative rhythm and group interaction. The big exception: Sonny Rollins. Maybe there has been an arc toward rhythm being of greater importance to players and listeners in the music, with fresher fields to explore there. Any thoughts?
— Tico Vogt, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
A. If by “rhythm” you mean sections in odd meter or constantly changing rhythm, then yes, I think there has been a lot of that in jazz recently, probably too much. When there’s strong rhythm, strong groove, that’s a different thing, and I’m happy.
You are not the only person to recognize the decline of a sort of “narrative” melodic improvisation in jazz. It’s a problem. It’s about three hours’ drive from you, but you could go hear Fred Hersch at the Village Vanguard this week. He’s fighting the problem.
One Review, Two Reactions
Q. Quite admirable review of Steve Earle last Friday, comprising music, politics, the venue — in general, the overall vibe of what must have been a weird event: agrarian socialist meets masters of the universe. Is it unusual for a reviewer to take such a broad view of a performance? How long did it take you to figure out that live performance is, after all, a sometimes-jarring encounter between an artist’s message and the sensibilities of the audience?
Nice to have some national attention for one of Denver’s treasures, local hero and resident Dianne Reeves. Hooray!
— Donald Frazier
Q. I read your review of the Steve Earle and Alison Moorer concert at City Winery in New York City. While I can appreciate the contrast of song, content and origin to the very upscale venue, it seems that it (the review-the focus of your perspective) was at the expense of the artists. For one thing, as a husband and wife combo, they have a song entitled “Days aren’t long enough.” To my ear, this is an incredible melodic, poetic, heartfelt song. If they played it, and you ignored it, then I believe you made a bad judgment. If they didn’t play it, then that might have been their comment about the lack of intimacy at the venue. But I am at a loss as how best to express my disappointment in your not recognizing the most important aspect of any concert: the quality of the total performance, irregardless of the socio-economic gift wrap. After all, maybe the only fault Steve and Allison share, is to be out of “place.” Maybe they chose to try a venue not normally the kind of place where their performance would be heard/experienced. But to blame them for this, instead of focusing on the quality of their performance, does not give you a whole lot of stature. I normally find your reviews very helpful in illuminating real talent. I don’t believe you tried to do this.
BTW, KQED in San Francisco, our Public TV station, made an hourlong program on the 2008 Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It is to my profound regret that in the many hours of being at that event, I missed Steve and Allison’s performance of that song. If you take the time to get a hold of the tape, you’ll understand what I am talking about, because their duet is filmed in the entirety: it is truly hair raising, in the best sense of the expression…
— Reader Name, City and State
A. I thought Steve Earle’s set at City Winery last week was pretty boss and I said so, though I know sometimes my praise isn’t universally taken as such. I wrote that he sang his songs as if he were crushing them. What I meant was that it was a very physical performance. He was really leaning into his music and applying pressure. I admired it.
I agree with the anonymous writer that criticism which talks about everything but the art itself is tiresome. But every concert is a ritual involving the audience and the performer, and in this case the venue made a difference, too. I thought the radical disjunction between the subjects of Earle’s songs and where they were being sung should be pointed out. You’re right: that disjunction isn’t his fault. But there it was, and I felt conscious of it every minute.
I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking a gig at a brand new club that would seem to be targeting the disappearing minority of the very rich. It’s a beautiful place, and music needs audiences, full stop. (It should be understood that it’s not an exclusive club: anyone can buy a ticket. The membership fees for making your own wine are not required if you just want to hear a gig.) It is unrealistic to expect a performer to bite the hand that feeds him. But considering how sensitive Earle is to seeing daily life as part of history, it struck me as odd that he didn’t comment on it.