Dance of the Infidels: Some Jazz Musicians Take Aim at Critics
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There have been a couple of incidents recently of jazz musicians striking back at critics who they feel have wronged them that have gained some degree of notoriety, at least in the small circle of people who are avid jazz fans or who actually read jazz criticism. While it is not new for musicians and critics to be at loggerheads, the particularly vitriolic nature of the responses in these cases seems shocking, at least at first glance.
In the first case, we have guitarist Al Di Meola’s letter to JazzTimes in response to a review of his most recent CD, Flesh on Flesh. I myself reviewed this album at Jazzitude, and gave it a generally positive review. “ Flesh on Flesh is an overall triumph,” I said, “bringing together the various styles in which Di Meola has worked over the years into a satisfying whole that's as tasty as a good paella and should be of interest to guitar fans, Latin music fans, and jazz fans in equal number.” I understand that there could be room for disagreement here; not everyone is in love with Di Meola’s technique-heavy style of guitar fusion, and I myself have found fault with plenty of his work over the years. Still, the most recent album seemed something of a victory to me, a skillful marriage of technique and feeling that made it a particularly welcome addition to Di Meola’s discography. So I was surprised to read a brief and somewhat dismissive review published in the November, 2002 issue of JazzTimes , attributed to Aaron Steinberg, who termed the album “a glossy, lightweight, inorganic artifact.” His criticisms of the album include a reference to the fact that Di Meola switches from acoustic to electric guitar frequently: “switching from electric Strat to nylon string as he moves from one phrase to the next—rather than commanding attention through his playing.” That seems to be a bit of a problem, since switching between acoustic and electric guitars is one element that guitarists can use to change the texture of a piece. Would Steinberg have said the same in a review of Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock? Maybe he would. Still, the entire review did seem to rely on the general idea that Di Meola is a fusion castaway who has not recorded straight ahead jazz work in some time and therefore does not merit serious consideration, as indicated by the opening line: “With Flesh on Flesh , guitarist Al Di Meola attempts to marry Latin sounds to his familiar fusion.” That hardly seems like an earth-shattering observation, since Di Meola has combined ‘Latin sounds’ and fusion before on albums like Elegant Gypsy and Casino. OK, so Steinberg probably received the review as an assignment and doesn’t particularly like Di Meola or fusion. Still, the album is a serious work and probably demanded a little more analysis than he provides.
Still, it is doubtful that anyone could have expected the kind of response that JazzTimes published in its Jan/Feb 2003 issue under the heading “Di Meola Calls Writer Names.” That heading is accurate, as Di Meola refers to Steinberg as “another hardass, lame jazz critic” and a “jackoff.” He dismisses Steinberg as someone “who probably works at McDonald’s during the day and was way off base with some bullshit comments.” Outside the personal attacks, Di Meola raises some of the same issues that I have. Unfortunately, his anger and blustering tone detract quite a bit from his overall argument, making him appear to be a petulant artist who is upset merely because of a bad review, when it was (seemingly) really the dismissive tone and inaccurate perceptions of the review that drove him over the edge. “I don’t make easy-listening smooth jazz. Never did!” exclaims Di Meola. While I don’t think Al has ever purposely cut what he would consider a lightweight, smooth jazz-oriented album, there are plenty of listeners out there, most of whom have never written an album review in their life, who would disagree. And some of them may even work at McDonald’s.